If you buy what James Harden is selling, he won't be going anywhere.
The reigning Sixth Man of the Year spent the majority of his media day session with reporters Monday insisting he still wants to be a member of the Oklahoma City Thunder and expressing confidence that it's only a matter of time before his highly anticipated contract extension gets ironed out.
“Yeah,” Harden said when asked if he thought a deal will be reached by the Oct. 31 deadline. “Sure. That's why I'm not too worried about it.“I know. I have confidence in my agent and the organization to get it done. They know how important it is, so I'm sure it will be done.”
If no deal is reached, Harden will become a restricted free agent next summer. That means the Thunder would have the right to match any offer he receives — if Oklahoma City doesn't choose to wash its hands of the situation and trade him before the deadline.
Should the Thunder hold onto Harden all year even if no agreement is reached, the team would risk losing Harden to a team with sufficient salary cap space to sign him to a max contract. Although it's been reported that Harden desires a max deal, he said Monday when asked directly if it's not max or nothing with the Thunder that it's not.
“No,” Harden said. “Like I said, I'm not really worried about that. I'm not focused on it. I'll let my agent and (Thunder general manager) Sam (Presti) figure that out, all those numbers and things like that. I'm really just focused on hooping; hooping and bettering myself … as a basketball player.”
The question becomes why hasn't a deal gotten done? It's a question that Harden deflected and deferred to Presti and his agent rather than go into details about.
“They're discussing that,” Harden said. “I let them deal with the contract situation. My focus is on playing basketball. Everything will figure itself out eventually. But right now, training camp is starting. I think everybody is excited to be here and just enjoy each other's company. We really missed each other.”
In addition to refuting his reported desire for a max contract, Harden also said he still is willing to sacrifice somehow to ensure a deal gets done. It's an idea he first floated in late June following the team's loss in the NBA Finals.
“Oh yeah. Sacrifice,” Harden said. “I think everybody on this team has sacrificed in their own way, just for the betterment of the team. That's why we're so close as well. Like I said, everything will work itself out eventually.”
In the meantime, legitimate questions linger about how the uncertainty might impact Harden on the court this season. Last year, he earned Sixth Man of the Year honors after averaging 16.8 points, 4.1 rebounds and 3.7 assists while shooting 49.1 percent, all career highs. Thunder coach Scott Brooks, however, said he is more concerned about Harden's defense than the contract matter possibly becoming a distraction.
“There's a lot of good things I love about our guys, and being focused is always one of them,” Brooks said. “They've always done that at a high level. Going into training camp, I don't see it any different.”
Harden said he's leaned on Russell Westbrook so far throughout this process. Westbrook, you may recall, had his extension negotiations drag last season before finally settling on a deal in mid-January. Because of the lockout-shortened season, the NBA pushed back the customary Oct. 31 deadline for players to sign extensions to their rookie deals before becoming restricted free agents. Westbrook, as a result, was forced to play the first 15 regular season games with that cloud of uncertainty hovering above him. Not surprisingly Westbrook struggled, averaging just 20.5 points and 3.5 turnovers over that span.
“It makes it easy to have these guys on my side,” Harden said of his teammates. “I talk to Russell a lot just because he was in the same situation I'm in. He gives me advice all the time on what I need to do and how I should just focus on basketball, focus on the teammates and the things that I can do individually to help the Thunder win games. That's my focus right now. That's what I will continue to be focused on.”