You're not wrong, there is absolutely nothing going on in the NBA these days. The top headlines are all about Mark Cuban acting like Mark Cuban and players you've kind of heard of signing non-guaranteed camp contracts. Beyond that, nada.
Save for, potentially, one strain of worry with the Western champs. The Oklahoma City Thunder has until Oct. 31 to sign guard James Harden to a contract extension. If the two sides can't agree on an extension by then, Harden will become a restricted free agent next summer, sure to be offered as much if not more money on the open market than he could make with an extension from the Thunder this fall. That's Harden's impetus for holding off on such a deal.
Oklahoma City's influence? If Harden signs for the amount several free agent suitors have him pegged for, they'll be paying well over $60 million a year in a couple of seasons just for the team's four-star core of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Harden, and Serge Ibaka. That's rarely good financial sense for any team, even the ones in Los Angeles and New York (though three of those four, apparently, are trying it out), and certainly not good business for a team located in one of the NBA's smaller markets.
We think. And, for now, Thunder center Kendrick Perkins thinks Harden's return is a fait accompli. Perkins said as much to reporters after appearing at an NBA Cares event in an OKC-area middle school on Wednesday:
"We're doing good. We're making positive steps going forward," Perkins said of the organization's off-season. "We got coach (Scott) Brooks locked in. We got Serge (Ibaka) locked in. And we're getting close with James, and we're getting close to keeping our unit together. And we're still hungry.
"Once James gets here it's nothing to be said," Perkins said. "He'll see his family and that's all he needs. So once he sees everybody's faces that's enough said."
Of course, this is what athletes always say.
It's a "well, duh" situation before the deal — surely things will stay the same and everyone will be happy — and it's a "well, duh" situation after the deal. Because it's a business, see, and James has to do what's best for his family. Either way, whether the player stays or goes, the athletes are the know-alls, here. They'll tell you as much.
And, for various reasons, we think that the Oklahoma City Thunder have no idea what they want to do with James Harden. Without denigrating Harden's brilliant play, we understand why if this were the case, and why they might want to retain options beyond late October.
For one, things can change quite a bit between the end of one offseason and the start of another. The potential suitors that Harden might have in mind for the 2013 offseason could sign off on a series of deals that nobody could have anticipated, jettisoning that cap space along the way. This might not be likely, or bankable, but the NBA is always full of February surprises.
Secondly, there is always the chance that Harden could be moved on for a floor-spacer that makes around what James is set to collect this season ($5.8 million), along with some draft picks that the team can exploit employ on cheaper rookie scale deals; deals like Harden's current contract. If the compensation is correct, this might be the best move for the team — even if the team still badly needs his shooting even with Durant's presence.
The issue there would be the break in chemistry, as the team goes from a contributing All-Star to a replacement that at best approximates some of Harden's attributes while shaking up the core of the friendship alongside the on-court gloriousness.
And then, weirdly, the issue now is whether Harden is worth all the trouble to begin with.
Again, his is a game worth digging. Anyone with a passing knowledge of advanced stats can tell you that a 22-year old 6-3 guard that came through with a 66 percent True Shooting Percentage is worth hanging on to. Mention his good-enough defense, and it can be countered with those 49 percent (from the field), 39 percent (from long range), and 84 percent (from the line) marks from a guy who is no one-dimensional shooter. Harden can create his own shot, and finish with an efficiency that was unmatched by anyone at the guard position last year.
At age 22. We have to keep remind ourselves of that.
But does that mean max money, to any team much less the Thunder? The problem is that Eric Gordon just took in the same contract. Brook Lopez, too. Roy Hibbert as well; though his ability to change the game on both sides of the ball sets him apart from the previous three max-grabbers in our eyes. Even with two lockouts and the implementation of the salary ceiling in the years since 1998, the NBA still has an issue in doling these things out.
Perkins' comments, as some have noted in the hours since his impromptu press conference, are a little ironic considering what could be his significant role in all of this. Because Perk signed a contract extension in February of 2011, he is prone to the NBA's amnesty clause. The Thunder have a luxury once the nasty luxury tax penalties hit in 2013-14 with Ibaka around and Nick Collison already on staff making one-third the league's average salary. If Harden sticks, it's very possible Perkins will be cut even if the Thunder will still be shooting over the luxury tax (just to round out a roster) with Kendrick heading elsewhere.
Of course, the same luxury applies to Harden once you figure Russell Westbrook's passable (if not All-Star worthy) acumen at shooting guard, the sound work of the returning and respected Eric Maynor at point, and potential ascension of youngsters Reggie Jackson and Perry Jones. This is the "unfortunate" situation that the team's front office will have to work through, thanks to years of smart drafting and clever (especially in the case of Collison) contract wrangling.
And it's what they'll have to deal with between now and Halloween, as they determine Harden's future on the squad. Everyone wants the guy to stick around, and Thunder players (mindful of that sold out stadium that is full from October to June) think the team's finances can support a payroll like this. The Thunder's core might not be as brilliant as the ones we see in Miami or Los Angeles, but it's not far off; and the trade off on that disparity is depth that far exceeds what the Lakers and Heat boast.
The team has a month and a half to figure the extension out. We wouldn't be surprised, Perkins' assurances aside and no matter the result, if it takes until July of 2013 for the saga to end.
Good thing. Because right now the NBA is just about all out of sagas.