Pressure abounds with the Thunder.
There's pressure on the team's ownership group to come up with a viable budget.
There's pressure on general manager Sam Presti to stay within that budget.
There's also pressure on guard James Harden.
Harden is on the verge of making $50 million to $60 million over a four-year span. Yeah, I know. We should all endure such “pressure.”
The closer his deal is to $50 million, the more likely he remains in a Thunder uniform.
The closer his deal gets to $60 million, the more likely he's headed back to the Phoenix area, where he played collegiately at Arizona State for two years before becoming the No. 3 pick in the 2009 NBA Draft.
The deadline to sign rookie contract extensions is Oct. 31. If Harden doesn't sign with the Thunder by then, he'll become a restricted free agent next summer and free to receive offers from all suitors.
In order to retain Harden, the Thunder must match the other team's offer, which is expected to be for the maximum of four years at 25 percent of the league's salary cap (expected to be between $58 and $60 million).
If the Thunder can offer the max, presumably it will do so before the deadline to avoid any unnecessary distractions during the season.
This leads to the following conclusion: If Harden goes to market, he won't return in 2013-14.
The pressure for Harden stems from whether he will remain in OKC or be drawn back to the desert.
Harden instantly would become a hometown drawing card with the Suns, not to mention their starting guard.
Any team that bids on Harden will make him a starter. You don't offer max contracts to reserves.
Will becoming a starter lure away last season's Sixth Man of the Year? Could part of the Thunder's sales pitch include making Harden a starter?
The Thunder's modus operandi has been for Presti to get the players and for Scott Brooks to coach the team, and never the twain shall meet in contract negotiations. Not so far, at least.
With the extension deadline 65 days away, the clock quietly is ticking. The closer Oct. 31 gets, the louder that clock will tick.
In time, it could become as imposing as Big Ben, not far from where Harden and Team USA captured the gold medal earlier this month at the Summer Olympics.
One month ago today in London, Harden was asked if he would consider signing with the Suns if he doesn't re-sign with the Thunder.
“Yeah,” Harden told The Arizona Republic. “Of course. I love it there. My mom lives there still. So that's definitely my second home as far as my comfort level and going to school there.”
Harden then added, “But obviously, I'm with the Thunder right now and what we have is special.”
Signing Serge Ibaka on Aug. 18 to a four-year, $49-million extension (plus a potential $2.5 million in incentives) limits what the Thunder can offer Harden, which figures to be an even more expensive extension that starts in 2013-14. Harden will make $5,820,416 this season.
“The kind of support we have in Oklahoma City, it's the best in the NBA,” said Harden, the bearded wonder who turned 23 on Sunday. “Phenomenal. Beards in the crowd, the whole nine (yards). The city is really something special.”
To remain with the Thunder, Harden almost certainly will surrender his full earning potential — an average salary of roughly $15 million per season.
“That's out of my hands,” Harden said of contract negotiations. “That's not my decision. That's the front office. I'll let them decide that.”
Actually, the decision will be Harden's.