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by Sam Smith
Posted on Oct 22
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After all those mostly underperforming “M’s,” — Minnesota, Milwaukee and Memphis — the Bulls get a look at a real contender Tuesday at the United Center, the Western Conference champion Oklahoma City Thunder.
Though mostly overshadowed by the Lakers and their high profile additions of Dwight Howard and Steve Nash, most around the NBA still consider the Thunder the favorites to return to the NBA Finals.
The Bulls, however, won’t really get to see that team. With a back-to-back ending Wednesday in Dallas in its final preseason game, the Thunder isn’t expected to play Kevin Durant and maybe not Russell Westbrook as well. The Bulls likely will see more of Thabo Sefolosha and Kendrick Perkins, both working their way back from injuries.
Thus, there won’t be much for the Bulls to measure themselves against.
So perhaps they’ll also contemplate one of the most intriguing questions in the NBA’s preseason, the contract fate of Sixth Man winner James Harden.
Harden is the top player from the 2009 draft without a contract extension. The Bulls’ Taj Gibson is also from that class, though selected No. 26. He also is eligible for a contract extension by the end of the month. The Bulls and Gibson’s representatives say they remain in negotiations.
If a player from the 2009 draft doesn’t extend this month, he becomes a restricted free agent next July.
And while Gibson is vital to the Bulls, the story of Harden’s contract has been a major topic around the NBA given many teams regard Harden good enough to be a leading man for a team. Notwithstanding his weak Finals performance against Miami, of course.
Still, there are teams regularly shedding salary to get under the salary cap to attract an All-Star level talent, which most league executives agree Harden would be if his sixth man role with the Thunder were eliminated.
So even though both the Thunder and Harden have been quiet about it, Harden becomes the first big name in trade speculation.
Although this has been a hobby of mine, I forgot to copyright the idea. So Bill Simmons of ESPN last week proposed three trades for Harden: To the Warriors for Klay Thompson, to the Suns for Jared Dudley and a draft pick or to the Timberwolves as part of a package for Derrick Williams.
So if you were the Bulls, would you put together a package including Nikola Mirotic, whom the Thunder were pursuing and like, and No. 1 picks? The Thunder was at No. 24 in the 2011 draft, meaning the Bulls needed to get higher. They dealt with Miami and Minnesota to get to No. 23 and nab Mirotic just before the Thunder. The Bulls also have that potentially unprotected No. 1 pick from the Charlotte Bobcats in 2016.
If money were not an issue, it’s likely Harden would be signed already. But even Thunder management has noted its small market size and eight figure extensions to Durant, Westbrook and Serge Ibaka. The notion is they cannot afford another with Harden considered another so called “max” player with an annual $15 million salary. The luxury tax penalty supposedly would cripple the franchise.
So would taking two valuable future pieces from a team like the Bulls make sense? And then would the Bulls even be able to afford Harden? And would he be good enough to be that second star to complement Derrick Rose?
My guess is it’s no deal for now.
That’s because without the benefit of actual information my guess is the Thunder let Harden get to free agency next July and then determine about matching an offer. There’s also the possibility Harden accepts a bit less to sign with the Thunder given some feel he’s more comfortable not having the pressure to be the so called “man” and playing with his friends, Durant and Westbrook.
Actually, I’d advise that. But the players tend to listen to their representatives, who often seem to care less for them than I do.
If you really cared, strictly in my view, you’d make sure the player puts away money for life now without risking injury. We’ve seen it happen to Rose. It can happen. You have a chance to bank tens of millions of dollars. How much can it be worth to run the risk of losing it for an extra $10 million or so you probably never can spend?
I know. I ask the question all the time. And I’m always wrong. And then Joe Johnson, who didn’t like playing in Atlanta and wanted to play with Rose, takes the money and they can’t get rid of him fast enough. Media in Atlanta have been saying new general manager Danny Ferry should get an extension for being able to dump Johnson. Who wants to be thought of like that?
You’d think the Thunder have two options: Trade him now or wait. It seems unlikely they’d trade him in February when you presumably are on the way to another title chance. It would look to your fans and players like you are giving up.
Perhaps the Thunder could get enough present help and future pieces to make a trade palatable now and give the team time to work in the new pieces and make their run. After all, Durant and Westbrook do your scoring and they have a nice potential rookie steal in Baylor’s Perry Jones.
But teams basically never do this. The Magic were told relentlessly Dwight Howard was leaving and didn’t trade. Neither did the Cavs with LeBron or the Raptors with Chris Bosh. All could have gotten more than they did. It’s like any disaster. If it hasn’t happened to you, you haven’t experienced it. So you don’t think it will happen.
You always think something will occur to prevent the worst. Then it happens and you move on.
And so it may be for the Thunder.
And if they win a title next summer and then lose Harden, well, they’d be forgiven. So I assume they play it out. The Bulls could have traded Omer Asik last year before he became a free agent. But how would that have looked for a team trying to win? The same with Gibson now.
The Bulls insist they’ll do everything they can to keep Gibson and Gibson says he wants to stay. Just as Harden said he wants to stay. And as Asik said he wanted to stay.
The Bulls’ first real test of the 2012-13 season comes Nov. 8 in Game 5 when they host the Thunder. I suspect Harden will still be with them, richer or not.
Meanwhile, a lot of teams are watching to see what he and the Thunder will do. And the next sighting is here Tuesday.