Is money the most important thing? The Oklahoma City Thunder want James Harden, who they can’t afford to sign on the kind of deal he thinks he deserves, to put success and playing with friends ahead of his financial needs, and staying with the NBA finalists should be a top priority for both sides.

A comparison between Harden and Joe Johnson come to mind. After Johnson helped the Phoenix Suns reach the Western Conference Finals in 2005, averaging 17.1 points per game on almost 8 minutes more than Harden (16.8 points last season), he signed a huge deal with the Atlanta Hawks, bound for mediocrity and early playoff exits at best. Manu Ginobili had a chance to sign a big contract after the 2004 season, but decided to stay in San Antonio for less money, knowing that titles should come first, even if it means making a little less. He won two more championship rings.

Harden easily won the sixth best player of the year award last season, and was also part of the Dream Team gold medal in London, despite not playing in an All-Star game yet. It just seems weird thinking about the Thunder without an integral part of their game and image, especially as the group is considered to be a very tight one, that hangs out and spends time together when they’re not playing basketball.

Harden is a special player, looking like one of the best scorers in the NBA during certain stretches. When Harden wasn’t sharing the court with point guard Westbrook last season, he registered 29.0 points and 5.2 assists every 36 minutes. Kevin Durant? 26.2 points over the same minutes.

When Harden was preferred in the 2009 NBA draft over Tyreke Evans, Stephen Curry and Brandon Jennings, it wasn’t just his ability in college and the workouts. He was a less impressive recruit coming out of Arizona State. But he sent an e-mail to Sam Presti, the Thunder’s GM, saying why he’d like to play for the Thunder. Number one reason? The team’s family culture.

Harden, despite coming off the bench, plays over 31 minutes a night. Maybe that number will even grow next season. He’s an extraordinary offensive talent, but there’s plenty to work on in his game. Just like Westbrook, he likes handling the ball and is possibly a better floor general and passer than Westbrook, completing the most explosive backcourt in the NBA when they’re on the floor together.

Despite his impressive numbers, he’s quite streaky and can be a liability on defense. We saw some of his decision making problems against the Miami Heat. Harden can be great on some night, but he isn’t a guy you’d like to pay #1 money for. He’s not a franchise player, but he has a chance to be paid like one. For the future of what has been built in OKC and for the career of James Harden, so he’ll end up with title rings instead of nice numbers in minutes and points, he should take less, and stay where he fits best.

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