Nor should the low-key offseason mislead you about the even more important decisions ahead. There's no question OKC wants to hold on to James Harden, and it sounds like the feelings are mutual (via the Daily Thunder's Royce Young):
“I don’t know. I can’t make that decision,” Harden told Marca.com. “I only focus on playing. I want to keep playing with the Thunder. I feel like home and the team is special. My teammates are like my family. We can do big things. We’ll see what happens.”
Whatever actually happens, here's what needs to happen.
The Thunder should do anything and everything within their power to keep Harden so long as it doesn't involve parting ways with Kevin Durant (obviously), Russell Westbrook or Serge Ibaka.
Nobody said this would be easy.
This organization doesn't have limitless funds on hand, and it can't seriously entertain the possibility of sustaining a dynasty while paying exorbitant amounts of luxury taxes. The $100 million payrolls that teams like the Los Angeles Lakers can take in stride aren't even a figment of the OKC front office's imagination.
General Manager Sam Presti will need to get a little bit creative and that may mean finding a new home for the remaining three seasons on Kendrick Perkins' contract. Clearing those $25 million would still leave the Thunder with four massive contracts on the books, but those contracts would be entirely justifiable.
The reality is that with or without Harden, the Thunder won't have cap flexibility anytime soon.
If you're willing to pay for a superstar core, role players will find their way to the roster one way or another. Aging veterans will always look to chase rings on the cheap, and victims of the amnesty clause are usually more interested in winning that making money.
With Harden, the Thunder will be able to compete for the services of those kind of players. Without him, OKC will still be a formidable club, but it won't be the same kind of destination.
If his Sixth Man of the Year award is any indication, Harden also plays an incredibly important role on the court.
He takes a huge burden off the already-occupied shoulders of Durant and Westbrook, and he ensures that the second unit doesn't lose a step when the high-scoring starters take a rest.
Harden's ability to run the break, score inside, draw fouls and hit perimeter shots makes him a consistently dangerous third-option.
And, in truth, his role as that third-option is a good fit for Harden too. Fearsome though his beard may be, he's really not well-equipped to lead his own team. We're not talking about the next Kobe Bryant here.
We're talking about someone who completes the Thunder, a known commodity the rotation can rely upon to impact games even at the highest level. Though his NBA Finals performance was abysmal, the 22-year-old was otherwise steady in the postseason.
At times, he was much better than steady.
Just ask the San Antonio Spurs.
The Thunder might be able to get by without Harden, but why would you want to risk that? Presti needs to go with the sure thing, no matter the cost.
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