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Thunder signing James Harden 'might' be impossible

To keep the franchise under the luxury tax, the decision of letting the popular Harden leave OKC might be necessary
by Jenni Carlson Published: September 10, 2012

Sam Presti didn't say that signing James Harden would be impossible.

It just seemed that way.

On the day that the Thunder held a press conference to tout the deal done with big man Serge Ibaka, the focus predictably turned to Harden. Signing Ibaka last month meant that three-fourths of the Thunder's young and talented core was secure. Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Ibaka are all under contract beyond next season.

So, what about Harden?

“James is somebody we value,” Presti said Monday afternoon. “We think he's an important part to what we're trying to do with our team and we're hopeful that he'll be with us.”

No doubt about that. Harden is super talented, a rare combination of shooter, slasher and distributor. His offensive skills provide an amazing complement to those of Durant and Westbrook.

“By the same token, we've been very upfront and transparent with everybody that we have some inherent challenges that we face as an organization as a result of the new collective bargaining agreement,” the Thunder general manager continued. “I know we'd love to have him here. I think James would like to be here as well. But at the end of the day ... you have to find a way to make it work for everybody.”

Notice those qualifiers in there? By the same token? But?

You don't have to read far between the lines to realize the reality — striking a deal with Harden is going to be like walking uphill on an icy sidewalk.

Darn near impossible.

The deadline to sign him is Oct. 31, so there's still a lot of time to hammer out the details. But Presti seems to be laying the groundwork for what will happen when a deal doesn't get done — Harden will become a restricted free agent next summer, some team will offer him an exorbitant amount of money that the Thunder won't be able to match, and Harden will be playing for another team after this season.

The problem is the luxury tax.

In the 2013-14 season, when the new contracts for Ibaka and Harden would begin, the luxury tax would kick in once a team's combined player salaries reach $72 million. The Thunder already has $53.9 million committed to Durant, Westbrook, Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins for that season.

The team could amnesty Perk, but unless some of these newly acquired bigs grow a serious nasty streak, I wouldn't recommend it.

But even if the Thunder ultimately cuts ties with Perkins, Harden would still have to sign for $10 million a year or so for the team to stay out of luxury-tax trouble. And even then, it might exceed the limit.

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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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