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.
Do that, and the consequences are serious.
Go over by $9 million — which the Thunder likely would if it pays Harden what he's expected to be worth on the open market — and the Thunder would owe $14.5 million in luxury tax. Add that to the salaries, and the team would be on the hook for nearly $100 million.
In any market, that's a big chunk of change for an NBA franchise. In Oklahoma City, that level of financial obligation could be crippling.
That's a lesson Presti learned in San Antonio. He was with the Spurs when they had to make some difficult and unpopular decisions because of finances.
In 2003, Stephen Jackson became a darling in San Antonio. He endeared himself to Spurs fans by making big shot after big shot in the playoffs, capped with several 3-pointers down the stretch in the championship-clinching game of the Finals.
With Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili already on the roster, the Spurs offered Jackson a three-year, $10 million deal after the season.
What the Spurs did was not popular, but because they are a small-market franchise, they have made a commitment to be frugal about finances. That's one of the reasons they've been able to maintain success over several decades. Short-term sacrifices (and PR hits) for long-term stability.
You'd better believe Presti will do the same with the Thunder.
That reality might be starting to dawn on Thunder fans, but Monday afternoon, it seemed to have already set in with those close to the situation. As soon as the subject of Harden's contract arose, Ibaka and Thunder coach Scott Brooks went completely and totally stone faced.
Will signing Harden be impossible?
Sure looked and sounded that way.
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at (405) 475-4125 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.