The climb of the Oklahoma City Thunder has been both steady and rapid. During the course of Kevin Durant's career, the Thunder has progressed from 20 wins to 23, 50, 55 and a pro-rated total of 58 based on its 2011-12 winning percentage. In the postseason, they've gone from first-round losers, to conference finals losers to league bridesmaid. Their two best players are younger in combined age than Jamie Moyer. Understandably, many have declared Oklahoma City to be the new dynasty in the Western Conference.
While the Thunder has done almost everything right in building the league's youngest powerhouses, it's unlikely it is on the verge of becoming a dominant monolith in the NBA. Oh, they'll be in contention every year that Durant and Russell Westbrook play together, and both are signed through 2015-16. The modern reality of the NBA is that when teams reach a certain plateau (to borrow a metaphor I employed earlier this season), it's tough to knock them off barring major injuries or the defection of an elite player, such as what occurred in Cleveland when LeBron James left. However, that's only kind of dynastic:
Dynasty: a powerful group or family that maintains its position for a considerable time. (Merriam-Webster.com)
In sports parlance, we think of dynasty being a single team winning a succession of titles, or at least multiple titles within a fixed time frame. It wouldn't be a big surprise if the Thunder meets that definition over the next five years. It also wouldn't be a surprise if Miami did it, or Chicago or some other unforeseen powerhouse that may emerge.
The reality of the NBA salary cap and its myriad of supporting tenets is that teams are strongly urged toward parity. There is a sort of dualistic parity in the league, where a group of 4-5 teams can win a title in a given season and if any one of them does it, it's no great surprise. At the other end are the teams that aren't trying to win short term. They instead are feeding the elite teams while trying to position themselves to land the franchise centerpiece every championship team must have. The teams in the middle -- that are either misguided in their self-evaluation or are simply satisfied with being "competitive" -- are the league's non-entities.
The Thunder skipped leaped over that dreaded middle class three years ago and have grown together with an incredibly young roster. If this roster were kept intact and was able to coalesce over the next few years, one could envision a 70-win season somewhere down the line. Unfortunately for Thunder fans, the chances of keeping the roster intact are slim and none.
Let's look at just how expensive keeping this roster together would be for general manager Sam Presti and Thunder ownership. There are 13 assets that we will include: Durant, Westbrook, Kendrick Perkins, James Harden, Eric Maynor, Serge Ibaka, Daequan Cook, Thabo Sefolosha, Nick Collison, Cole Aldrich, Reggie Jackson, Lazar Hayward and the No. 28 pick in next week's draft.
Next year, that group is still affordable, with a price tag of around $63.1 million. So you could add on a minimum salaried player or two, or even a veteran with a cap exception, and still stay under the tax. Then it gets dicey.
Three players are eligible for extensions coming off their rookie contracts beginning July 1: Harden, Ibaka and Maynor. Let's not forget about Maynor, who was one of the league's best backup point guards before he was hurt. When the Thunder has struggled offensively against Miami in the Finals, it's been because of excessive one-on-one play. It's a formula that worked great for them in the regular season, but has become more problematic with each step the squad has taken during the postseason. Against Miami, the Thunder has been at its best when it's been moving the ball. Maynor's quickness and playmaking would have been a valuable weapon in this series.
As it is, if the Thunder opt not to offer extensions to any of those three players and instead sign them for a qualifying offer after next season, the payroll still rockets to $68.5 million, and that's with Cook becoming an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2013. This isn't going to happen, of course, but I point that out to illustrate how dire the Thunder's finances will become. They are going to be rubbing up against the luxury tax even if they offer those three players the minimum of what they can submit to keep them in hand for the next two years.
Harden, Ibaka and Maynor will all have market values well over the respective amounts of their qualifying offers and each will draw a tremendous level of interest on the restricted free agent market. Using our standard of about $2.5 million per projected WARP, Harden will be worth a max-type contract and Ibaka wouldn't be far behind. In 2013-14, let's call it $14 million for Harden and $12 million for Ibaka. Maynor would warrant a good $5 million or so. (Remember, we're talking fair market value here.) Using those numbers, that brings the payroll up to $85 million. With a dollar-for-dollar luxury tax based on a $72 million threshold, you're talking about $98 million committed to player salaries. Then it gets more expensive as the salaries rise and the tax penalties get more punitive.
That dog won't hunt. So no matter how you slice it, Presti faces some awfully difficult decisions in the coming seasons. Here's what I would do:
- Extend Harden at a salary level about $2 million less than Westbrook will get in each of the next few seasons. That seems fair -- it's a gap about half as much as the difference between Durant and Westbrook. The Thunder has followed the San Antonio model and Harden is its Manu Ginobili. Despite his failings in the Finals, you have to lock him down first and then work from there.
- Most analysis of Oklahoma City's situation will suggest that Presti has to choose between an extension between Ibaka and Harden. In reality, his choice is more likely between Ibaka and Perkins. Perkins is signed through the 2014-15 season at very reasonable salary. He's a true center, which is hard to find in the NBA. And despite Ibaka's league-best shot blocking numbers, Perkins is the better post defender.
Still, it's not an easy call. Ibaka's mobility makes him more utilitarian against small lineups, when Durant can step over and play the four. His mastery of the midrange face-up also makes him a terrific pick-and-pop option for Westbrook and Durant. Then there's the shot blocking -- no player currently strikes more fear in opponents as a weakside help defender.
So what do you do? You don't extend Ibaka this summer. You play out next season to see if his development continues, then you make him a qualifying offer after the season. If it appears that he can be retained at a salary that fits -- and we're talking about an annual average of $9 or $10 million -- then you can keep him and slap the amnesty tag on Perkins. You have to be deft in your evaluations, because amnesty tags have to be applied within a week after free agency starts. In any event, you can't keep both Perkins and Ibaka without paying through the nose.
- Don't extend Maynor, either. He's a good player and will be a starter in the league if he changes teams, assuming he returns to his pre-injury level of performance. But you've got Reggie Jackson in-house with time left on his rookie deal and an elite backup point guard is something the Thunder just won't be able to afford beyond next season.
- Rely on your scouts to fill in the talent voids through the draft. Oklahoma City landed Ibaka with the 24th pick in the 2008 draft as an overseas prospect. Just because the Thunder will be draft towards the end of the first round doesn't mean it can't land rotation talent.
- Hope your owner is willing to pay some luxury tax, even if he understandably wouldn't want to commit nine figures to player salary.
If all the pieces fall into place, the Thunder can go forward with a core of Durant, Westbrook, Harden and Ibaka and depending on where the tax line falls, they can more or less straddle it by adding more rookies and minimum-salary players each season. They'll have to come up with some lost-cost options in the frontcourt in particular, but no one staid staying on top is easy. And it certainly isn't cheap. The Thunder may yet become a dynasty, but to do so, its management has a number of financial landmines to side-step over the next two years.
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Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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