James Harden made the U.S. Olympic basketball team, which certainly is great for the status of the Thunder and Oklahoma City, not to mention Mr. Harden himself. But will Harden’s inclusion on the exclusive squad eventually cost the Thunder? Does being an Olympian — being grouped with the likes of LeBron and Kobe and Durant and CP3 — drive up the price tag for Harden’s next contract?
That’s the ultimate question about Harden, who until Oct. 31 can sign an extension with the Thunder, but otherwise would become a restricted free agent next off-season.
And the answer is no. The Olympic selection will not drive up Harden’s price tag. Harden’s price tag already is at its limit. The Olympic selection is a sign that Harden’s value already is at the max. The Olympic selection is not setting the market; it’s just following the market.
Harden’s market value became clear early in the free agent process, when the Suns offered Eric Gordon a maximum contract of $58 million over four years. Gordon and Harden are similar players in terms of production.
Gordon is a year older, but his most recent season was just nine games long, because of injury. Gordon has bigger numbers — he averaged 22.3 points a game in 2010-11, as the Clippers’ primary shooter, before being traded to New Orleans in the Chris Paul deal — but played more minutes than did Harden.
The Olympic selection — Harden was picked over Gordon — again is reflective of status. It did not establish status. In John Hollinger’s player rankings for 2011-12, Harden is No. 30. The ESPN hoops guru uses a formula called PER (player efficiency rating) that measures every statistic. Gordon is not ranked, because of his limited season. But in 2010-11, when Gordon averaged 22.3 points a game for the Clippers, he ranked 45th.
So Harden — who averaged 16.8 points a game this past season — is viewed as an incredibly efficient player. Not just skilled, but incredibly productive. If Harden wants a maximum contract, a $14-million-a-year type deal, he can get one. I don’t think the Thunder would pull the trigger on it; even though Sam Presti loves Harden. I think the Thunder will try to sign Harden for less, and Harden has indicated he would take less to remain in OKC.
But the bar is going to be set high for Harden. The hometown discount could still reach as high as $12 million a year or so. The Olympics aren’t the reason. The Olympics are a symptom of Harden’s skyrocketing status, not the cause.