While everyone in Oklahoma City wants James Harden to be brought back with an extension, and it is by far the best option for both parties, it is looking more and more like this may not happen. Harden is in line for a max deal if he hits free agency, and the Thunder cannot afford to pay him that sort of money—otherwise he would have already signed on the dotted line.
The key now is for the Thunder to make sure it gets some value out of Harden, who will be possibly the most sought after free agent in 2013. If the Thunder are wise, there are only two options when it comes to Harden this season: get that extension or get traded out of town.
There have been many rumors about a Harden trade, and most have revolved around getting a cheaper big man and draft picks. However, in my mind, that does not solve the Thunder's problems. With the tendency in the modern NBA to go small, Durant may spend a lot of time at power forward this season. If he does, then the Thunder already have Kendrick Perkins, Serge Ibaka and Cole Aldrich to play center. Also, with a deep team, the Thunder don't have a pressing need for draft picks unless they are high in the lottery and would add a real impact player rather than role guys.
In my opinion, any trade partner with the Thunder needs to be able to offer a player that ticks a few boxes: he must be a starter or have the upside to start, he must be cheap for the foreseeable future and he must be able to contribute without having the ball in his hands a whole lot. With these criteria in mind, I believe there is just one player who fits the bill, and that is Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.
Trading Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and maybe a pick or throw-in player for James Harden should benefit both teams.
The Thunder need a good player with upside who will be cheap for the foreseeable future. As a draft pick this year, MKG is in the first year of what can be a very inexpensive four-year contract. This would allow the Thunder to retain Perkins for the remainder of his deal, which is about the same time that MKG would be due an extension.
On the other hand, the Bobcats want to be relevant now. They just endured one of the worst seasons in living memory. While MKG is a great player who will make his teammates better and could become a star, Harden has already shown he has the ability to be a leading scorer on a championship team. Harden's lower ceiling is offset by his abilities right now and the greater certainty he will become a franchise player.
What's more, we already know that the Charlotte Bobcats are interested in Harden. After all, it was rumored that they offered the second overall pick to the Thunder in return for the Bearded One. While OKC did not do that deal, if MKG performs well early in his rookie season (which he probably will) and Harden remains fails to sign an extension, talks may resume.
MKG would be a perfect fit for the Thunder. His skill set, at the moment, at least, will not require him to dominate the ball like many young "star" players. He was the best perimeter defender in the most recent draft, and at 6'7" and 230 pounds, has imposing size and athleticism for a player who could start at shooting guard.
He is also a great rebounder who can pass, plus he runs the break and finishes as well as anybody. All these skill would fit perfectly for a Thunder team that is lethal in transition and already has a lot of scorers in Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and possibly Perry Jones III and Serge Ibaka.
He does need to improve his shot and tighten his dribble, but if he can do this then he would probably become the second-best player on the Thunder roster, and probably a better one than Harden would become.
As for MKG's fit, he would effectively give the Thunder a more offensively talented Thabo Sefolosha who, depending on the lineup, could play shooting guard and small forward. As a shooting guard, he would have the size to bully opponents and the quickness to stay in front of them on defense. He would also be a great rebounder for the position.
This would also give the Thunder a very big lineup with the 7-foot Durant at small forward. Whenever Durant needed a break, MKG could be moved to small forward or to power forward; here Kidd-Gilchrist would be too fast for many of his opposites.
MKG's versatility is much greater than Harden's in this sense, and while not a reason to make the trade, it would go a long way to negating the types of "small" lineups that have become common.
The Thunder should do its utmost to resign Harden to a deal that will not kill its bank balance. He is a very good player who will only get better, and already has great chemistry with the rest of the team. The fact is that the Thunder are a championship caliber team with him, even before drafting Perry Jones III and with Eric Maynor injured and out of the lineup. The Thunder should try to retain this team for the long run, because with it they will probably win big at least once.
However, if this is impossible, the Thunder need to capitalize on the assets they have in Harden by moving him next season. To my mind, the best deal would be for Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. The future with him may be less certain, but it should be just as rosy.