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 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.
What the Thunder would have to pay in luxury taxes to keep Harden is no drop in the bucket.
And remember, if OKC re-signs Harden, it would be looking at massive luxury tax bills for several years to come.
Really, the long-term consequence of re-signing Harden to a big deal is the biggest question here.
Could the Thunder pay the luxury tax?
But could it possibly pay upward of $30 million in taxes the first three years, then handle the bill in the fourth year when some very punitive repeat-offender taxes would kick in? Could it do that without jeopardizing the future of this franchise?
But there seems to be a decent amount of evidence that small-market teams who've paid big chunks in luxury taxes aren't better off in the long run.
I understand that the opportunity to win an NBA championship doesn't come along all that often. I also understand that the Thunder has a better chance to win one with Harden than without him.
But what about this team's chances in six or eight years?
The truth is the Thunder could sign Harden to a big deal, and everything could go absolutely perfectly. This team could keep winning like it has the past year or two, the money could continue rolling in and the luxury tax could get paid with no problem.
Or K.D. could blow out a knee.
Or the natural gas market could tank.
I'm not wishing ill on anyone, but the reality is things tend to go wrong. In a small market, an overleveraged team can get into trouble quickly.
So, yes, Mr. Simmons, the Thunder could write a big check to Harden, but what if everything doesn't go absolutely perfectly? What if the Thunder takes a long trip down Sacramento Kings Way?
This is a team that you've said you've become a fan of, Bill, and if it goes down that scary road, you'll be able to find a new favorite team.
Folks in Oklahoma City won't be so lucky.
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at (405) 475-4125. 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.