The Thunder maintain a philosophy that the individual sacrifices for the whole. In this case, that would have meant Harden agreeing to accept less than the maximum amount for a four-year extension, which was $60 million. Reportedly the Thunder's final offer was in the range of $55 million for four years.
When you factor in the extra year that Harden would get with a max deal, he would be leaving upwards of $24 million on the table (via Tom Ziller) to stay with Oklahoma City. I don't care how much James Harden makes, $24 million is a lot to torch. Outside of hedge funds, people do not part with this sum lightly.
Oklahoma City could have a case for why James Harden should sacrifice that amount of money—that is, if it was planning on promoting him. But according to Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo!, James Harden was expected to remain a "non starter."
Think about that. The expectation in Oklahoma City was that this 23-year-old should give up $24 million to back up the likes of Thabo Sefolosha for the next four years or so. Perhaps you find the "starter" distinction arbitrary, but Harden was playing a mere 31 minutes per night after getting in the game as Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook trundled to the bench.
The bearded one isn't Manu Ginobili—he has proven durable, flying elbows aside. I understand the OKC justification for bringing Harden on after those whose offense he might overlap with leave, but it's hard to keep an All-Star talent in a perpetual glass case. It's all the more difficult to explain to Harden when the starter is Thabo Sefolosha.
I do not know if James Harden cares about starting, but it sure was interesting to hear him talk up "more minutes," "more scoring opportunities" and "more opportunities with the ball" in his introductory Houston Rockets press conference. It's one thing to say you're fine with a sixth man role and another to live with afterthought status.
If you don't hail from overseas, it is rather difficult (nearly impossible) to make the Hall of Fame from the bench. We think about guys who play less than 36 minutes differently—just look at how Kevin Garnett's continued defensive brilliance doesn't get the credit it deserves.
Many of those who rip James Harden for giving up on the "legacy" that comes with "rings" would surely give almost all accolades to Kevin Durant in the event of such an OKC championship. That's how it goes in our, "Whose Team Is It?!" sports culture. We reduce the credit down to one guy, making valuable contributors seem like coattail clingers. Good luck getting properly acknowledged from the bench.
As an added bonus, the backup role doesn't quite spare you criticism in the event of poor play. Harden learned this the brutal way after a mediocre NBA Finals.
It's a bit awkward to be a 23-year-old in the role that was meant to preserve Manu's ankles. In theory, the Thunder should be cashing Harden out to accept such terms. They didn't, and now he's gone. Giving up $24 million to remain a non-starter sounds like a non-starter to me.