After James Harden carved up the Mavericks for 29 points in a series-clinching win Saturday, a reporter had the temerity to ask Russell Westbrook if he thought Harden was a max contract player. Clearly caught off guard, Westbrook – who inked an $80 million extension in January – danced around the question the same way he skirts around defenders, and then told the reporter, “no more questions for you, bro.”
It’s understandable that Westbrook wouldn’t want to touch the Harden contract situation. It’s a tenuous one. With Harden, OKC probably has the 2nd best three-pronged attack in the league (Miami’s 1st). But how long can they keep a shooting guard who is rapidly becoming one of the league’s best? It seems highly unlikely (impossible?) OKC would be able to retain Durant, Westbrook and Harden. Kendrick Perkins has a weighty contract and they’ll have to pay Serge Ibaka big money, too. This July, the Thunder can offer extensions to Harden and Ibaka. If neither signs an extension, they’ll both be restricted free agents in the summer of 2013.
So there are two questions at play here. 1) Is James Harden worth a max contract? and 2) Will James Harden get a max contract?
1) I don’t think Harden is worthy of a max contract. How could anyone say for sure? When you’ve got Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook on your team, and the defenses are geared to stop those two – both were in the top 5 in scoring this season – yes, Harden is going to be difficult to defend. (If you’re into the “PER” stat – and I’m not – the following guards had a higher PER than Harden this season – CP3, Wade, Ginobili, Rose, Westbrook, Parker, Kobe, Irving, Curry.) I liken Harden’s situation to that of Manu Ginobili – excellent off the bench, provides pop when one or both of your stars need rest, and is invaluable late in games. Ginobili fell into a great spot in San Antonio, and he probably could have gotten a little more money to play elsewhere, but would rather be a 6th man on a title contender every year. Would Harden stay in OKC for less money to win a title or two (or more) with Durant and Westbrook?
2) If Harden passes on the extension, who might have deep enough pockets to offer him big money in 2013 when he’s a restricted free agent? Charlotte will eventually need to add a scoring guard. With Anthony Davis, would that be an attractive team? If Cleveland goes big in the draft, how about a Kyrie Irving/James Harden backcourt? Could Dallas make a play for Harden in 2013 if it has money because the Mavs couldn’t sign Deron Williams? Keeping the timetable in mind, Harden is from California … how about the Lakers or Clippers? Just tossing out some other destinations, for fun – Orlando to play with Dwight Howard? Minnesota with Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio? Just something to remember – the Thunder appear to be on their way to the NBA finals. Of those seven potential destinations, three are in the lottery now, one got swept, another is about to get bounced, and the Lakers and Clippers are kind of fantasy options at this point given their cap situations.