Why this video? Because.
Think about this for one second: Oklahoma City is guaranteed — barring an unforeseen trade — to at least have the pleasure of watching Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook through 2016. Durant signed a maximum deal with no opt-out clause that is in effect this season and Westbrook did the same today with no opt-out that takes effect next season keeping him in OKC through 2017.
That’s at least five years to make a legitimate title run, if not two, if not three, if not five. Put two top 15 players on the same team and you’re going to have something in place that’s able to contend.
But what separates a good team that can contend to a great team that can win is depth. Having those supplementary pieces around Option A and Option B. Right now, the Thunder have exactly that. James Harden is about as good a third wheel as there is in the league. Serge Ibaka is a blossoming power forward that knows his role and handles himself well. Kendrick Perkins, Nick Collison, Daequan Cook, Thabo Sefolosha — all ideal role players that do their jobs.
The issue all along with Westbrook’s deal was figuring out how to make sure you keep a 23-year-old superstar while also maintaining the flexibility to keep the other pieces. It was never of question if the Thunder should keep Westbrook, because that’s stupid. OF COURSE you do. That’s a no-brainer. Extending Westbrook wasn’t a tough decision. Despite all the nasty media criticism and fans barking about his decision-making, you keep a player like Russell Westbrook on your roster and you pay the number he wants to do it.
But in order for everything to work just right, the right number was important. Because while the Thunder would be a fine team with just Durant, Westbrook and some other veteran parts mixed in, they’re a title contender because of what’s already in place. And it needs to remain that way. That’s the organization’s main desire, the goal in mind.
So with Westbrook’s max extension — $80 million over five years — that puts some $175 million tied up over the next six between KD and Westbrook. For a small market franchise like Oklahoma City, that’s quite the commitment. And one that’s making Thunder fans a bit uneasy about the future of Harden and Ibaka.
But here’s the thing: Westbrook, whether he intentionally did it or not, pulled a very unselfish move. He potentially left money on the table and gave the Thunder much needed financial flexibility. Reports are that Westbrook did not push for the so-called “supermax” which allows a player to be designated a five-year, $94 million extension, if he meets certain criteria. Otherwise known as the “Rose Rule.” Durant already retroactively got that bump, which will pay him some $15 million more over the life of his deal and actually put the Thunder over the cap this season. That deal pays a player up to 30 percent of the team’s entire salary cap, not the standard 25 percent max deal. All Westbrook would’ve had to do this season to qualify is make another All-NBA team, which he’s likely to do (or win an MVP, which is unlikely).
Westbrook though, took the 25 percent max and locked in to that, according to multiple reports. Which is the difference of around $3 million a year. Which is very important. That little bit of cash could be the difference in the Thunder keeping Ibaka (or Harden) and not.
Part of that will depend on extraneous circumstances. Like if the Thunder remain profitable, where the luxury tax line fits and whether or not Clay Bennett might be willing to pay the more punitive penalty that kicks in two years from now. Even so, with $48 million committed to Westbrook, Durant, Perk, Collison and Thabo, it’s going to be dicey. Because that leaves Harden, Ibaka and Eric Maynor — three players the Thunder want to keep — left to be locked up with about $22 million, assuming the tax line is at $70 million, which it is right now. (Projections have it at possibly $76 million in 2014, when the more punitive tax kicks in, but that depends on league revenue growth. And if you’re wondering, the NBA’s salary cap is “soft” meaning you can break over it for different reasons, one being re-signing your own players.)
So let’s play with numbers: Harden, Ibaka and Maynor are eligible for extensions this summer, which would count against the cap starting in 2013-14 (when the next harsher tax starts). With $48 million for sure committed, let’s assume Harden gets a four-year, $48 million deal, about $12 million per. That puts OKC at $60 million. Ibaka could be tougher to measure. Some see him as a $10 million per year guy. I’m not sure yet. I could see Oklahoma City letting Ibaka go to restricted free agency to let the market determine that number. But if he’s at four years, $40 million, that would put OKC near the tax line with just seven guys under contract. Which almost assures the Thunder would break into the tax.
(An aside: You know what continues to be brilliant though? Nick Collison’s frontloaded contract. He’s only going to be making $2.5 million the last two years of his deal. If his contract had been standard, we might not be having this discussion at all.)
Now, Clay Bennett and company might totally be willing to pay the luxury tax in order to field a championship level team with all those pieces together for the long-term. But I wouldn’t bet on that.
The reality is with any team, that you can’t count on keeping everything. It’s about determining the most important parts, the guys vital to your championship chances and retaining those. Whether that’s Harden, Maynor, Ibaka or whatever, that’s the objective.
So you can see why even Westbrook leaving $2 or $3 million on the table could be crucial. The good news for Thunder fans is that this whole thing is in the hands of Sam Presti and his front office, who can absolutely know what they’re doing. There may be a tough choice between Harden and Ibaka at some point — which almost definitely would be Harden — but with Westbrook’s deal, I think it’s a certainty one of the two can be afforded. And maybe both.