It's not the craziest of talk to suggest the recent Finals between the Miami Heat and Oklahoma City could be a preview of many championship matchups to come. Both teams are clearly the best in their divisions. Both feature a trio of stars in their primes or (in the case of the Thunder, scarily) a few years away. And both clearly carry the potential to get even better. Miami (and in particular, LeBron James) may now exhale with a championship, and the byplay between LBJ and Dwyane Wade can only improve. And there's reason to doubt OKC's steady evolution since 2010 will suddenly screech to a halt.
Not to say either team is bullet-proof. The Heat's supporting cast, the Finals notwithstanding, hasn't been a beacon of reliability, and the same can be said about Wade's health. And some have wondered whether the Thunder's core will ultimately fall apart over money. James Harden and Serge Ibaka are eligible for extensions this offseason, and both, particularly Harden, could command a pretty penny. Could the Thunder get priced out in their bid to build a powerhouse?
Well, based on the reports from Saturday's exit interviews over at Daily Thunder, the mood is optimistic. Royce Young has the details:
Extending Harden is probably the first order of business and by the way he spoke Saturday, it doesn’t seem to be a concern.
“I’m just leaving it up to my agent and Sam,” Harden said. “They’ll do a pretty good job of working it out. I’m focused on several other things right now. But when the time is [right], they’ll figure it out and it’ll be done.”
He did say he loves playing in Oklahoma City about 20 times, so that’s something. And also this: “This is something special here,” he said. “A dynasty is being built here. So we’re winning, we’re having fun and we’re brothers. The other stuff, you can’t buy it.”
Obviously, it's one thing to say you'll take less dough and another to do it, and the proof will come in the form of a dotted line and a signature. But listening to Harden, he notes how close the Thunder players are. That's exactly the sense I've gotten not only from the outside looking in, but also during the 2010 series between the Lakers and Thunder, when I traveled to OKC and covered the Thunder. I was around these guys a lot, and couldn't help but notice just how much they genuinely seemed to relish playing together.
With that in mind, I've long suspected Harden and Ibaka will leave a bit on the table in order to keep alive what they've built. It's perhaps necessary if you're a player who really cares about winning in the new NBA. The Heat established that economic model when James, Wade and Chris Bosh joined forces, and I'm wondering if at least some premier players will follow suit. Or at the very least, when you're talking premier players and honest-to-goodness friends, as is the case with both units in question.
Time will tell whether Harden puts his money where his mouth is, how Ibaka feels about his situation, and whether those two taking below market value leaves Clay Bennett enough financial wiggle room. But I imagine Lakers fans, Heat fans and anybody rooting for anybody other than OKC would have preferred Harden to say something along the lines of, "Yeah, I like Oklahoma City, but I can always visit. And I love KD and Russ like brothers, but that's why God invented unlimited text and calling plans, plus Skype. Pay me," then drop the mic and exit stage left in a huff.