The Oklahoma City Thunder will be faced with a monumental decision sooner rather than later.
There's certainly no dearth of interesting topics surrounding Oklahoma City this year, such Kevin Durant's potential ascension to LeBron James' chief rival, or how a young Thunder team will cope with the bitter pill of losing in the NBA Finals last year.
The toughest and most intriguing decision OKC has coming up is what to do with key cog and potential 2013 free-agent James Harden.
After the no-brainer of giving a max extension to Durant, the reasonable four-year, $48 million contract bestowed upon Serge Ibaka and the risky but necessary five-year, $80 million deal given to Russell Westbrook the Thunder aren't exactly flush with disposable income.
So, what should be done with Harden, an integral part of an elite squad that came closer than 28 other teams to winning rings extremely early in their development?
There are essentially two options: sign him as soon as possible for a near-max deal and be very strapped for cash for several years, or let the best sixth man in the league walk while getting zero compensation?
It's a tough question, not likely to be answered for at least a year or two.
If Harden is re-signed, the Thunder retain a very important and very good player for a slightly inflated but reasonable cost but diminish any cap flexibility they had. This brings up two main issues.
Can a small-market team like Oklahoma woo significantly-skilled free agents for the mid-level exception or less? The coach and roster makeup say yes, but the locale says no.
What happens if a key role player such as Nick Collison or Thabo Sefolosha are lost for the season? With cap room, OKC could facilitate a trade and take on additional money in exchange for a quality player or sign someone outright for more money. With Harden extended, those two options diminish, and the Thunder will likely be stuck with a 12th man or D-League call-up playing significant minutes.
If Harden is just too expensive for the relatively modest pocketbook of the Thunder and/or someone desperate for a big name offers him a max deal, the Thunder gain flexibility and lose arguably the third-best player on a team good enough to go toe-to-toe with the juggernaut Heat.
Though the rationale was different, Mark Cuban and the Mavericks let defensive stallion Tyson Chandler walk after they successfully captured a championship, a decision which can be reasonably concluded was in an effort to land Deron Williams and/or Dwight Howard in Dallas.
Cuban's team struck out on both big names, and the Mavericks took a significant step backward the following year, losing to the Thunder in the first round of the 2012 NBA Playoffs. Dallas had to haphazardly slap together inflated offers for players like O.J. Mayo, Darren Collison, Elton Brand and Chris Kaman.
These are each good players in their own right, but does this seem like a championship-caliber team to you? It sure doesn't to me.
The Rockets ended up in even worse shape after full-court-pressing for a superstar and whiffing on him.
Clearly trying to put together an attractive package of young players and draft picks to nab Howard from Orlando, Houston never was able to consummate a deal and was left holding the bag, which contained three mid-range draft picks.
Seeing the shambles Houston and Dallas are in should Thunder GM Sam Presti and coach Scott Brooks some pause before they decide the price tag on Harden is too high.
They know exactly what this team and this sensationally-bearded player are capable of: multiple trips to the NBA Finals at least, and multiple championships along with the designation of "dynasty" at most.
Though it will cause them to be severely hamstrung, the Thunder should pony up the dough and give Harden an extension as soon as possible. Barring significant injury, they have the virtual guarantee of an All-Star-caliber sixth man.
If Harden is not brought back, all the guarantees, virtual and actual, are gone.
Why not take the sure thing?
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