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?