Cohen: Could OKC's Decision on Harden Impact Orlando?

By Josh Cohen
October 23, 2012

ORLANDO -- While most Americans enjoy all the Halloween festivities, many NBA team front office executives will be busy making some critical personnel decisions.

Oct. 31 is the deadline for teams to decide whether or not to offer the class of 2009 rookie-scale contract extensions.

While there are some appealing names sprinkled around the meadow, the most significant player is James Harden.

If Harden or any of the other budding youngsters, including Stephen Curry, Brandon Jennings and DeMar DeRozan, are not offered extensions, they will become restricted free agents next summer. It’s also possible for these players to reject extensions like Eric Gordon did with the Hornets last year.

Every where you read around the web, columnists, bloggers and casual fans advocate that the Oklahoma City Thunder give Harden an extension.

Though not the popular and prevailing opinion, I suggest otherwise. I think it would be wrong for both the Thunder and Harden to side together and commit for the long haul.

But before I expound on why, let me say that it’s possible this vital decision could have a major impact on the Orlando Magic.

While there is no inclination that the Magic are necessarily interested in Harden should he become a free agent, there is no doubt that he will be the most highly sought after talent on the market next summer.

Assuming Orlando does not inflate its payroll by July or hasn’t already disbursed its trade exception it has from the Dwight Howard deal, it’s very feasible for the Magic to have enough salary cap space to chase at least one top-tier free agent next summer.

So why shouldn’t OKC commit to the reigning Sixth Man of the Year?

It’s certainly not because I don’t think Harden is a great player. I think he is outstanding and if you ask me, Harden has the potential to be the next Paul Pierce – a methodical and crafty swingman with promise to be a perennial All-Star.

You can’t ignore the financial factor. If OKC did indeed commit to Harden for the next several years, it would be in luxury tax purgatory. The Thunder are already paying Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook maximum contracts, agreed to an extension with Serge Ibaka this past summer and will shell out about $25 million to Kendrick Perkins over the next three years.

And remember, starting next summer, tax penalties become much more punitive. Prior to 2013-14, teams over the tax ($70.3 million payroll this year) would pay just $1 for every $1 the team exceeds the tax level.

However, next year it’s much more severe. For example, if a team’s salary is $10 million above the luxury tax line, they will be forced to shell out $2.50 for every $1 over the boundary. And if an organization remains above the tax border in three consecutive years, they will be required to pay the repeater rate (ex. $3.50 for every $1 over the tax if team salary is between $10 and $15 million).

This can be become financially draining over time.

If you disregard funds, there is another fundamental reason why the Thunder shouldn’t pledge to Harden.

While having three All-Stars is remarkably beneficial to be one of the favorites to win a championship, it’s not as striking if all three have similar strengths.

You can argue that Durant (SF), Westbrook (PG) and Harden (SG) all play different positions, but it’s not an oversight that all three are dependent on their scoring. None of them are exceptional defenders and neither are any of them excellent distributors and playmakers.

If you are fortunate to possess at least three All-Stars, it’s far more advantageous for each of them to have distinctive assets.

In L.A., for example, Steve Nash is the floor general, Dwight Howard is the dominant defender and shot blocker, Pau Gasol is the pick-and-pop finesse big man and Kobe Bryant is the premier scorer. In Miami, LeBron James is a jack-of-all-trades, Dwyane Wade is the lethal attacker and Chris Bosh is the multidimensional power forward.

OKC is deficient in two very imperative categories: Perimeter shooting and low-post scoring. While Perkins and Ibaka help preserve the Thunder’s defensive prerequisites, neither offers offensive firepower. And aside from Durant and to a lesser extent Daequan Cook, OKC lacks consistent 3-point shooting.

While I admit that a larger collection of talent is generally more important than overall balance and depth, in OKC’s case, it may be more valuable to build around Durant and Westbook with a greater gathering of reliable role players.

So what should the Thunder do?

First off, they shouldn’t agree to an extension with Harden. Even if they may ultimately want to keep Harden, the Thunder can just match any offer sheet next summer since he will be a restricted free agent.

Second, they should field calls from other general managers about possible trade proposals leading up to February’s deadline. Harden’s value is exponentially high right now and OKC could net some imperative value in any potential deal.

Third, if they don’t trade him, the Thunder can just evaluate everything at the end of the season. If they win the title, then it gets simple, just match any offer from opposing teams. If they notice a need for improvement, they can negotiate sign-and-trades to still gain assets for him.

For Harden, while he unmistakably adores the chemistry he has helped create in OKC, it’s only rational for a player of his caliber at the early stages of his career to not want to be the third wheel on a team. I believe the former Arizona State standout could be a top 10 scorer in the NBA largely because of his ability to relentlessly get to the free throw line.

Some think it's possible for Harden to accept an extension for an amount less than the max. However, this just wouldn't make any sense when you assume a variety of teams would likely give Harden the most allowed in free agency.

OKC’s upcoming decision will undoubtedly impact free agency for next summer. If the Thunder pass on an extension, may the Magic consider making a push for the blossoming superstar?

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