Reloading, Not Rebuilding: Thinking About Life Without James Harden

MIAMI, FL - JUNE 17: James Harden #13 of the Oklahoma City Thunder stands on court with his head down in the second half against the Miami Heat in Game Three of the 2012 NBA Finals on June 17, 2012 at American Airlines Arena in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

James Harden says he wants a max contract. James Harden says he wants to stay in Oklahoma City. James Harden just might not be a member of the Thunder after this season.

News flash: James Harden is in the last year of his rookie deal with the Oklahoma City Thunder and if Sam Presti's goon squad of personnel management don't find a way to tender the reigning 6th man of the year, then No. 13 could hit the open market. If Harden does hit the open market, it's quite possible that Harden will command a max-level contract from teams in need of a superstar. If this happens, then the championship aspirations of the Thunder take a major hit moving forward.

Of course, these are things that I assume is common knowledge among my faithful Thunder fans and aficionados of the NBA.

So what is the recourse for the Thunder if Harden's agent gets his way and nudges the potential free agent to test the waters and get the most money possible? (I'm not saying this is how Harden's agent feels, but this is my assumption of any agent. To make his client happy, which often times means getting the most money possible.) Well, there were a couple of options that I thought were viable but ultimately never materialized.

Trade Harden to the Washington Wizards for the No. 3 pick in the 2012 draft: Ideally, this would've essentially broke down to trading Harden for Bradley Beal, other role players and possibly more picks. I wrote over on FOX that I believe that then Florida Gators guard Bradley Beal was the most complete guard in the draft. With that being the standard, trading a matured Harden for a maturing Beal makes a lot of sense, especially at 25% of the cost of signing Harden instead. Instead, Washington kept the pick (smart) and drafted Beal.

Sign/Trade for OJ Mayo: One of the few players in this last class of free agency that I believed would've been an ideal replacement for James Harden. I mean just LOOK at them. Former stars from the Pac-10, egregious beards, and an ability to do a variety of things at the guard position. As it were, Mayo left the Grizzlies to sign a deal with the Mavericks. A deal, that in the grand scheme of things was pretty reasonable. If the Thunder were going to make a sign-and-trade deal, Mayo plus draft picks would've been the move.

Of course, we know that Harden is still a member of the Thunder. We know that the Thunder didn't make any moves to live without the bearded one. Moreover, we now know that Harden wants a max contract when his current deal runs its course.

So what are the Thunder to do? I've got three options.

1. Sign-and-trade him for a gluttonous amount of picks/assets: If Sam Presti is going to continue to wear the crown of one of the best executives in the league, then this option is the most rational. Harden is an exceptional player, but can you find another talented two-guard that can fill the void? Probably. Could Stephen Curry be had from the Warriors? What about Demar DeRozan in Toronto? Kevin Martin in Houston? Are they Harden? No. At this point, its not about finding the next Harden, its about finding a way to keep a team on a path to a championship.

2. Get Harden to take the hometown discount: There are some that believe Serge Ibaka took a hometown discount by staying with the Thunder, and if OKC wants to keep Harden then this might be what it takes. Harden has repeatedly said that he wants to stay in Oklahoma and be a part of something special. A "special" deal might be what it takes to keep Harden with the Thunder.

3. Play the entire season with Harden, let him hit free agency. Its an option many teams are afraid of, but in some respects it's not the worst option. "But Ed, you'd let Harden walk for nothing?" Possibly, if no other option presented itself being worth a damn. Free agency was made for teams with deep pockets to overpay for scarce assets. That's why Presti signed Ibaka first, not Harden. You can find another quality shooting guard quicker than you can a quality big man. OKC wasn't built to overpay players, and paying Harden a max deal could make a small-market team hemorrhage in other ways to their downfall.

Plus, playing one more full season with Harden could bring a championship to the Thunder, and that would make everything else that happens 100% worth it.

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