Rob Mahoney writes a great piece at Sports Illustrated today (aside: are Mahoney and Golliver the de facto replacements for Zach Lowe? If so, great choice, SI) about players who are no-brainers for extension, those who are too good to lose, and those who are better off being left alone. Not surprisingly, James Harden is player numero uno:
It’s odd that Harden — who is a lock to receive a max offer sheet should he become a restricted free agent — isn’t already signed and sealed, but that has more to to with financial specifics than the Sixth Man Award winner’s intrinsic value. General manager Sam Presti and the Thunder are likely pushing for every bit of savings they can get at the negotiating table (as they should, given the compounding costs of the ensuing luxury-tax penalties), but ultimately they’ll need to come to terms with the fact that there’s only so much room to bargain down a player this young and this talented.
Harden’s effortless combination of star-level production with a complementary offensive style is remarkable and far too valuable for the Thunder to let him go via free agency or even trade. The bill will undoubtedly be tough to swallow, but contending in the NBA comes at a cost, and for the Thunder Harden’s extension - on top of their other commitments - is it.
In terms of the list of players Mahoney discusses, Harden by far is the most critical piece to his team's long-term future. I believe too that Harden should be re-signed, because the whole point of owning a team should be to pursue championships. That said, teams tend to get into trouble when they begin assigning a higher value to essential players than the player warrants.
The two players that immediately jump to mind in terms of exaggerated value are Chris Webber and Rashard Lewis. In the first case, C-Webb had re-invigorated the city of Sacramento in the early 00's, but then negotiated a pay raise that dwarfed anything a competing team could offer. The supersized contract crushed the small-market Kings. By contrast, Lewis signed a huge free agent contract with the Orlando Magic, and the Magic vastly overpaid a guy who really only did one thing well - shoot 3-pointers. In each case, the team got locked into the notion that they absolutely could not do without these players, and they busted their financial statements to keep them. Unfortunately, neither player proved to be as indispensable as the teams thought, and the only thing left was financial pain.
Is there really no other option than signing Harden to the max? What do you think?