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Fran Blinebury

The Thunder's James Harden is the NBA's reigning Sixth Man of the Year.

Harden deadline looms large, but Thunder can wait it out


Posted Oct 24, 2012 10:55 AM

The image, of Thunder general manager Sam Presti standing in front of a bathroom mirror with a razor in his hand, springs immediately to mind.

Does he trim The Beard?

Conventional wisdom says it's just one week until the NBA's most precocious team has to make the decision that will determine its future. If James Harden was being completely truthful when he said at the start of training camp that he wasn't singularly focused on getting a max level contract, then the i's will be dotted, the t's will be crossed and the whole scary scenario can be ended by Halloween night.

But if there is no contract agreement in place, then Loud City is expected to become a deafening echo chamber of rumor and recrimination leading up to the trade deadline on Feb. 21 and then next summer, when Harden can become a free agent.

It is easy, of course, to understand both sides of the equation, especially after the Thunder added to their payroll that was already top heavy from Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook by tossing Serge Ibaka another $49 million. If Ibaka was worth it, doesn't last season's Sixth Man of the Year merit the same kind of consideration and compensation?

But if you're the small market Thunder (28th in the NBA) there is always a more-pressing need, to watch the bottom line, at a time when huge future luxury tax burdens are looming. If they fork over the max four-year, $60 million deal to Harden, the estimated tax bill in OKC is more than $30 million for three seasons. And then it explodes right through the roof.

The question always asked by the number-crunchers: What's the value of an NBA title if the weight of the championship banner(s) hanging from the rafters pulls down the franchise?

The entire affair is reminiscent of the famous line from "North Dallas Forty", Pete Gent's seminal novel about the NFL: "Every time I say it's a game, you tell me it's a business. Every time I say it's a business, you tell me it's a game."

While it seems practical, from a budgetary standpoint, for the Thunder to draw the line somewhere, eventually there will come a time when the franchise will have its hand out to the citizens of Oklahoma City, expecting a wad of tax dollars to be forked over for a fancy new arena with all the latest bells and whistles. At that time, when a protector of the city coffers points out to studies showing that public investment in arenas rarely works out, the Thunder will surely trumpet the intrinsic value of a professional team and the invaluable community bonds created by a championship.

So, the argument goes, don't you grab for the brass ring when it's within reach?

I say it's a business, you tell me it's a game.

The truth is, there is no reason for Thunder management to strike a deal with Harden now. If they agree to less than the max, it won't be by much. And down-the-line luxury tax implications will still be out there.

There is a side in the debate, though, that says no new contract will create chaos in the OKC locker room, upsetting the delicate balance of a championship contender, distracting Harden from his job. But not every would-be free agent player is as pliable and petulant as Dwight Howard. (See Deron Williams.) And remember that amid the maelstrom that surrounded LeBron James, he still performed and was named MVP in his final season in Cleveland.

While Harden is an ingredient in the contender's mix, he hardly is the main one. He has not yet shown himself to be an elite difference-maker on a par with Manu Ginobili in San Antonio. He can be indifferent on defense and his offense evaporated against the Miami Heat in The Finals.

Without a contract extension now, Harden has more reason to up his game in order to get that max offer from the likes of Phoenix or Dallas or Houston or someone next summer. Without being fatalistic, the Thunder get another season to see if Harden can remain healthy -- knee ligaments tear, bones break -- before becoming tethered to a potentially crippling contract.

What if playing with Harden finds the Thunder coming up just short of a championship again this season? Even failing to get out of the West in the face of the reconstituted Lakers or the burgeoning Clippers and Nuggets or the timeless Spurs?

Flexibility is an asset. Time is an ally.

So as the clock ticks down and Presti stands in front of the mirror, there's really no reason not to let The Beard grow a little longer.

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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