Commentary

James Harden's hairy situation

The future of OKC's star shooting guard hangs over Thunder training camp

Updated: October 19, 2012, 11:35 PM ET
By Marc Stein | ESPN.com

James HardenAP Photo/Sue OgrockiJames Harden's contract talks loom large in OKC, where the Thunder try to stay focused on the team.

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Russell Westbrook needed only to catch a fraction of the conversation, after spotting Kevin Durant in the hallway cornered by one of those nosy media pests, to know he wanted no part of it.

Just outside the door to the home team's locker room at Chesapeake Energy Arena, seeing Durant's predicament and then hearing where the discussion was going, Westbrook never broke stride as he speedwalked away from the interrogation.

"Same questions for 30 days," Westbrook said with an unmistakable tone of annoyance, shaking his head as he left poor Durant behind.

Westbrook isn't wrong. There are plenty of worthy developments at Thunder camp this month that merit inspection, whether it's the more vocal leadership that team insiders say is coming from KD and Russ … or the promising return from an ACL tear by backcourt stabilizer Eric Maynor … or the way Perry Jones III forgot he was a rookie who plummeted on draft night by starting his drive out at the 3-point line in Tuesday's preseason clash with Charlotte and taking Tyrus Thomas for a ride all the way to the rim -- needing only two dribbles -- before rising up to throw it down over Thomas' futile stretch with his right hand.

Eventually, though, James Harden's uncertain future becomes the focus again, as it's basically been in Loud City from the moment big man Serge Ibaka agreed to a four-year deal worth nearly $50 million in mid-August.

Thunder players, by all accounts, have blocked the chatter out pretty well leading up to the 11:59 p.m. ET Oct. 31 deadline for OKC and Harden to reach terms on a contract extension that would prevent the NBA's reigning Sixth Man Award winner from becoming a restricted free agent on July 1.

On the encouraging side, Thunder veteran Nick Collison reports that he's seen little evidence of lingering fatigue in Durant, Westbrook or Harden after their summer exertions with Team USA that came so soon after OKC's fade in the NBA Finals against Miami.

"Kevin's still staying after practice and playing one-on-one," Collison says. "These guys still have a lot of energy. They've been really sharp."

Said Harden: "I think about [the contract] every once in a while, but I'm really focused on how I can improve my body and what I've got to bring to the table for the Thunder to win games. … Obviously it's something to really think about, but I try to do other things to keep my mind off it.

"We do a great job of hanging out and really just enjoying each other's company to where I don't really think about it."

Yet there's always a media intruder, sooner or later, who comes around to dredge up the contract talk.

"The 'James Situation,' we really try to let that take care of itself," Durant said. "All we focus on is getting better as a team every single day. He's not bringing it into the locker room.

"It's a tough situation, delicate, but guys just come in and work every day and not really worry about it."

Said Thunder center Kendrick Perkins, unable to stifle all of his concern: "It's hard, man. Any time you're dealing with your livelihood, trying to get stuff behind you and get stuff done, it's definitely hard. All I do is pray for him and hope they can hurry up and conclude this situation so we can move forward.

"But at the end of the day," Perkins continued, "it's hard on both sides dealing with this. The thing is, they'll work it out either way. For now, he's a Thunder player, and hopefully he'll be one in the future."

Common sense says Harden ultimately will stay right where he is. With the Thunder so close to a championship, and with a core of stars so young and tight, how could they risk derailing themselves now by not finding a way to get their highly efficient lefty wild card re-signed, no matter how daunting the luxury-tax consequences sound? Seriously.

If the Thunder and Harden can't agree to terms by month's end -- which numerous executives around the league say would then guarantee that OKC must match a max offer sheet in July if it wants to do a deal later rather than now -- would they really dare to unsettle such a tight-knit group by turning around and dealing Harden before the February trade deadline like they did in 2011 when an extension couldn't be hammered out with Jeff Green?

History likewise suggests that a deal will get done this month because the Green negotiation is pretty much the only one that didn't come together for the Thunder. Since the team's relocation to Oklahoma City, Durant and Westbrook have been re-signed early, Scotty Brooks finally became one of the league's best-paid coaches in July after drawn-out negotiations, and a slew of role players also have been signed to extensions of varying sizes (Perkins, Collison, Thabo Sefolosha and even Nazr Mohammed) before Ibaka got his long-term security. So no one can say the Thunder don't spend.

[+] EnlargeThunder
Layne Murdoch/Getty ImagesWill the Thunder keep their "core four" intact?

The issue here, however, is the NBA's M-word -- M for max.

If Harden is intent on scoring the biggest four-year deal he can get, it looks as if he almost certainly will have to leave town to find it. The common denominator in essentially every extension the Thunder have handed out is that there's an element of San Antonio-style giveback in there somewhere.

Unlike pretty much every player of similar stature, Durant forfeited the right to insist on an early termination clause when he landed his first NBA megadeal in summer 2010. When Westbrook received his own extension before the start of last season, one of the key clinchers was his willingness to sign for only 25 percent of the salary cap, when the league's new labor agreement -- thanks to what's frequently referred to as the Derrick Rose Rule -- later would have entitled Westbrook to 30 percent of the cap.

All indications are that the Thunder want Harden to make a similar concession to at least slightly ease the forthcoming financial crunch that -- thanks to the NBA's far more onerous luxury-tax scale that will start with the 2013-14 season -- threatens to double the payroll of the nearly $60 million OKC spent last season.

How much less than the max does that mean? That's not completely clear, with less than two weeks to go before the extension buzzer, but ESPN.com's Tom Haberstroh -- in a piece for ESPN The Magazine's NBA preview edition -- smartly likens Harden's plight to the choices that faced two up-and-coming guards nearly a decade ago: Joe Johnson and Manu Ginobili.

In 2005, when he was 24, Johnson forced his way out of a starry Phoenix quartet with Steve Nash, Amar'e Stoudemire and Shawn Marion to become Atlanta's main man when the Suns' offers consistently fell short of max territory. Johnson spent the next seven seasons advancing no further than the second round of the playoffs and, more recently, trying (and failing) to hush the critics panning his $126 million contract from summer 2010 as maybe the league's worst.

The summer before, Ginobili consented to stay with Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and coach Gregg Popovich for well below what the Denver Nuggets were offering, keeping the Spurs' core intact. It's the same Spurs core that also happens to be the Thunder's blueprint, thanks as much to the fact that OKC architect Sam Presti learned how to be a general manager in San Antonio's front office as to the similarities the franchises share in terms of market size.

Of course, Ginobili was already 27 that summer, with a championship ring, the first of three. Those factors surely made it a little easier to stay in San Antonio for less.

Harden is just 23. He's coming off a highly disappointing performance in the Finals, having managed a mere 12.4 points per game against the Heat, but sources have maintained for weeks that Houston, Dallas and Phoenix are nonetheless prepared to offer the four-year max (worth an estimated $60 million) to the former Arizona State star, should he reach restricted free agency in July. You can likewise assume that other interested suitors will emerge if the Harden uncertainty lasts that long.

The closest thing to a prediction here, if you're looking for that, is that Harden will go the Ginobili route and ultimately agree to an extension by Halloween for something less than the max. Knowing how close he is to Durant and Westbrook, how badly Harden wants to stay, and how much they all want to hold off the Spurs and star-studded Lakers just to get another title shot against the Heat, gets me leaning that way.

Another clue: On media day at the start of October, Harden told local reporters he was confident a deal could get done before the deadline and disputed the notion that he had definitively adopted a max-or-bust stance, insisting that he was willing to "sacrifice."

Yet the only certainty at this stage is that things are getting serious. Negotiations are said to be trending toward intense with just 12 days to go, and Presti -- who did field Harden questions at two news conferences in September -- told ESPN.com this week that he would prefer to defer any further comment on the matter until after the Halloween deadline.

"We've been very up front and transparent with everybody that we have some inherent challenges that we face as an organization as a result of the new collective bargaining agreement," Presti said Sept. 11. "I know we'd love to have him here. I think James would like to be here, as well. But at the end of the day … you have to find a way to make it work for everybody."

On Sept. 26, Presti added: "I wish I could tell you how it would end up."

He's not alone there. In the same hallway where Westbrook zoomed away from Durant's interview, Harden stopped first to chat, stressed that his "focus is on this upcoming season and having a great one," and acknowledged with a hearty "yes" that he can't wait for Nov. 1.

"Everything will be cleared," Harden said, "and back to just playing basketball."

That's certainly one outcome. But if October ends without an extension for Harden, it'll raise a list of messy questions longer than the most famous beard in basketball.

Marc Stein | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com
• Senior NBA writer for ESPN.com
• Began covering the NBA in 1993-94
• Also covered soccer, tennis and the Olympics