NBA Rumors: Thunder Must Extend James Harden Before Free Agency in 2013

Stephen Babb@@StephenBabbFeatured ColumnistAugust 21, 2012

MIAMI, FL - JUNE 17:  James Harden #13 of the Oklahoma City Thunder stands on court with his head down in the second half against the Miami Heat in Game Three of the 2012 NBA Finals on June 17, 2012 at American Airlines Arena in Miami, Florida.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

The Oklahoma City Thunder have agreed to an extension with athletic power forward Serge Ibaka, reportedly deciding to sign him to another four years and $48 million.

It will take at least as much money to keep 2011-12 Sixth Man of the Year James Harden, but that doesn't mean the organization will let him walk according to general manager Sam Presti (via AP sports writer Jeff Latzke):

"We're going to continue our conversations with James. We very much value him,'' Presti said. ''We want him to be a part of our organization moving forward. We're excited that he's a member of the Thunder and we're hopeful that he'll be with us for years moving forward."

Of course, it will take more than mutual interest to make Harden's long-term relationship with the team a reality.

For one thing, OKC would have to exceed the salary cap in order to give Harden an extension, potentially exceeding its small-market budget in the process. The luxury tax might not concern franchises like the Los Angeles Lakers, but the Thunder won't have an endless reservoir of resources.

Presti could look to deal Kendrick Perkins to clear his remaining three years (and nearly $25 million) from the books, but he may need to get creative otherwise.

The sooner, the better.

As expensive as Harden reasons to be, he should be even more so on the open market. The Thunder will have the opportunity to match any offers he receives next summer, but that could very well mean matching a max-level deal.

That might sound like a lot of money for a third option, but it goes without saying that a number of teams probably view Harden as a first or second option.

Those teams would be willing to pay him accordingly.

Every dollar OKC can save in this particular transaction may be a dollar that makes keeping Harden viable, especially with the luxury tax looming. Spending less on the contract will also mean spending less on those taxes.

The Indiana Pacers and Portland Trail Blazers should be instructive case studies for the Thunder.

Neither team was able to work out an extension prior to the restricted free agency of Nic Batum and Roy Hibbert. Consequently, both players signed offer sheets this summer that forced their original teams to match staggering commitments.

If the Minnesota Timberwolves were willing to offer Batum over $45 million for four years of service, you can imagine what Harden will go for.

No one is expecting Harden to give the Thunder the benefit of a significant "hometown discount." He could fancy the notion of stepping outside of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook's shadows. He could have his sights on a larger market.

But he also knows he could remain part of something special in Oklahoma City.

With their young core intact, the Thunder could easily contend for another five years. Even if Harden isn't the face of the franchise, his profile has already benefited from playing an important role for such a successful team.

Given those kind of considerations, Harden might be willing to take a deal in the same range as Ibaka's. 

The Thunder certainly have to hope so.

Though Harden went cold in the NBA Finals, he was instrumental to turning around the Western Conference finals and has consistently given OKC a scoring boost when it needed one most. He's a good perimeter shooter, but his strong move to the basket translates into plenty of layups and trips to the free-throw line.

Most of the roster's role players aren't fantastic scorers, so Harden's contributions are essential.

He's also a fan favorite thanks to his notorious beard and laid-back demeanor. Thunder faithful might understand the need to part ways with a pricey third-wheel, but they certainly wouldn't like it one bit.

Presti has his work cut out for him. That much is certain.

Hopefully he can get it done before Harden's price starts to soar in free agency.