By Ben Golliver
The public push-and-pull between the Thunder and James Harden over a contract extension is heating up with just days left before the deadline to strike a deal.
Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports reports that Harden, the reigning NBA Sixth Man of the Year, has rejected a 4-year contract extension worth $52 million as he eyes a max deal worth $60 million instead.
General manager Sam Presti and agent Rob Pelinka have been meeting for the past two days in Oklahoma City trying to work out a deal, sources told Yahoo Sports.
The fact the two sides are still negotiating suggests there could be a deal to be made somewhere between the Thunder's latest offer and Harden's desire for a max contract.
Presti and Pelinka have talked frequently in the weeks leading up to Wednesday's midnight deadline, sources said. Pelinka knows Harden will likely command a maximum contract on the open market as a restricted free agent, and has little motivation to settle for much less.
Harden, 23, will become a restricted free agent next summer if the two sides are unable to strike a deal in advance of Wednesday's deadline. He is expected to command the $60 million max contract; the Thunder would then have the ability to match the offer and retain him. The summer of 2012 saw a number of players from the 2008 class, Eric Gordon, Brook Lopez and Roy Hibbert, cash in max extensions in restricted free agency. Harden's claim to max cash is stronger than any of those players; last season, he averaged 16.8 points, 4.1 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 1.0 steal and was a crucial piece on a team that made a run to the 2012 NBA Finals. He also shot 49.1 percent from the field and ranked in the top five of shooting guards in terms of Player Efficiency Rating. He did all of this while accepting a bench role; he would be a sure-fire starter, and even a No. 1 scoring option, on a significant portion of NBA teams.
The concern from the Thunder's perspective is the impact a max deal would have on the team's overall payroll and luxury tax payments. Oklahoma City has taken a firm stance in its insistence on minimizing its luxury tax obligations. That's a common stance from small market teams, and OKC is the No. 44 television market in the country, according to the New York Times, making it the third-smallest in the NBA. The Thunder have already given max contracts to All-Stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, and forward Serge Ibaka accepted a four-year contract worth a reported $50 million earlier this offseason. The numbers here are pretty breathtaking: OKC has already committed more than $44 million to that trio in 2013-14, more than $46 million in 2014-15, and more than $49 million in 2015-16. For reference, the NBA's salary cap this season is $58 million. Adding Harden, even if he were to accept the $52 million over four years figure, pushes OKC to the brink of the salary cap by paying just four players. Trying to fill out a rotation, let alone a roster, without breaching the luxury tax line of $70 million if there are four eight-figure salaries on the books is no easy task.
Even though there is little question as to Harden's market value next summer, both sides would benefit from striking a deal now. OKC seems poised to make another deep playoff run and has found so much success with so many young players by eliminating distractions. The security and peace of mind that comes with a $50+ million deal is priceless for a player in Harden's position and getting business taken care of early has a major team-wide benefit of keeping everyone's eyes on the Larry O'Brien Trophy prize.
That said, OKC can afford to play a bit of "chicken" with Harden and drive a hard bargain to the very end. Not only do the Thunder have a fun, young nucleus full of Harden's friends, OKC has enough talent, management acumen and the other necessary structures in place, to make deep playoff runs with or without him. Ask Kevin Love in Minnesota, LaMarcus Aldridge in Portland, or Chris Bosh back in the Toronto days how much the opportunity to win and play on the biggest stage is worth. OKC also has the restricted free agency trump card here: they can always simply match to retain him next summer, as the New Orleans Hornets did with Gordon and the Indiana Pacers did with Hibbert. If Harden was absolutely insistent on a full max, there would be no reason to negotiate right now. OKC's response would simply be, "OK, see you next summer." There's something magical about the Thunder's young core of Durant, Westbrook, Harden and Ibaka. That they have found so much success and so many accolades so quickly is no accident; it's an excellent blend of talent, positive chemistry and top-shelf work ethic. Harden and his representation are smart enough to know that the grass on the other side is almost certainly browner rather than greener compared to Oklahoma City's. Harden has earned a max deal, no doubt, but he can personally benefit from giving OKC a discount. That's the Thunder's pitch, and it's a compelling one. We'll know by Wednesday if it worked.