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Signing James Harden will benefit Thunder now — but what about the long-term future?

One thing OKC wants to avoid is a trip down Sacramento Kings Way, which almost led to that city losing its NBA franchise.
by Jenni Carlson Published: October 17, 2012

The James Harden Countdown has hit critical mass.

The clock now ticks below two weeks.

Two weeks from today, we'll know whether Harden and the Thunder have struck a deal. We'll know whether he'll be in Oklahoma City beyond this season. We'll know where The Beard will be growing for the next few years.

And there are plenty of folks — Bill Simmons, we're looking at you — who say the Thunder should do whatever it takes to re-sign Harden. Give him what he wants. Pay the luxury tax.

Just do it because the Thunder has the money.

Look at all those sold out games and those playoff appearances. Surely this team is awash in cash. Surely this small-market team could handle another huge salary and a long trip on Luxury Tax Boulevard.

Thing is, that might just lead them down Sacramento Kings Way.

Sacramento was among the franchises Simmons referenced in a recent column about Harden and the Thunder. The man who's arguably the most popular sports columnist in America contended the Thunder was claiming it was “just a poor, small-market team” as the reason for not already re-signing Harden.

For starters, this franchise already committed $94 million to Kevin Durant and $78.6 million to Russell Westbrook, not to mention a hefty $49 million contract to Serge Ibaka and $4.5 million a year to Scott Brooks. Those aren't exactly the fingerprints of a poor team.

But I digress.

In arguing for why the Thunder needs to buck up and pay Harden, Simmons referenced other small-market teams that have paid the luxury tax.

Sacramento, 2003-04, $30.5 million.

Minnesota, 2004, $17.6 million.

Cleveland, 2008-10, $43.1 million.

San Antonio, 2009, $8.8 million.

Simmons neglected to mention what happened to those teams after they paid the luxury tax.

The Kings went to the playoffs in 2003 and 2004, then entered a period of decline that almost chased them out of Sacramento. The Timberwolves spent to keep Kevin Garnett, who won the league's MVP and led Minnesota to the conference finals in 2004, but they haven't made the playoffs since. The Cavaliers paid the luxury tax to keep LeBron, of course, but after he bolted for Miami, the team was left in the cellar.

Of the teams that Simmons referenced, the Spurs were the only team to avoid utter collapse.

The reason?

The Spurs are among the most stable franchises in all of pro sports, but beyond that, look at their luxury tax bill compared to those other teams. They paid $8.8 million, a lot of money to us mere mortals but a relative drop in the bucket in pro sports. Mind you, the Spurs decided to dig deep only after winning three titles in the tax era.

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by Jenni Carlson
Jenni Carlson, a sports columnist at The Oklahoman since 1999, came by her love of sports honestly. She grew up in a sports-loving family in Kansas. Her dad coached baseball and did color commentary on the radio for the high school football...
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