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A House Divided

The Harden Dilemma

The Thunder claiming they are just a poor, small-market team that can't afford James Harden doesn't work in today's NBA

If you Google the words “Oklahoma City” and “dynasty,” 2,270,000 results come up. Change it to “Durant,” “Westbrook” and “dynasty” and that number swells to 2,830,000. Tweaking it to “Thunder” and “dynasty” earns you nearly 7 million results, including headlines like “Why the Emerging Thunder Dynasty Is Precarious” and “Will OKC Thunder Be the NBA’s Next Great Dynasty?” There’s an 87 percent chance that the person in charge of rigging Bleacher Report’s headlines for traffic told his bosses, “Dude, tell our 18-year-old unpaid basketball writers to throw ‘Thunder’ and ‘dynasty’ into their headlines — just trust me.”1

In general, the word “dynasty” gets thrown around too liberally — they don’t happen anymore, regardless of the sport. The last “dynasty” was probably the 1996-2001 Yankees, who appeared in five of six World Series and came within one inning of winning all five. In the NBA’s seven-decade history, we only witnessed four true dynasties: Russell’s Celtics (13 years, 11 titles), Jordan’s Bulls (eight years, six titles), Magic’s Lakers (12 years, nine Finals appearances, five titles)2 and Mikan’s Lakers (six years, five titles), who have to be included even though they thrived before things like “the shot clock,” “dunking” and “multiple black guys on each team.” Bird’s Celtics (seven years, five Finals appearances, three titles) could have snatched the “80s dynasty title” from Magic’s Lakers if Lenny Bias didn’t decide to get high. Duncan’s Spurs (nine years, four titles) never made you feel like “My God, how are we gonna stop those guys?” Shaqobe’s Lakers (five years, four Finals appearances, three titles) became something of a lost dynasty, the guys who blew a chance to own the 2000s because they couldn’t get along. Nobody else is worth mentioning.

It’s hard to imagine another NBA dynasty happening — the league is too talented, too deep and too smart. (You’re right, I got carried away. Let’s tweak that last part to “so much smarter than it was.”) Instead, we’ll see more of a word that doesn’t exist and absolutely should. I’m thinking it’s a hybrid word for “contender” and “dynasty,” something that captures contenders who remained relevant for a significant stretch and won at least one championship.

The word? Dynastender.

(I know, I know … it sounds like a new Jurassic Park ride at Universal Studios. Just bear with me.)

Bird’s Celtics, Duncan’s Spurs and Shaqobe’s Lakers were high-end dynastenders. The Bad Boys Pistons were the ultimate dynastender — they thrived for five years, won back to back titles, forged a unique identity and were brilliantly put together, but you’d never call them a dynasty. You could say the same about Frazier’s Knicks, Cowens’s Celtics, Hakeem’s Rockets and the Kobe/Gasol Lakers. Meanwhile, West’s Lakers, Doc’s Sixers, Pettit’s Hawks and Dirk’s Mavericks were low-end dynastenders, contending for prolonged stretches but winning just one championship apiece. And yes, Garnett’s Celtics will land in the previous sentence unless they pull off another title.

Which current NBA franchise seems like the safest bet to become a dynastender and possibly even a dynasty? Here’s a hint: It’s not Oklahoma City. Miami already has two Finals appearances and one title, as well as the best basketball player in 20 years. They could easily rip off four or five straight titles … you know, assuming LeBron keeps himself motivated and actually stays in Miami. (I have my doubts.) There’s a remote and semi-alarming possibility that LeBron could cruise to two more Miami titles, switch teams in 2014 (when his contract ends), rip off two or three more titles in New York/Cleveland/Los Angeles/London/wherever and become the NBA’s first player-centric dynasty.

(So if you’re scoring at home, we’d have Russell’s Celtics, Jordan’s Bulls, Magic’s Lakers and LeBron’s LeBrons. Doesn’t that sound horrifying? Let’s hope he doesn’t read this column and decide it’s a good idea.)

Meanwhile, Kevin Durant’s Thunder team seems destined to become more of a high-end dynastender — a team that contends for a solid decade while winning somewhere between two and four titles. But that can’t happen without James Harden, which is why the negotiations for Harden’s contract extension quietly became the NBA’s most compelling story about three weeks ago. If Thunder GM Sam Presti doesn’t lock Harden up by Halloween, Harden will play out the 2012-13 season and become eligible for a restricted free-agent offer. The odds of a well-below-the-cap team like Dallas, Houston, Atlanta, Detroit, Cleveland or Utah offering Harden “the max” (the highest they can go: four years, $64 million) are basically off the board in Vegas. He’s getting that money from someone.

Presti knows that. So does Harden. And that’s made their October dance particularly fascinating. Presti’s public rhetoric has been particularly pointed: We love James, we’d love to bring him back, but we’re a small-market team and it would be really hard for us to pay the luxury tax. Hmmmmmm. They’re already paying Durant and Westbrook “max” money, and they’re already shelling out $12 million a year for Serge Ibaka. Paying Harden means paying the tax. Period. Especially when those Durant/Westbrook deals start bumping up — for the 2014-15 season, one year after the tax penalties become more prohibitive, they’re going to be making $35.7 million combined.3 Throw in Ibaka’s salary ($12.25 million) and Harden’s hypothetical max deal ($14.3 million) and suddenly we just crept over $62 million for four guys.

Given Oklahoma City’s economics, they’d be losing eight figures a year (allegedly) to keep their best four players. And really, even if Harden takes a little less — say, $57 million instead of $64 million — that doesn’t really help the Thunder. Or so they say. Thanks to the latest labor agreement, they’re arguing publicly that no small-market team can pay three max contract guys (in this case: Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Harden) AND avoid the prohibitive luxury-tax penalties AND field a good enough supporting cast. Although this seems like a good time to mention that Oklahoma City …

1. Sold out the past four seasons.
2. Fielded a popular/marketable/likable contender for the past three years.
3. Hosted 19 playoff games over the past two seasons (free money).
4. Didn’t pay the luxury tax in any of the last four years.
5. Will remain under the tax if they don’t extend Harden until next summer.
6. Wouldn’t be the first “small market” team to pay the luxury tax. Check out this splendid piece of “Who paid the luxury tax since 2002?” research from Sham Sports — you’ll notice Sacramento (2003-04: $30 million), San Antonio (2009: $8.8 million), Minnesota (2004: $17.6 million) and Cleveland (2008-10: $43.1 million) on there.

So for the Thunder to say, Yeah, we can’t pay the tax, we’re a small-market team, that would be financial suicide — it’s not totally genuine. Businesses have ebbs and flows. You can’t complain about losing a reasonable amount of money for the next few years (if that’s even true — more on that in a second) after raking in profits for five straight years. Nobody feels bad for you, Billionaire Dudes Who Hit The Jackpot With Durant, Hijacked The Sonics From Seattle And Have Been Raking In Money In OKC Ever Since. Seriously. Can it already.

OK, so imagine you’re James Harden. Your team already took care of Durant and Westbrook, gave $48 million to someone who couldn’t start for Spain’s Olympic team (sorry, I had to), and guaranteed Kendrick Perkins $25.4 million over the next three years (yes, the decimal was in the right place). Now they’re telling you, “You can stay, Glue Guy For Our Perennial Contender, but only if you take less.”

Why should Harden agree to that? He’s already sacrificing his numbers and fulfilling a relatively thankless role: the third banana, the supporting character with a rare and significant ability to step up on command and handle things offensively anytime Westbrook goes into one of his little funks. Statistically, he’s one of the most efficient players in basketball. And like Dennis Johnson, Manu Ginobili, Joe Dumars and (going way back) Sam Jones before him, Harden has shown the enviable ability to lay low for 42 minutes, then rise to the occasion when it matters. When that didn’t happen in the 2012 Finals, people noticed immediately. I can’t remember the sixth-best player in a Finals drawing more attention than Harden did, actually. It was everything he never wanted.

Last May, Grantland’s Jordan Conn wrote a terrific Harden profile that included the following revelation: Before the 2009 draft, Harden (considered to be a top-five pick) e-mailed Presti pushing for Oklahoma City to select him third overall. See, Harden disliked being “The Man” at Arizona State. He hated the pressure of delivering game after game after game. He didn’t need 20 shots a game. He’d rather become the third-best player on a great team than the best player on a forgettable one. If anything, playing with Durant and Westbrook was perfect for him. James Harden wanted to make sure Sam Presti knew that. So he e-mailed him to make sure.

For Presti, it was something of a godsend — coming from San Antonio, Presti learned to value chemistry more than most. Putting together a quality basketball team wasn’t just about throwing talented players together, but also about how they meshed as a whole … you know, because “the secret” of basketball is that it’s not really about basketball. Presti was already leaning toward picking Harden for the same reasons that made Harden send that e-mail. The rest was history. It’s hard to imagine a better running mate for Durant and Westbrook. If Oklahoma City keeps Harden, at the very least, they’re locking up a decade-long dynastender run … and maybe even a little more than that.

(And if they trade him? Wow.)


How will Harden’s saga play out? I see three potential outcomes, and only three …

• Harden’s agent accepts less money to stay in Oklahoma City — a fundamentally ignorant decision that would mean they were brainwashed by Oklahoma City’s small-market B.S.. If that happens, lock down the Zombies for two to four titles in the 2010s assuming nothing funky happens (injuries, drugs, a fatal injury during a brawl at the BET Awards, whatever).

• Harden’s agent says, “Let’s play this baby out.” That’s actually the best outcome for both parties. Harden guarantees himself a four-year, $64 million offer from someone this summer; Oklahoma City locks Harden into a cheap 2012-13 price ($5.82 million) while also leaving itself the flexibility to (a) trade Harden during the season (doubtful; they’d never mess that dramatically with a potential title team), (b) match Harden’s “max” offer next summer and amnesthize Kendrick Perkins (most likely), or (c) match that offer, then trade Harden or Westbrook after the 2013-14 season because the tax penalties will keep getting worse (possible).

• Oklahoma City panics and trades Harden before Halloween, or some time before February’s deadline, for 100 cents on the dollar. Totally improbable … and yet, we can’t totally rule it out.

I see them picking the “Let’s play this baby out” option because it’s a safer move; because it’s beneficial to them ecomonically (at least this season); because it allows them to keep every conceivable option open; and because you never jeopardize a potential title when you’re this close. Remember how close OKC came to winning that Finals? The first four games probably came down to five or six plays total. But just for fun, what if someone bowled them over with a Godfather offer right now? And what would that offer look like?

I couldn’t help throwing on my Picasso beret, dusting off the Trade Machine and making a 90-minute dive. After ruling out the usual suspects for being too expensive (Andre Iguodala, Rudy Gay), too risky (Tyreke Evans), too smart to overpay for Harden (Gordon Hayward/Derrick Favors), or too young to make enough of an impact in the 2013 playoffs (Bradley Beal, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist), I landed on three possible Godfather Offer teams.

Golden State: Everyone loves Klay Thompson (including me), an old-school two-guard who defends well, shoots 3s and gets to the rim. If you’re Golden State, would you rather pay Thompson a rookie-scale salary these next three seasons … or Harden four times as much? In a vacuum, you’d pick Thompson because Harden doesn’t bring you any closer to a title these next three years. But let’s say you were trying to make a splash and thought Harden’s game, recognizable beard and Team USA pedigree would appeal to your beyond-tortured fan base? You might think about it … right?

Phoenix: As Zach Lowe pointed out in his Grantland debut yesterday, what the hell are they? How would you describe the Suns in one sentence other than saying “post-Nash identity crisis”? That makes them our most likely candidate to overpay in a Harden deal: They could dangle Jared Dudley (one of the league’s best role players, and someone who could fill Harden’s 3-point-shooting and chemistry voids while providing better defense, even if he isn’t remotely the same ballhandler and creator), their no. 1 pick (hell, make it unprotected) and maybe their two Lakers picks from the Nash deal. Hold this thought.

Minnesota: What if they said, “Screw it, we want to build around Kevin Love, Ricky Rubio and Harden and we don’t care how we get there,” then offered Derrick Williams (the 2011 draft’s no. 2 pick),4 Luke Ridnour and Nik Pekovic, as well as a top-five protected pick in 2014, for Harden, Perkins and Eric Maynor? Actually …

Minnesota/Phoenix: Same deal as above, only the Thunder would send Williams (the former Arizona star) to Phoenix for Dudley and a top-three protected no. 1 pick in 2013. Whoa! The Thunder just flipped a potential two-year, $46 million commitment in 2013-14 and 2014-15 (Harden and Perkins) into one of the league’s best role players/contract bargains (Dudley), the league’s best backup point guard (Ridnour), an emerging banger (Pekovic, a one-year rental) and two future lottery picks for teams that aren’t exactly playoff contenders. Even better, they saved nearly $3 million this season and something like $17-20 million for the two years after that (depending on where those draft picks land), not to mention the extra luxury tax money they’d suddenly be pulling in.

Just for the hell of it, let’s say Oklahoma City made one of the last two fake trades. As long as you’re buying the narrative that Oklahoma City can’t afford Harden, you could talk yourself into the drop-off from Harden to Dudley/Williams (tangible, but certainly not catastrophic) not outweighing every other benefit from that trade (especially when you include the picks and the luxury tax savings). So really, it’s up to the Thunder here — do they want to win championships even if it means tilting into the red, or simply contend for championships while also remaining in the black?

As amazing as this sounds, we’ve asked that question in baseball, football and hockey over the years — many times, actually — but never with basketball. The Sixers dumped Wilt’s salary on the ’69 Lakers, but mostly because they were tired of dealing with him. The ’75 Bucks traded Kareem to the Lakers, but only because he didn’t want to stay in Milwaukee. The ’76 Nets were forced to sell Julius Erving because they would have gone under otherwise. The ’82 Rockets traded Moses to Philly, but only because he wanted to leave (their team wasn’t good enough). Seattle broke up GP and Kemp because Kemp wanted a bigger contract, which they worried about paying because he was acting so erratically. (And as it turned out, they were right — he ended up having substance-abuse issues.) Minnesota broke up Marbury and KG because Marbury wanted his own team, not because they couldn’t afford him.

The closest we ever came to a money-over-championships trade? Two different times during the Jordan era, Chicago nearly traded an unhappy-about-being-underpaid Scottie Pippen … and both times, they ended up keeping him and making a little history, too. There are a variety of ways in which Oklahoma City could make history over these next 10 years, but trading Harden would be the worst. There’s simply no precedent for it.


By any calculation, Sam Jones was one of the best 40 basketball players of all time, someone who came through in big moments more than just about anyone. He also drove Bill Russell crazy for years and years — Russell never understood why Sam passed up the chance to be as consistently good as Jerry West or Oscar Robertson. Other than Jordan, Russell was the most homicidal competitor the NBA has ever seen, someone who puked before every big game and judged himself by winning and winning only. Knowing his buddy possessed the talent to dominate all the time — only doing it occasionally — was something that gnawed away at Russell for years. Finally, he asked Sam about it. According to Russell’s book Second Wind, here’s how Sam responded:

I don’t want to do that. I don’t want the responsibility of having to play like that every night.

Russell accepted that answer and they never discussed it again. As he writes later in his book, “I never could guess what Sam was going to do or say, with one major exception: I knew exactly how he would react in our huddle during the final second of a crucial game. I’m talking about a situation where we’d be one point behind, with five seconds to go in a game that meant not just first place or pride but a whole season, when everything was on the line … Red would be looking around at faces, trying to decide which play to call. It’s a moment when even the better players in the NBA will start coughing, tying their shoelaces and looking the other way. At such moments I knew what Sam would do as well as I know my own name. ‘Give me the ball,’ he’d say. ‘I’ll make it.’ And all of us would look at him, and we’d know by looking that he meant what he said. Not only that, but you knew that he’d make it.”

That’s why Sam Jones was one of the 40 greatest players ever, and that’s why Russell’s Celtics won 11 titles instead of, say, six. But did you know Sam Jones backed up Bob Cousy and Bill Sharman for the first four years of his career? What if the NBA had a salary cap and luxury tax back then? What if Sam was eligible for the “max” offer, and what if the Celtics had already taken care of Russell, Cousy and Heinsohn? Had the Celtics somehow talked Sam into staying for lesser money and rolled off the next few titles, the narrative would have been, “Red Auerbach does it again!” And had the Celtics flipped Jones for two or three lesser assets, it’s hard to imagine them winning as many titles.

And look, Harden will never be as good as Sam Jones — if he’s lucky, he will become a more durable version of Manu — and Oklahoma City is the best team for him if you remove money from the equation. But you can’t remove money from the equation. Which leaves the Thunder using the loyalty card and that’s it — something teams love playing as long as it’s suiting them. (Who can forget the Celtics almost trading Ray Allen to Memphis and Chicago last March, then coming down with amnesia and being blindsided when he jumped to Miami four months later?) If Harden leaves eight figures on the table to re-sign with the Thunder, he’s a loyal sap. If he does it without securing a no-trade clause — especially on the heels of the Celtics rope-a-doping Rajon Rondo into a discount $55 million extension (well below his market value), then trying to trade him for Chris Paul one year later — his agent should be disbarred.

But even then … why take anything less? Why should James Harden care if Oklahoma City loses money?

Here’s a better question: Why should Harden even believe them?

Didn’t we just come off an acrimonious lockout in which the league cried poverty for months and months, and then, as soon as the lockout ended, they had a slew of billionaires lined up to purchase their teams? We’re in the middle of an NBA renaissance that mirrors what happened from 1984 to 1993: marketable (and likable) stars, genuine rivalries, contenders in big markets, a transcendent superstar leading the way … really, we’re about to run back the most successful 10-year stretch in the history of the league.

So listening to Oklahoma City’s brain trust whine about “the bottom line” like they’re some mom-and-pop hardware store in East Shartsquatch … I mean, it just doesn’t add up, especially when you factor in their profits from this season and the previous four.5 Clay Bennett’s group paid $350 million for the Sonics. If you don’t think they could sell a franchise that features Harden, Westbrook and Kevin Effing Durant for $500 million in about 2.3 seconds, you’re eating bath salts again. Billionaires overpay for sports franchises all the time. It’s the ultimate ego purchase. It’s like buying a 700-foot yacht. You get to walk around with your chest puffed out, give Humblebrag interviews, sit courtside and swing your genitals like a lasso, basically.

You know why we’ll never find out if some billionaire would severely overpay for a lovable contender starring Kevin Durant that’s going to win 60 games and make the Conference Finals AT WORST every year for the next decade? Because there’s a better chance of Clay Bennett buying a summer house in Seattle then selling the Thunder right now. Maybe you didn’t notice, but the Thunder became Young America’s Team last season. Attend one of their road games this season and glance around at the crowd. You know what you’ll see? Dozens and dozens of kids wearing Thunder jerseys. You know why?

Little kids are front-runners!

It’s the same reason so many people in my age group became Cowboys, Steelers and Yankee fans. It’s the same reason I took my son to his first Clippers game last spring, and by halftime, he was demanding a GRIFFIN jersey. If you were a little front-runner and your hometown team sucked, who’d grab your fancy? Probably Durant and Westbrook and that dude with the crazy beard, right? In 2012, you can follow any NBA team you want, whenever you want, however you want. You can watch them on your laptop, your iPad, your iPhone or your giant TV. Really, it doesn’t matter where the Thunder play — they could play every home game in Pyongyang and have the same relevance. Throw in revenue sharing, the league’s savvy digital presence, the real potential of staggering fees for the league’s next television deal (up in 2016), and the Thunder’s success with season ticket sales (they’re fifth in the league this season) and I’m pretty sure the Thunder’s owners won’t be panhandling on the streets of Oklahoma City after paying James Harden.

And since we’re here, shouldn’t we mention how well the NBA is doing right now? How does that NOT play into this Harden dilemma? Unlike the NFL, the NBA doesn’t have concussions hanging over it like a black cloud. Unlike baseball, the NBA actually appeals to people under 25. Unlike hockey, the NBA is a white-collar sport that can charge white-collar prices. Of the four major sports, it’s the only one that will unquestionably be sitting in a better place five years from now.

Here’s a fun fact: The 2010 Finals featured the no. 2 TV market (Los Angeles) and the no. 7 TV market (Boston), as well as five perennial All-Stars (including one of the most famous basketball players of all time) and the league’s most famous rivalry. It also lasted for seven games, with the final game coming down to the final 20 seconds. Those seven games drew a 10.6 Nielsen rating. Last year’s Finals also featured five All-Stars (including one of the most famous basketball players of all time), only it featured the no. 16 market (Miami) and the no. 45 market (Oklahoma City) and only lasted five games. You know what rating the series earned? 10.1. And actually, the first five 2012 Finals games earned a higher rating than the first five 2010 Finals games.

So even if Oklahoma City loves to break out the small-market violin when it suits them, the facts say differently — if anything, they’re one of the three or four most “global” NBA teams right now. Forbes evaluated the Thunder to be worth just $348 million, a remarkably dumb number. If any billionaire called up Clay Bennett and offered him $348 million for the Thunder, Bennett would laugh and hang up. You aren’t even getting his attention unless it’s a number that starts with “5.” And even then, he’s probably hanging up.

Really, it’s no different than the Thunder’s dilemma with Harden: On paper, he isn’t actually a “max” player, just like Oklahoma City isn’t actually worth $500 million. But saying what something should be worth ignores the concept of value itself: Value is determined by the market for that value, not what we believe that value should be. At my fantasy football auction, someone paid 69 bucks for LeSean McCoy — you might think that’s too high, but someone disagreed with you. On eBay, the same two people are bidding up every game-worn ABA jersey that comes up — recently, Don Chaney’s Spirits jersey fetched an astonishing $18,000. Too high? Maybe, maybe not. At least two people were ready to pay that price.

If Oklahoma City’s owners don’t want to pay full price for Harden, then they’re really saying, We moved an NBA team from a booming city in the Pacific Northwest to a much smaller city that generates much less revenue and compromises our ability to win championships, but the fans here are so grateful that they won’t hold it against us that we just tossed away a puncher’s chance at a dynasty. If that’s true, they’re taking advantage of the goodwill of Oklahoma City’s fans — really, they should be flipping their asset, cashing out and selling to an egomaniac billionaire who won’t worry about losing a few bucks, just about owning one of the NBA’s hottest franchises and getting shown on nationally televised games 20 to 25 times per year.

Is there some wealthy maniac out there who would pay 30 percent over that Forbes sticker price without blinking? The short answer: YES! That’s why the NBA owners were so disingenuous during the lockout — they were crying poverty, and meanwhile, they had a waiting list for new owners! And we fell for it! Never again. That’s why I think Oklahoma City’s owners are full of an entire sewage system of shit. Let’s just say it wouldn’t be the first time. So don’t settle for less than what you’re worth, James Harden. They’re playing possum. They will cave. You will get paid. Let the dynastendery begin.

Filed Under: James Harden, People

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Bill Simmons is the editor-in-chief of Grantland and the author of the New York Times no. 1 best seller The Book of Basketball. For every Simmons column and podcast, click here.

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