No NBA team has a steadier long-term core than the Oklahoma City Thunder. Kevin Durant is a member of the Thunder for the foreseeable future. Russell Westbrook is locked in, provided things don't go sour. Serge Ibaka recently signed a four-year contract extension worth $48 million.
All that remains is the extension of OKC's other other max player: James Harden.
Harden's future with the Thunder will remain uncertain so long as his extension isn't completely formalized, and all the rumor and conjecture in the world can't change that. We can expect plenty of guesswork in the months to come regarding Harden and his basketball fate, but before we get too far ahead of ourselves, it's important that we understand the cause of the dilemma when it comes to Harden's extension.
Efficient to the Point of Incompletion
In order to even be in consideration for a maximum extension, an NBA player has to flash a combination of stable production and impressive potential. Harden has spectacular marks in both regards; the third talent in the Thunder hierarchy isn't at all far behind his two stellar teammates and stands as one of the league's most intriguing prospects going forward.
That's true largely because of his scoring efficiency. The best shots an offense can create on a given possession come at the rim, the free-throw line or the three-point arc, and Harden happens to be incredibly capable of manufacturing shots at each of those three locations. Savvy and athleticism have done well for Harden thus far, but it's his understanding of the game on a conceptual level that has allowed him to post incredible shooting percentages and per-minute scoring marks.
Yet interestingly enough, Harden's natural desire to seek out shot attempts from those three ranges has left an interesting hole in his game. Even with good ball-handling skills and a consistent shooting stroke, Harden has a hard time connecting on mid-range jumpers and shows an outright reluctance to take them—even when open. Harden does a few specific things so tremendously well that any imperfect area of his game manifests itself only as pure potential.
He can be a better pull-up jump-shooter. He can be a better defender. He can fill out his game and, startlingly, be even better and more efficient than he has been thus far. That notion alone makes him an incredibly attractive max-extension candidate.
A Perfect Fit
Exemplary skill alone wouldn't necessarily make Harden the best choice for the Thunder.
Lucky for OKC, Harden slides in perfectly to bridge the gap between Durant and Westbrook, thus marrying the approaches of both players while also deferring to their ball control. Few stars can thrive on such infrequent touches; it's almost unbelievable that Harden can have the command of the game that he does with two teammates near the top of the leaderboard in usage rage, and yet the quality of his play speaks for itself.
It's hard to speak highly enough of Harden, and harder yet to speak highly enough of his specific fit with this team. Before Oklahoma City comes to any decision regarding Harden's future, they should—and will, given what we know of their franchise-wide diligence—consider who could possibly provide a better package of talent and fit.
Why Defer to the Luxury Tax?
The interesting thing about Oklahoma City's dilemma: the primary obstruction to Harden's extension is the non-binding luxury tax.
There's nothing in the tax that would tie up the Thunder's finances completely, but merely a penalty that would rack up under the weight of three max deals and Ibaka's sizable one. Plus, lest we forget: the Thunder would need to keep or cobble together another 10 players or so to field an actual team on top of those massive financial obligations.
That puts OKC in a tough spot financially and would force ownership to swallow a painful luxury-tax bill in order to keep the team intact. But aside from that tax penalty (and the related limitations set forth in the most recent collective bargaining agreement) there's no real deterrent from re-signing or extending Harden.
Locking up a third star would come at a fairly massive cost, but considering the fact that the Thunder lack all that many attractive alternatives, a financial cut alone may not be crippling enough to break up such a strong foundation.