The Oklahoma City Thunder have until Oct. 31 to exclusively negotiate and extension with swingman and Sixth Man James Harden. After that, they’ll have to either make the decision to trade him or match a max deal offer as a restricted free agent. Yesterday I wrote about Phoenix’s possible courtship of Harden — and his motivations for staying with or leaving Oklahoma City — whose playing days at Arizona State and some family in the area make him not just the team’s keystone, but somewhat of a sentimental pick, too.
(Why trade him? Zach Lowe has an interesting analysis here.) Phoenix is a no-brainer as a team to go after him after losing on restricted free agent Eric Gordon, but these five have serious cap space and are in need of help at shooting guard or small forward, where Harden plays best. He’s started seven of 220 career NBA regular-season games, but teams are going to make him an offer to be their foundation. Where would he fit best among those best-suited to make him an offer? Let’s take a look.
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In much the same bet Charlotte would be making with the arrival of lottery pick Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, the Cavaliers would be downgrading the necessity for lottery pick Dion Waiters to be good right now. There’s no way around it: The 2012 draft pick on either team would see his role altered with the signing of Harden but it’s worth it to grab an experienced wing who will still only be entering his fifth season. It’s both a chance to get better immediately and a hedge in case Waiters doesn’t become a long-term answer.
Right now Daniel Gibson is the most tenured wing on the roster, but his deal expires after this season. Harden can play the three and his defense, if not perfect, could still last a season of defending larger players at small forward in an effort to pair Waiters at the two. Rookie of the Year Kyrie Irving is looking like a game-changing point guard as comfortable making plays as assisting on them but it should not be a hindrance to Harden, who has flourished with Russell Westbrook and his 30 percent usage rate last season.
An added benefit to Harden’s arrival could be slotting Tristan Thompson into a defined role at the four, thus diverting his attention from trying to master two positions. It could instead channel his skillset into becoming a legitimate threat at power forward.
O.J. Mayo is not the long-term solution in Big D, but as a player analogous to Harden, he is under contract for the next two seasons. It puts Dallas in a sort of loggerhead at wing in the short term. Now, a year of overlap wouldn’t be a bad thing, what with Dirk Nowitzki at the four, Harden at the three and Mayo at the two, but there’s a problem of versatility: Harden is a more natural shooting guard and Mayo doesn’t have the rebounding chops (just a 6.9 percent rebounding rate) to handle work against small forwards consistently. A one-year overlap isn’t the end-all for Harden, who could still play in a familiar division and wait out Mayo’s departure if the pair did indeed butt heads for playing time. But time is running out for Nowitzki to make another run at a championship. In fact, he’s under contract just through 2013-14 like Mayo.
It could all turn on a question only Mark Cuban knows the answer to: Whose team is the Mavericks? Dirk could re-sign and still be a potent option but he would hardly be expected to carry his Hall of Fame-caliber run for much longer, making whomever Cuban signs with his massive cap space next summer — whether it’s Harden or Dwight Howard or both after being resigned to pay a luxury tax — the next building block.
The blueprint to woo Harden into a Hawks uniform has probably not even been thrown away at Atlanta HQ. That would be the Joe Johnson blueprint, of course, of letting a wing have full run of the system. If Harden’s motivation is to become Kevin Durant or Kobe Bryant in regard to his importance to his team, Atlanta could be the stop. It’s a full play to his ego but it’s worth testing after his incredible individual success at Arizona State before becoming a devoted cog in OKC’s system.
This idea precludes that the Hawks wouldn’t sign hometown kid Dwight Howard, too (an option also available at Dallas) with their huge cap flexibility in 2013-14 and create an immediately devastating combo with Al Horford and Louis Williams at two with John Jenkins becoming a floor-spacing sharpshooter as sixth man.