James Harden won't be a free agent until after the 2012-2013 season, but his looming free agency will present a difficult situation for the Oklahoma City Thunder this upcoming offseason. Once free agency starts on July 1, the Thunder will have the option to extend Harden and avoid letting him test the open market.
Harden is having the year of his career. Averaging a career-best 16.8 points per game on over 49 percent from the field and 39 percent from beyond the three-point line, he is the clear favorite to win the NBA Sixth Man of the Year Award (don't believe me? Click here).
Obviously, the Thunder will want to keep Harden.
The question remains whether or not they will be able to. Most players that win the Sixth Man of the Year Award do not come off the bench for a very long time. Harden appears ready to make the transition into the starting lineup and making more of a contribution.
Harden probably won't be an exception to this rule.
The problem the Thunder face is they will surely get outbid for Harden's services if they let him test the free-agent waters. With more than $160 million tied up in Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant alone, the team doesn't have much flexibility with the cap. With all that money tied up, it will be very easy for another team to contact Harden about switching jerseys.
By approaching the topic this offseason, the Thunder effectively prevent other teams from driving up Harden's price. They will be able to sign him for a slight bump in price and still get a guy who's ready to step in and be the starting shooting guard. When Westbrook and Durant are busy penetrating and shooting, Harden will continue to play his own game and have more great success.
If they let Harden go until next offseason, a team could very well come in and offer him a contract in excess of $10 million per year. Last year, that would have seemed like a stretch. This year is a different story. After seeing what Harden did on the court in 2011-12, several teams will be trying to acquire his services for the future.
Things look good for the Thunder, who will certainly make their pitch this year. Harden has graciously accepted the fact that he comes off the bench for one of the best teams in the NBA, and he does his job as well as anyone in the league. He has made no issue of being a backup and will most likely be rewarded for it at the end of the season.
Re-signing Harden gives Durant and Westbrook a running mate for years to come. That sounds like the perfect scenario for the Thunder.
The rest of the NBA would start worrying right away.