The Oklahoma City Thunder have until next Wednesday to sign James Harden to a 4-year contract extension. It has been the most talked about topic surrounding the Thunder all summer.
Meanwhile, Harden has been struggling mightily in the preseason. Could the ongoing contract negotiations be the reason for this?
Harden shot 28.6 percent from the field in the preseason which is basically making two out of every seven shots. He was even worse from 3-point land making 5-of-20.
Harden has looked different in the preseason to be fair. He is trying some new things with his game, most notably the mid-range jump shot, something that was nonexistent from him last season and by the looks of it he still needs some work with it. Also, it is just the preseason so the games obviously don’t really matter and Harden may be treating them that way, which isn’t a horrible thing.
But what if it is the contract negotiations that are in Harden’s head? And what if the Thunder don’t sign Harden to an extension by Oct. 31? Will he struggle for the entire season?
We saw last season a similar situation with Russell Westbrook. He started the season off terribly during that time he was also negotiating his contract. But once a new deal was inked, Westbrook went on a tear en route to the best season of his career.
Even Westbrook, one of the best players in the league, was obviously affected by the talk. Harden’s personality and everything about him point to him being someone that may be even more susceptible to this kind of thing than Westbrook.
Harden doesn’t like the limelight in the way that other players with his kind of talent would. He likes his role coming off the bench in OKC. OKC drafted him largely in part to his personality and them thinking he would be fine as Durant and Westbrook were the stars of the team.
Harden has been nothing but beloved so far in his NBA career. He really started to breakout in the 2011 NBA Playoffs and after the Jeff Green trade. Last season must have felt great for Harden as he became one of the most efficient players in the league and won the Sixth Man of the Year Award. He could do no wrong until the NBA Finals.
But what happens when an efficient player stops being that? What does it say about a player like Harden who plays guard and comes off the bench that he is efficient?
Being efficient can mean that you get to pick your spots and Harden is great at it. Being that Harden isn’t the top dog in OKC, he’s never forced to do anything (Westbrook usually takes on the responsibility of hoisting bad shots and the criticism that comes along with it). He lets his game come to him and goes from there. He is deceptive in his attack and sneaky athletic. You wouldn’t call his game overwhelming.
The point being, Harden doesn’t seem to have the ideal personality to put aside something like contract negotiations and just go out and play his game. The setting has to be perfect (or really conducive) for Harden to be great and it has been in OKC until maybe now.
But this is the Harden who has played just three seasons in the NBA. He’s still young and it’s okay that he isn’t the perfect player yet. Part of becoming a great player is becoming a player who can be great every night. Harden without question has shown that potential and maybe all of these questions are unnecessary.
But there is a scenario right now that doesn’t seem that unlikely anymore. It’s a scenario that would essentially be the worst-case scenario for OKC. Let’s say Harden doesn’t sign the extension next week and does struggle this season and basically seems to have taken a step back from last year. The trade deadline rolls around and OKC isn’t the team they thought they’d be, the Lakers are rolling through the season and Harden isn’t the player OKC thought he’d be.
It is possible and it’s a pessimistic viewpoint. A lot can change in a few months. That’s why OKC needs to get this deal done. They need to bite the bullet and pay some luxury taxes at least for one year. Otherwise, things could really fall apart.