It is no secret that over a three-year period, Thunder GM Sam Presti drafted four legitimate star players who all happened to win a gold or silver medal at the Olympics. The rarity of such successful drafting over such a short period of time is near unheard of. Despite the brilliance of those drafts Presti always knew the day would come when all four players would be looking for new contracts and that their spotless cap situation would become iffy. Now after signing power forward and shot blocking ace, Serge Ibaka for 4 years and 48 million dollars, three-fourths of their under 25 core are all signed through at least 2015-16 and he now joins Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook as Thunder stars who have the contracts they have longed for. The last player looking for his new deal is the final player drafted, James Harden and as important as the
reigning Sixth Man of the Year is to the Thunder, they have some difficult decisions to make in the next year.
Presti always knew that keeping a clean cap would be necessary in keeping this team together, but Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka will be making around 44.5 million in 2013-14, which is the first year that Harden’s contract would be added to the cap. Since Harden will demand at least the 12 million a season Ibaka just received, that number would move up to 56.5 million dollars, for just 4 players, where the salary cap will be around 59 million and the tax will be at around 71 million. This means that the Thunder will almost certainly be a tax team for the foreseeable future, which is something that many do not believe they are willing to be. The Thunder may be forced to trade Harden rather than lose him for nothing, but if they do keep him, they will have difficulty putting any sort of roster around them. Although they are a great team where veterans may win a ring, they will not flock to Oklahoma City like they do Miami, New York and Los Angeles, for the simple fact that they have to live in
So the choice is simply, have four exceptional young players and nothing behind them, or three exceptional players and a chance at building a solid team around them. The team will certainly amnesty Kendrick Perkins after next season which will open up room, but as it stands now, if Harden signs for 12 million a year like Ibaka, in 2013-14 his and Ibaka’s contracts will both kick in for the first year. That will leave them with about less than four million to stay under the salary cap and 16 million until they hit the tax threshold. If Harden does sign for 12 million dollars per year and the team amnesties Perkins, they will have over about 85 million dollars in salary for the 2013-14 season. Of course there are little moves here and there that could lower the cost, but in all likelihood they will be a tax team.
The choice is up to Presti and the Thunder, James Harden is a fantastic player and could be a first option on many teams, but the cost of signing him to a long-term contract could really restrict the Thunder and their cap for many years. So the question is quite simple, is James Harden worth it? We shall see quite soon.