For James Harden, news that Serge Ibaka signed a $48-million, four-year contract this weekend means he gets to choose between a number of suitors, with Oklahoma City having the final say, if he becomes a restricted free agent. OKC can offer an extension before Oct. 31, at which time Harden can decline and test the open market, seeing just how many teams can offer a max deal somewhere in the $15 million per year range over four years. It’s also a test of who Harden is as a player, one a team like Phoenix is ready to bet on.
Harden has been so good as a complimentary piece for Oklahoma City his decision will quickly become a referendum on whether he values winning or “The Man” status as the higher priority. As SI’s Zach Lowe wrote today, Oklahoma City can offer him close to or at the max and simply pay up for a luxury tax until contracts around Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, Ibaka and Harden run out and leave the team under the cap. It’s a near guarantee those Thunder teams will make it to the playoffs and at least two rounds, barring a Derrick Rose-like injury to one of those four in the playoffs. No one would rule out a second or third NBA Finals trip.
Teams like Phoenix, however, would probably be asking him to consider becoming the face of a franchise, not just part of the constellation of stars OKC has. The Suns have expressed interest in reports for the former Arizona State star. This year should give an indication to other front offices as to whether Harden’s disappearing act in the NBA Finals and the Olympics was a fluke or something to be quietly worried about when evaluating his leading-man capacity.
It’s not a perfectly black-and-white question for Harden to judge him on wins vs. stardom, though. Suitors must contend with the fact Harden has been able to become a national brand in Oklahoma and make an Olympic team despite being Sixth Man Of The Year. We can bemoan his play in London and Miami but it remains that he was in those situations to begin with, and given every opportunity to shine in the latter. His fame and profile clearly have not been dampened much as a player who comes off the bench because he is given rope to close out so many games.
The Suns have nostalgia on their side from his days in Tempe and as the Arizona Republic noted, he has family still in Arizona. They, and other teams that will come calling — and at least a third of the NBA is expected to have space for a deal, per Lowe’s number crunching — will need to heavily gauge how much he wants to stand out now that he’s had so much success playing Thunderball in that group.
Would the Suns have a chance?
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