I got an interesting email from a reader, Mark Aisenberg, who offered up a really interesting theory concerning the Thunder retaining James Harden. Here it is:
“There is a lot of speculation on whether or not the Thunder will sign James Harden or not … but if we examine it closely and use some logic, we can see that Harden will NEVER hit (restricted free agency). If the Thunder were seriously considering a future with no James Harden, then they would’ve done the trade that Charlotte offered (second overall pick for James Harden). The second pick makes far less money and is an enormous asset. So if (Sam) Presti isn’t willing to pay Harden, then not trading Harden for the No. 2 overall pick was a COLOSSAL mistake. Presti dots every i and signs every t and he doesn’t make a colossal mistakes. Therefore, Harden will never hit (restricted free agency).”
Interesting theory. I don’t buy it, but it’s really interesting.
Here’s one reason I don’t buy it. If the Thunder is coming to grips with paying Harden the maximum, then there’s no great hurry to sign him. If you think you’re going to have to pay Harden $15 million a year, might as well wait until next summer, let him sign an offer sheet from someone, then match it. If you wait, you’re giving yourself a year to see what happens, both with Harden and with health and with team development and with market forces. If you’re going to pay Harden that much, no reason to do it now, other than make everyone from fans to Kevin Durant feel better.
And let me say, I have no idea if the Bobcats actually offered the No. 2 pick for Harden. Maybe they did. It’s a bad trade for both teams, though Charlotte is capable of bad trades.
But here’s why I don’t think rejection of that trade and the realization that Harden will have to be signed are related. Making that trade would have effectively removed the Thunder from NBA title contention in 2013. So there’s no way it was a colossal mistake, or a mistake of any kind, even if Harden remains unsigned. The Thunder is not a boom-or-bust organization; it will be prudent and will not go all in just for a shot at winning the championship. But neither would Presti trade away title contention at this point. The No. 2 pick in the draft is a great asset, as Aisenberg said, but not all No. 2 picks are created equal. Bradley Beal or Michael Kidd-Gilchrist are intriguing prospects, but we’re a long way from knowing if they are difference-makers.
And here’s why I really think the theory loses water. It’s not an either or. If Presti rejected the Bobcat offer, it wasn’t because he decided the Thunder would keep Harden no matter what. If you follow the NBA, you know some franchises just can’t sit still. They always are tinkering. If you’re not careful, you start thinking all NBA organizations act that way — or should.
But some franchises practice stability. The Spurs are the best example, and we know that Presti has patterned the Thunder after the Spurs. Patience is a virtue. Presti doesn’t mind waiting. Failure to do one thing does not mean Presti will automatically do another. In June, the Thunder did not know the market for Harden or, particularly, Serge Ibaka. Presti also didn’t know what Harden might take to stay in OKC and Presti still might not know that.
I hope Aisenberg is right and Harden signs a contract extension. But I see no way the Thunder can offer Harden the maximum $15 million a year, the luxury tax would be too steep, and without a max offer, negotiations ensue, with no way of knowing for sure the end result.