Posted Oct 1, 2012 6:40 PM - Updated Oct 1, 2012 8:37 PM
OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) -- For all the Oklahoma City Thunder followers worried about whether the team will be able to afford a new contract with the NBA's Sixth Man of the Year, there's one person who doesn't seem fazed by it: James Harden.
Harden heads into this season as possibly the odd man out in the Thunder's young nucleus. Like Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka before him, he's eligible for his first contract extension and would become a restricted free agent if he doesn't get a new deal by next July.
The difference for Harden is that small-market Oklahoma City, approaching the salary cap with all the others already locked into long-term deals, may not be able - or willing - to pay the luxury tax likely to come along with Harden's price tag.
"Everything will figure itself out eventually," Harden said at the team's preseason media day Monday. "Right now, training camp is starting. I think everybody is excited to be here and just to enjoy each other's company. We really missed each other."
Harden predicted that he'll agree to terms on a new contract by the end of the month and said that he's focused on "hooping," and not on the negotiations.
"I have confidence in my agent and the organization to get it done," Harden said. "They know how important it is, so I'm sure it will be done."
Harden averaged 16.8 points and 3.7 assists last season, earning recognition as the league's best bench player as Oklahoma City made it to the NBA Finals before losing to Miami.
The core players from that run are back for this season, but could it be the team's last chance to pursue a title with Harden in the mix?
"I just think about the first day of training camp. That's all I'm going to be thinking about," three-time NBA scoring champion Kevin Durant said. "Everything's going to work itself out."
"James is a key part to our team. We're very excited to have him here. ... It's his fourth year. Just being with him that long, being with the rest of the guys that long, I'm just excited to start a new season."
Harden reiterated that he might be willing to make a sacrifice to stay in Oklahoma City and that he wouldn't demand a maximum contract. Durant and Westbrook also took slightly less than they could have pushed for, and both of the All-Stars were re-signed long before hitting free agency.
At the end of last season, Harden suggested that the Thunder could be on the verge of creating a "dynasty" and he still feels a special bond to his teammates.
"I think we've built a brotherhood here, a brotherhood these past years that's hard to break," he said. "Other teams, you're just teammates but we're really brothers. We hang out all the time. We push each other to work hard every single day."
There's also a business side to it, though. General manager Sam Presti has repeatedly said the team would like to have Harden back but the reality of the situation includes a tough decision involving the salary cap and luxury tax.
While title contenders such as the Heat and Lakers have exceeded the cap, the Thunder don't have the benefit of lucrative local television or arena naming rights deals.
"Obviously, everybody would love to just say, `Oh, yeah, we've got our team. James signed.' But it's not that easy," said starting center Kendrick Perkins, who also has a long-term deal in place. "In a perfect world, it would be, but they still have business that they have to take care of.
"At the end of the day, we still love James and we're going to embrace him and he's still part of our team."
Harden said he sought out advice several times from Westbrook, who started last season without an extension in place but agreed to one in January - 15 games into the season. His plan is to keep his mind on basketball and not on his uncertain future.
"It's tough, but I was in the same boat last year," Westbrook said. "That's just how it goes sometimes. James is going to make the best decision for him and his family."
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