On the 27th October 2012, Oklahoma City traded James Harden to Houston for Jeremy Lamb, Kevin Martin, and an array of Draft Picks after he spurned multiple attempts to negotiate a contact extension.
Negotiations with Harden began shortly after the Thunder had penned a 22 year old Serge Ibaka to a 4 year $48 million deal. With big bucks already committed to Durant, Westbrook, and Ibaka on a long term basis, offering a max deal to Harden would’ve been luxury-tax suicide (or so they thought).
Due to a rapid, and somewhat un expected jump in luxury tax and salary cap levels over the past couple of years, signing Harden to a max deal may have only resulted in luxury tax penalties for 2013-2014, as he had one year remaining on his rookie deal (2012-2013) when traded to Houston.
Thus, talks commenced with a dark cloud of uncertainty suspended above. First, the Thunder offered Harden a four year $52 million deal, which he rejected. Sam Presti’s leverage in negotiations extended to all of $3 million, as he increased his offering to Harden to $55 million. In turn, this deal was also rejected.
Aware that Harden would receive max offers from around the league as a restricted free-agent the following off season, Presti dealt him to Houston.
Harden’s development into one of the league’s most versatile and efficient scorers became apparent in the 2011/2012 season; he posted an incredible 66% true shooting percentage, good for fourth in the league. The player he trailed in this statistical category was one to whom Harden was often compared, and whose example he would have done well to follow during contract negotiations with the Thunder.
For much of his career, Manu Ginobili has played in the shadow of Tim Duncan and Tony Parker. A future Hall of Famer in his own right, Manu sacrificed both money and individual stardom on his road to three championships with the Spurs.
In July 2004, Ginobili signed a six year extension with San Antonio, worth around $52 million; the same sum originally offered to Harden by OKC.
With a growing reputation as one of the most potent and creative offensive players in the league, Ginobili could have eventually made more money elsewhere. Sound familiar?
In a league increasingly centred on individual stardom and status, many upcoming talents are unwilling to share the spotlight, and become consumed by the alluring aspiration of being ‘the guy’. Around the negotiating table with the Thunder, Harden wouldn’t settle for anything less than a max contract; after all, Russell Westbrook was signed to such a deal and is arguably an inferior player.
"I felt like I already made a sacrifice coming off the bench and doing whatever it takes to help the team, and they weren’t willing to help me," – James Harden on the role money played in his OKC departure.
At first glance, the five year, $80 million deal which Harden penned with the Rockets is a major upgrade on the $55 million offered to him by Sam Presti and the Thunder. I mean, who can blame Harden for opting to take a $35 million booster along with franchise player status?
Average salary over first 4 years of contract
OKC four year- 55 million offer: $13.9 million
Houston, five year- 80 million deal: $15.2 million
The difference in salary on a season-to-season basis is minuscule (around $1.3 million by our calculations); this makes the whole affair even more mystifying. Why weren’t OKC willing to bump up their offer by just $4.5 million to make it a max deal?
Another question begged by the small gap in Harden’s money-making opportunity between OKC-Houston is his true motive in rejecting the Thunder’s final $55 million offer.
In the simplest terms, Harden wanted his own chance to shine.
And that is exactly what he has with the Rockets. Coming off a season where Harden established himself as the top shooting guard in the league, and as the leading member of a team with legitimate championship aspirations, it’s impossible to envisage him coming off the bench as he did on OKC.
It is therefore insane to suggest that Harden would have been better off remaining with the Thunder, right?
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