James Harden

Biggest question left in training camp: James Harden’s extension

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The question is not if James Harden wants to stay in Oklahoma City, he has said many times he wants to be part of this team as it tries to win a ring. The question is not if Oklahoma City wants him back, they know without him they may not be title contenders. The question isn’t if he loves the fans or the fans love him, just look at all the fake beards in the stands at a Thunder game.

No, the question as always is money.

By Oct. 31 the Thunder have to make a decision — offer Harden a max extension (four years, $58 million) and eat the tax that will come in a few years with that; or don’t offer an extension and let him become a restricted free agent next summer where another team (or teams) will make that same max offer to him. Then Thunder can match those offers, but the price is set.

Oklahoma City seems to hope Harden will give them a discount, he doesn’t seem inclined to do that. But the Thunder made their bed — they games Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook max extensions in past years, then reached a four year, $50 million extension with Serge Ibaka this past summer. When they did that, they knew full well what the price — and tax — for Harden would be. Marc Stein at ESPN explains the Thunder’s financial decision this way:

Re-signing Harden to a max extension, then, would come at a debilitating cost. The team already has $70.8 million on the books for 2013-14. Add in a big Harden raise to, say, $13 million, then factor in the projected tax threshold of $70 million, and the league would ding the Thunder with penalties of $28 million during that season. Hmm. Harden salary: $13 million. Resulting tax: $28 million. It’d be like getting one Harden for the price of two.

Stein’s piece gives a false binary choice for Harden of being the next Joe Johnson — the star who demanded the max, left Phoenix for Atlanta and saw his reputation slip — or Manu Ginobili, who took less to win rings and stay in San Antonio. Those are certainly not the only two outcomes.

To me this comes back to the Thunder and their ownership — they chose to move out of Seattle to Oklahoma City, a smaller television market with less potential for local media revenue. They knew the finances of their move. They knew that Harden was a max player and that other teams would line up for him when OKC gave Westbrook and Ibaka their extensions. Thunder management and ownership knew the tax implications that would be coming their way.

The Thunder made their choices, they are not blameless in this. Harden has a right with his career to make his choices, to make as much as he can. The Thunder have their right to decide what they will and will not pay. But neither side gets to say the other side is fully at fault.

The Thunder owners have said they would pay the tax in the past. We’ll see if they really meant it. And while Harden is under no obligation to take less (the Thunder’s other stars didn’t) it also might be the wise move for his career.

By the Oct. 31 extension deadline we will have answers. And if the answer is no extension, there will be a lot more questions. Starting with: Should the Thunder trade Harden and get something for him while they can?

Aaron Gordon both legs over the mascot, ball-under-the-legs dunk (VIDEO)

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TORONTO — Zach LaVine won the NBA All-Star Saturday Dunk Contest, but in an epic night for my money this was the single best dunk.

Orlando’s Aaron Gordon broke ground with this one — guys have jumped over mascots and other players before (and a Kia hood), but by splitting their legs apart. Gordon just put both legs over Stuff (that’s the mascot’s name, Stuff the Magic Dragon, I don’t make this up) — and took the ball off the mascot’s head, went under his legs, and threw it down.

Insane.

Gordon deserved a trophy for his performance in this dunk contest.

Zach LaVine edges Aaron Gordon in epic, insane Dunk Contest

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TORONTO — That. Was. Amazing.

In a dunk contest that will go down with the all-time greats — Jordan vs. Dominique, Dr. J from the free throw line — Minnesota’s Zach LaVine defended his dunk contest title. Barely. Because Orlando’s Aaron Gordon was doing dunks nobody had ever seen before.

And LaVine was bringing it just as hard.

The two men advanced to the finals — dismissing Will Barton and Andre Drummond, each of whom had good dunks — and that was when it got wild.

There were four second-round dunks, and four perfect scores of 50. (That was in spite of Shaq, who wanted to give nines for second attempts.)

“I was prepared for four (second round dunks),” LaVine said. “To tell the truth, he came with something that no one else has done. He did two dunks that were just crazy with the mascots, jumping over them. We just kept pushing each other until the last dunk. I’ve got to give it up to my boy Will “The Thrill” Barton. It’s because of him I think I won. Because he said try to go from the free-throw line. I’d never done that before, and I just tried it. So I guess it was a great dunk. I think it was the best one ever.”

The Air Canada Centre crowd was exploding with every dunk. The two men went to a dunk-off — and got two more 50s.

“If I knew it was going to be like that, I would have prepared better and we would have been here dunking all night, going back 50 after 50 after 50 after 50,” Gordon said. “We would have been here all night. I didn’t know it was going to be like that. I was just hoping Zach was going to miss, and it wasn’t going to happen. You could see as my facial expressions when Zach dunks it, it’s like okay, that’s a 50. Like I know we’re going to have to dunk again.”

So they went to a second-round of overtime, where LaVine put up another 50 and won the contest.

Gordon was close to perfect.

Zach LaVine can flat-out fly.

Magic’s Aaron Gordon with the over-the-mascot mad dunk

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TORONTO — Aaron Gordon was giving Zach LaVine all he could handle in the Dunk Contest.

He blew the lid off the Air Canada Centre with this dunk in the first round — and it wasn’t even his best dunk of the night. Never seen this before.

This dunk contest was awesome, so much more video to come.

Zach LaVine opens Slam Dunk Contest title defense with spectacular behind-the-back slam (VIDEO)

during the BBVA Compass Rising Stars Challenge 2016 at Air Canada Centre on February 12, 2016 in Toronto, Canada. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.
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TORONTO — Zach LaVine clearly heard all the talk that Aaron Gordon or Will Barton had a chance to upset him in the Slam Dunk Contest. He came out ready to prove his superiority right off the bat. This behind-the-back slam was his first attempt of the night:

Even better was the reaction, both from Andre Drummond and from LaVine’s Minnesota teammates: