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?

Ben Simmons targeting Friday vs. Hawks to return from calf strain

Toronto Raptors v Brooklyn Nets
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Ben Simmons has missed the Nets’ last three games with knee pain tied to a left calf strain, and he will be out Wednesday, too, when Brooklyn takes on Charlotte.

However, he plans to return on Friday (Dec. 9) against the Hawks.

Simmons was adjusting to a new role in Brooklyn. In Philadelphia he was a point-forward with the ball in his hands playing off Joel Embiid (at least at first), but in Brooklyn the ball needed to be in the hands of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in the halfcourt. Simmons is playing more small-ball five, and is asked to be aggressive and attack when he gets the ball — not shoot jumpers — and to push the rock in transition. It took a while for Simmons to settle into that space, but he seemed to in games against Philadelphia (11 points, 11 assists), Toronto (14 points, six assists) and Indiana (20 points). Then the injuries hit.

Brooklyn sits at 13-12, with a middle-of-the-pack offense and defense for the season. While there are doubts about the ceiling for this team, it has a talent level that should be better than this record, it’s just been beset by injuries, controversy causing Kyrie Irving to miss time, and a coaching change. The Nets have yet to hit their stride.

But they could have a clean injury report on Friday night, and maybe that can be the start of this team getting on a run.

Suns, Hawks reportedly show interest in Kuzma trade, Wizards see him as cornerstone

Washington Wizards v Brooklyn Nets
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Kyle Kuzma was the kind of quality, two-way role player the Lakers needed around LeBron James and Anthony Davis to win the 2020 NBA title (the type of player the Lakers wish they had now).

In Washington, his role has been elevated — he’s a 20-point-a-game scorer (20.6 points per game this season, to be precise) who is a key part of generating offense, not just playing off the stars of Bradley Beal and Kristaps Porzingis. As he told Shams Charania of The Athletic:

“As soon as I got traded, I was ready to be more,” Kuzma told The Athletic.

It’s been enough to draw the interest of a couple of teams looking for a trade, Charania adds. The Wizards are not necessarily interested in moving on, however.

Several teams, such as the Atlanta Hawks and Phoenix Suns, have expressed trade interest in Kuzma, according to league sources. By the same token, the Wizards have shown interest in Hawks forward John Collins, and the sides seriously discussed a potential deal last offseason, league sources added…

However, the Wizards’ front office, led by general manager Tommy Sheppard, has made clear that it views Kuzma as a cornerstone moving forward as the franchise has seen him thrive since the mega-trade in the 2021 offseason. The Westbrook trade provided future flexibility and assets for the Wizards, who have been known to be aggressive and active in research across the league.

Kuzma has a $13 million player option for next season that he will unquestionably opt out of, making him a free agent in search of a healthy raise (north of $20 million a year, although expect something more in the ballpark of the four-year, $104 million Jalen Brunson contract). If the Wizards are willing to pay they likely can keep him (they have his Bird rights). But if Washington isn’t sure it wants to pay market value, or if management sees a shifting path for future seasons, it should consider trading Kuzma at the deadline.

If he becomes available, far more teams than the Hawks and Suns would be interested, quality two-way forwards are in demand around the league. Kuzma would have some leverage over where he gets sent because he can leave as a free agent (teams would offer up less if they believed Kuzma would only be a rental for this season).

Magic send Jonathan Isaac to G-League for practice, rehabilitation

2022-2023 Orlando Magic Media Day
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There was a time when it was thought Jonathan Isaac might be the Magic’s next big star.

However, he has not stepped on an NBA court since he was in the bubble (Feb. 8, 2020), then he tore his ACL in August of that year (which came on the heels of missing much of that season with an injury to the same knee). Last March he had a setback and another procedure, and at this point he has missed two full seasons plus the start of this one.

Isaac is still working toward recovery and the Magic have assigned him to the Lakeland Magic of the G-League to get in some practice.

Because NBA teams barely practice during the season — the schedule of games nearly every other day plus travel and recovery doesn’t permit more than film sessions and walk-throughs — these kinds of baseball-style minor league rehab assignments are more and more common.

The story from the Magic’s official website notes this will be the first time Isaac will play 5-on-5 with other players during his rehab, which is a significant step forward.

There is no timeline for his return, but the Magic have him under contract this season for $17.4 million and two more fully guaranteed years at the same price. There is no reason for the franchise to walk away, even if some around the league question if his knees will ever let him back on an NBA court again.

The Magic have found their next star in Paolo Banchero and have built a promising young core, something Isaac — an elite defender before his injuries — should fit in well with. If he can get healthy and back on the court.

Antetokounmpo talks about plans for his 28th birthday while holding Simpsons plush

Los Angeles Lakers v Milwaukee Bucks
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Happy birthday, Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Greek Freak turns 28 today.

After he dropped a casual (for him) 34-13-5 line in the Bucks’ win over the Magic last night, Antetokounmpo discussed his birthday plans. He’s not going out, maybe just dinner, playing with his kids, and once they are asleep… ya know.

I feel safe saying Antetokounmpo is the first NBA player to talk about birthday sex while holding a Homer J. Simpson plush doll.

If you’re asking, why the Simpson doll… why not? Bucks reserve forward Sandro Mamukelashvili won it at Universal Studios, brought it to the game, left it behind in the locker room and Antetokounmpo appropriated it.

In a world where most postgame press conferences are formulaic and filled with cliches it’s good to see a player willing just to be himself and have some fun behind the mic.