Any conversation centered on the Thunder climbing 26 spots certainly would begin with Harden. But one league source called talk of the Thunder trading Harden at all “humorous.”
“That team just went to the NBA Finals,” the source said. “I don't think they're breaking up their team.”
There is a growing concern, however, that if the Thunder doesn't do so now it will be forced to in the near future. That's because Harden's rapid development has created a financial quandary for the Thunder.
Many believe Harden has played his way into a maximum-allowable contract, which could be north of $65 million over four years. Harden is eligible for an extension to his rookie deal this summer, along with Serge Ibaka and Eric Maynor.
It's extremely unlikely that the Thunder will be able to retain Westbrook, Harden, Durant, Ibaka, Maynor and Kendrick Perkins without paying a stiff monetary penalty for exceeding what the league refers to as the tax threshold. For this season, that threshold was $70.3 million in team salary.
Though Harden and Maynor both hinted last week that they would be willing to sacrifice financially to stick around with the Thunder, their deals, and Ibaka's new contract, seemingly all would have to be well below their market value in order for the Thunder to keep its core intact.
NBA commissioner David Stern has repeatedly trumpeted the need for “player sharing” under the league's new collective bargaining agreement, and the Thunder might be the first team to fall victim to the league's new model.
It's the only thing that lends credence to this round of speculation.
Still, that day won't come for at least another year.
Harden, Ibaka and Maynor are all under contract for next season. If they don't agree to a new deal by Oct. 31, they will be restricted free agents next summer. Even then, they could return for their fifth seasons under what's known as a “qualifying offer” should both the Thunder fail to come to terms on a deal and another team fails to offer a desirable contract.
Much of the Thunder's summer will be spent figuring out how to make it all work.
But who's to say that first step won't be taken Thursday night?