The possible departure of the NBA's reigning Sixth Man of the Year, James Harden, has been the hot issue all summer for the Oklahoma City Thunder, and will continue to be talked about throughout the season.
Will he stay for a paycut or will Harden look for a max deal from a shooting guard-hungry team? That's the multi-million dollar question for Thunder GM Presti, and he may have to start exploring other options if he feels Harden is leaning away from OKC.
In regards to the other options, there are some answers out there for Oklahoma CIty. In free agency next summer, there are some notable shooting guards that may be available, such as Andre Iguodala, O.J. Mayo, and Kevin Martin.
Mayo and Iguodala would have to both opt out of their current contract, looking for more money in free agency, in order to be on the open market. Kevin Martin, however, will be a unrestricted free agent.
O.J. Mayo may like playing in Dallas, but if he has a big enough year, he could opt out and look for a long-term deal, whether it be with the Mavs or another buyer. If he is looking to trade wins for salary, the Thunder could take a look at the once-promising USC star.
Of these players, ideally the Thunder would like Iguodala, but he may want to stay long term in Denver. One possible scenario where Iggy would leave would most likely be due to him wanting out of the log-jam the Nuggets have with Wilson Chandler, Danilo Gallinari, Quincy Miller, and Evan Fournier in the shooting guard/small forward spots.
The Thunder could offer him a nice starting role on a contending team that could use his defensive presence on the perimeter and explosive athleticism on the fast breaks.
What method would be the best for the Thunder to replace Harden?
However, one other option is the older, less-sought-after Kevin Martin, who may not be part of the Houston Rockets' youth movement. Sure, he is known for being kind of a gunner, taking high amounts of shots during games, but he could still be an affordable temporary move for the Thunder while they look for a younger long-term replacement.
Besides just these few potential free agency moves, the Thunder could also realistically pursue a trade with Harden next season while he is still under contract.
They certainly won't be able to get equal value for him, since he is on an expiring deal, but if Harden does give the Thunder a wishlist, OKC may be in business.
One possible suitor could be the Phoenix Suns, who were close to getting young guard Eric Gordon this past offseason.
They do have some assets to offer in bigman Marcin Gortat and swingman Shannon Brown, and both could fit nicely into a package with some future draft picks from the Suns.
Gortat would be a good backup center to have behind the oft-injured Kendrick Perkins and would be an upgrade from the slow-developing Cole Aldrich. Brown isn't exactly a long-term answer to shooting guard, but could come off the bench like Harden and hold his own with the second unit.
Another idea could be a deal with the Sacramento Kings involving the stalled progressions Jimmer Fredette and Tyreke Evans. The Thunder may be able to swing both players with no draft picks or maybe one with some picks in a package.
Evans wouldn't be a total solution to what Harden was, since he is not much of a shooting guard and really has no true position.
Fredette has only one questionable season under his belt, but his potential remains unfulfilled.
Either way, Oklahoma City could consider a deal with the Kings, if they are looking to stay youthful while staying under the salary cap.
Overall, it will be a hard find to get a good deal to replace James Harden if necessary for the Thunder. Whether through free agency or through a deal next season, Harden is already a solid cornerstone of the current OKC roster, and working someone else in will be a challenge in itself.
If the Thunder do end up having to explore life without Harden in the future, the pickings aren't ideal, but it shouldn't deter their championship hopes completely.