WICHITA, Kan. — At this point, we're all reading tea leaves when it comes to figuring out if Thunder reserve guard James Harden will or will not sign a four-year contract extension by next Wednesday's deadline.
Harden is not saying anything about contract talks. General manager Sam Presti absolutely never says anything about negotiations, or much else concerning personnel matters.
Based on Harden's preseason performance, however, perhaps negotiations are weighing heavily on his mind.
Harden finished with 16 points in Wednesday night's 88-76 victory against the Dallas Mavericks before a record crowd of 15,004 at Intrust Bank Arena, but he continued to struggle with the velvet shooting stroke that made him a near-unanimous choice as NBA Sixth Man of the Year last season.
Harden made his first three shots from the field in this preseason finale, then missed his next five, which included a missed a dunk off an alley-oop pass from Russell Westbrook just before the halftime buzzer.
Harden finished 6 for 15 from the field and 2 for 7 from 3-point range.
This came after an atrocious shooting performance the night before, going 2 for 17 from the field in a 94-89 loss against Chicago at the United Center. To be fair, the league's best defense ganged up on Harden with Kevin Durant and Westbrook resting on the bench all night.
Harden finished the preseason 16 for 56 (. 286) from the floor and 5 for 20 (. 250) from 3-point range. Combine that with the 18 for 48 (7 for 22 on 3s) he shot against Miami in the NBA Finals and that's 32.7 percent from the field and 28.6 percent on 3s in his last 10 outings.
Brooks was stunned when told Harden's percentages, but didn't seem concerned.
“I think every player will have a stretch of games where you don't shoot the ball well, and you want it to be in the preseason if anything,” Brooks said. “We know what James does, we know what he brings and we know the work that he puts in. It's all going to round itself out. He hasn't shot the ball well in the preseason, but you know he definitely will figure it out. We know what he's done in the past and that's all we can base it on.”
What does all this have to do with Harden's contract negotiations?
Recent Thunder history has shown a player's prowess on the court directly coincides with signing a new deal.
The Thunder announced on Jan. 19 that Westbrook had signed a five-year extension last season. In the week before the announcement, Westbrook averaged 27.0 points, 6.0 assists, 5.6 rebounds, shot 52.1 percent from the field and 41.7 percent on 3-pointers. He was then named NBA Player of the Week for Jan. 23-29 and again for Feb. 6-12.
Did this have anything to do with Westbrook basking in his new $73.5-million deal? (Um, yeah.) Suffice to say, Westbrook wasn't depressed at that time.
OKC signed power forward Serge Ibaka in August to a four-year, $49-million extension (plus incentives).
Ibaka just had a monster preseason, leading the Thunder in scoring (16.0) and rebounding (7.3). He also shot 58.6 percent from the field and 57.1 percent from 3-point range.
Does Brooks think the contract has become a distraction for Harden?
“He hasn't ever given me any indication that is even a factor,” Brooks said. “He's never brought it up. I think James has a lot more improvement to be made in his game, and that's our focus.”