OKC faces tough decision with Harden

Among other factors — mainly greed, greed and more greed — one of the primary motivations for last year’s lockout was to implement stricter financial punishments to narrow the gap between the NBA’s haves and have-nots.

So it comes as no small irony that one of the first victims of the league’s punitive measures could be the small-market Oklahoma City Thunder, who have assembled a ridiculous collection of elite young talent but will be hard-pressed to keep all their pieces together.

After rewarding cornerstones Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka to long-term contracts, there might not be enough cash left over to retain James Harden, last season’s Sixth Man of the Year and OKC’s main decision-maker down the stretch.

Without an extension by Oct. 31 he’ll be a restricted free agent next summer, which means the Thunder will have the right to match any of the substantial offers he’s likely  to receive on the open market. But as NBA.com’s David Aldridge examines in , they might not have the resources to do so. In doing so he compares their situation to that of the Spurs, who have had to routinely make difficult decisions over the years:

OKC is in the same relative position as the Spurs found themselves at the start of their dynasty. San Antonio made its choice, building a four-time champion around Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. Only Duncan got a max deal out of those three, and San Antonio has been able to keep its core together for a decade. But the Spurs had to let Stephen Jackson go to Atlanta in free agency in 2003, and it took them nine years to get him back. They had to let Hedo Turkoglu head to Orlando as a free agent in 2004, and, painfully, trade the rights to Luis Scola to Houston to keep their financial house in order.

On that note, perhaps Harden should take a close look at Parker and Ginobili, both of whom were rewarded with multiple championships for taking less than they would have gotten elsewhere.

But it’s also fair to put some of the focus on the  the NBA has put in place to limit massive overspending.

The Thunder did everything the old-fashioned way: i.e. they actually drafted and developed their key players, instead of poaching free agents and disgruntled superstars to form one of the so-called “Super Teams” that whipped so many into a frenzy. (Think Miami and the Lakers.) And yet they might not be able to reap the full benefits of their ingenuity should Harden walk.

If so, that would seem to be a classic case of unintended consequences for a new set of rules that were supposed to help, not hurt, small-market franchises.

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