James Harden says he wants to stay in Oklahoma City and play with the Thunder.
He reiterated as much Monday at Thunder media day.
“Of course I want to be here,” he said.
But the clock continues to tick. Harden and the Thunder must agree on terms to a contract extension by the end of this month. An offer has been made, the sides are talking, but if a deal is not done by Oct. 31, the versatile guard will be eligible to become a restricted free agent next summer.
If it gets to that point, there's no way the Thunder will be able to match the huge contract some team will surely offer him.
So, the question is this — is Harden ready to leave all this?
That is the question Harden must ask and answer in these contract negotiations. Is he ready to leave a still youthful but supremely talented team that went to the NBA Finals last season? Ready to leave a nucleus that only seems to get better? Ready to leave a franchise that has built a culture that players rave about?
Sure didn't sound like it Monday.
Harden repeated his willingness to sacrifice to stay with the Thunder, asserting that a max contract wasn't a necessity. He even went so far as to say he believed a deal would be done by the Oct. 31 deadline.
“That's why I'm not too worried about it,” he said.
Maybe the Thunder can re-sign Harden after all.
Crunching the numbers and listening to the qualifiers thrown around by the Thunder brass, it hasn't seemed like keeping Harden would be possible. Surely, he would want more money than the team could handle.
Getting a deal done still seems like an extremely long shot — how much can the Thunder really offer without putting itself in luxury-tax jeopardy? — but listening to Harden on Monday, it didn't seem completely impossible.
“We've built a brotherhood here, a brotherhood that's hard to break,” he said. “Other teams are just teammates, but we're really brothers.”
More than anything, re-signing Harden is a test of the Thunder Way.
Sam Presti is the architect of that system. The Thunder general manager has always said it was his intention to build a successful franchise that would be sustainable over the long term, even in a small market like Oklahoma City. That meant drafting players who were not only great players but also great teammates, putting a higher value on sacrifice and team than on ego and self, then affording those players every advantage in training, fitness, nutrition and medical know-how.
The players, for example, are fed breakfast and lunch on practice days. That might seem small, but it's not something most teams do.
Add up all the things like that the Thunder does, and it makes for a first-class organization.
That's what Kendrick Perkins called the franchise shortly after the Thunder acquired him from Boston a few years back. And that's one of the reasons that shortly after he arrived, he signed a long-term deal with the Thunder. He realized quickly that he wanted to stay and be a part of this team, even if it meant not testing the open market to see if he get more money.
The same could be said for Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, Thabo Sefolosha, Nick Collison ... the list goes on and on.
The only time the Thunder Way didn't win out was with Jeff Green. The team offered him less than he wanted, and once both sides realized they were at impasse, the Thunder dealt him to the Celtics.
Green asked himself the question of whether he was willing to leave all this, and ultimately, he decided that he was.
Harden has to ask and answer the same question.
He talks often about his situation with Westbrook, who was in the same spot a year ago. Westbrook arrived at training camp without a contract extension, but he eventually signed a five-year, $80 million deal.
Even though those are big numbers, Westbrook actually sacrificed. He didn't hold out for a Derrick Rose contract, saving the Thunder a little over $3 million a year. He didn't demand an opt-out clause, helping secure the franchise's future.
Why'd he do all of that?
“I think we have something special here,” Westbrook said. “The organization. The fans. I don't think there's a team in the league that's like it.”
As Harden is talking to Westbrook, you can bet those are the type of things that are coming up.
Frankly, that's great news for the Thunder. Those kind of conversations are reminders to Harden about what he's already a part of, how special it is, how unique it is.
It's something, though, that he's already aware of.
“The support that I have here and that the Thunder has here is unreal,” Harden said. “I love this beautiful city.”
So, is he ready to leave all of this?
In the end, only Harden can answer that question, but if Monday was any indication, it sure seems the Thunder Way might ultimately hold some sway.
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at (405) 475-4125 or at email@example.com. You can also like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok or view her personality page at newsok.com/jennicarlson.