The Thunder should definitely re-sign James Harden. I mean, c'mon, he's an All-Star, Olympic Gold Medalist, and might be the best sixth-man in the league. The Thunder should just pay him what he wants so they can win multiple NBA titles.
That seems to be the popular opinion regarding Harden's contract situation.
Unfortunately, that's not exactly how this works. The NBA is a business, the Thunder is a business, and the No. 1 reason businesses exist is to make profit.
The ongoing James Harden saga involves two sides with a big decision to make, and I'll get to both sides, but right now it's important to understand a little background information.
The first thing you must realize is that the NBA is a poorly-run league.
An overwhelming majority of the league's franchises lost money last season, including the superstar-laden champion Miami Heat.
There are way too many teams for the talent that exists; leaving most franchises stuck in mediocrity and forced to play David Stern's unfixed ping-pong extravaganza hoping to get lucky. It is unfixed, right?
Out of the 30 NBA franchises, let's be generous and say that five teams have a chance to win the 2013 NBA Finals. The Miami Heat, Oklahoma City Thunder, Los Angeles Lakers, San Antonio Spurs, and I'll be kind enough to throw the Boston Celtics into that mix, even though they have little chance in my eyes.
I don't want to hear about the Clippers, or Memphis, or Denver, or Indiana. Those teams are really good, but are clear second-tier teams that can't hang with the contenders when push comes to shove.
Five teams have a chance, out of 30. And Stern wonders why so many organizations are losing money…
Unless you have significant star power in this league, you're completely out of luck.
Basketball isn't like football or baseball; where there are more athletes competing at once. Football has 11 players and baseball has nine. With only five players playing at one time, the impact a superstar has on the game is twice as high in basketball as in either of those.
Oklahoma City is lucky enough to have one of those few superstars in Kevin Durant, and that keeps the Thunder in the title discussion. If Portland had selected Durant in 2007, Miami had taken Russell Westbrook in 2008 and Memphis had picked James Harden in 2009, the Thunder could have easily ended up with any or all of Greg Oden, Michael Beasley and Hasheem Thabeet; a core that would have already run Sam Presti right out of town.
But none of that happened and OKC hit back-to-back-to-back home runs in what might be the most impressive three-year draft run in NBA history.
Another big reason OKC is in the title discussion is because of the excellent play of reigning Sixth Man of the Year James Harden. The six-foot-five Harden has the court vision and ball-handling ability of a point guard with the size, strength and shooting ability of a wing man. His stoic demeanor combined with his ability to hit big shots makes him a terrorizing force off the bench. His majestic beard makes Thunder fans feel warm and fuzzy, while inducing fear and intimidation to his enemies.
With that said, let's discuss those impending decisions.
Harden has been a key part of what has become a perennial NBA title contender. OKC is unquestionably better with him on the team, and management should do everything in its power to come to terms on a contract extension. But if they can't reach an agreement, don't blame the Thunder, and don't blame Harden.
Harden is a great basketball player, but he isn't a superstar, and doesn't deserve to get paid like one.
The NBA has lost control of its salary cap situation. Without boring you to death, I'll just say that unless the league changes its salary cap structure, players like Eric Gordon, Roy Hibbert and Brook Lopez will continue to receive "max" contracts just like real superstars, and ruin the market value for every other team in the league.
Superstars have the capability to lead a franchise to an NBA title as the No. 1 option. The Thunder has that guy in Kevin Durant. James Harden shouldn't get paid what Kevin Durant gets paid for the same reason Chris Bosh shouldn't get paid what LeBron does: He isn't as good.
But the fact is, Bosh does get paid what LeBron does, and while it led the Heat to a championship, it also led them into the financial red. If that's okay with Heat owner Micky Arison, great, but don't blame Clay Bennett if he's not okay with a similar situation in OKC.
Arison told CNBC this year that owning the Heat is a "hobby of passion, not a business" for him. He also told them that his Heat has lost money 11 of its past 12 seasons.
Arison's motives for ownership are admirable, but rare. For every free-spender like Mark Cuban or Ted Turner, there are 10 Donald Sterlings. Not too many owners are willing to say "to hell with profits, let's just win."
Bennett will have to decide whether to overspend on Harden due to the bloated market price, or draw a line in the sand regarding paying second-tier stars the same as franchise players. If he does decide to keep Harden with a max deal, which would pay him roughly $14 million, the Thunder will go head-first into the luxury tax. That would hit harder than ever considering the NBA's new financial penalties for entering the tax. If he decides not to offer that money, and Harden isn't willing to take less, the Thunder will look into sign-and-trade scenarios to get max value back for what they would lose.
James Harden will have a decision to make too, and unless OKC offers him a max deal, one of two things is going to happen.
Either Harden voluntarily takes less money, stays in Oklahoma City and contends for a title for the foreseeable future, or he takes a max deal, goes to some random team, and watches his career tumble into irrelevancy a la Joe Johnson.
Like Harden, Johnson was a former top-10 pick and rising star. Johnson was a key scorer for the Phoenix Suns in the mid-2000's, providing a scoring and shooting spark to a loaded roster (same as Harden). In Johnson's final season with the Suns, he scored 17 points per game (same as Harden) and shot a staggering 48 percent from 3-point range, which was raised to 56 percent in the playoffs (Harden's regular season career high is 39 percent).
After that 2005 season, Johnson knew he could get big money on the open market, (he was a restricted FA, like Harden) and when the Hawks threw a $70 million contract at him, the Suns declined not to overpay, and opted for a sign-and-trade deal to send him to Atlanta for Boris Diaw and two 1st-round picks.
Johnson got the money and the spotlight he wanted, but despite playing with the likes of Josh Smith, Marvin Williams and Al Horford, never made it past the second round of the playoffs.
I am in no way telling Harden what he should or shouldn't do. He will make his decision based off what is best for him and his friends and family.
All I'm saying is, if Harden leaves, don't get mad at him for doing what he deems as best, and don't get mad at Bennett for not voluntarily losing money in order to win. Simply understand that this is a business, and you can't always get what you want.