The Thunder’s offseason was… underwhelming.
So many Thunder fans — and even non-Thunder fans — are currently asking themselves, why didn’t they do anything? Why didn’t the Thunder go after anyone other than Derek Effing Fisher this offseason? Is that really it for a team that has championship aspirations?
Yep. It probably is. I’ll wait here while you yell at someone about it.
The Thunder have that fancy new trade exception and some future assets and young trade-able talent, so they could make something happen at the trade deadline, but the 15 players under contract right now are by all appearances, your 2013-14 Thunder.
We all know the reason. You’re sick of hearing about it, I’m sick of writing about it. But it’s that dirty luxury tax that has scared the Thunder away from doing anything significant. The new collective bargaining agreement has officially started and it’s no longer a dollar for dollar penalty. Go $5 million over and you’re paying $1.50 to every dollar, and it escalates from there.
For a small market team like the Thunder that don’t have built in financial infrastructure like a massive television deal or worldwide merchandise sales, that tax is pretty rough.
But there’s another catch to this whole thing, and it’s why the Thunder have played some salary cap gymnastics the past couple weeks. It’s not just about breaking into the luxury tax. It’s about breaking into the luxury tax and staying in it.
Within the luxury tax, there’s also a “repeat offender” clause, which is set to discourage teams from breaking over the threshold and remaining in it. It works like this:
- For 2013-14, there is no repeater rate, because the new CBA is just starting
- For 2014-15, teams pay the repeater rate if they’ve been over the threshold for the previous three consecutive seasons (not applicable to the Thunder)
- For 2015-16, teams pay the repeater rate if they’ve been over the threshold for three our of the previous four seasons
What is the repeater rate, you ask? It breaks out like this: Instead of the $1.50 for every dollar over between zero and $4,999,999, it’s $2.50. Instead of $1.75 for every dollar over between $5,000,000 and $9,999,000, it’s $2.75. You get it. Basically, a dollar more. So say you’re a repeater that is $6.5 million over the tax. Instead of a tax bill of $11.4 million, you’re looking at one of $17.9 million. Yo.
So really, it’s not so much about avoiding the tax right now, it’s about avoiding it for the future. Because if the Thunder would have used their mid-level exception and signed a player to break even minimally over the tax threshold, that’s a season over the tax. Two more, and it’s oh crap time.
That’s why Andre Roberson was signed to just 80 percent of his possible rookie scale deal. That’s why Derek Fisher’s minimum contract was so ideal. The Thunder are skirting the tax by a couple hundred thousands dollars. They have their eye locked on that $71.7 million number, and they’re not touching it for anything. At least not this season.
Some don’t seem to understand this simple fact: The Thunder are indeed willing to break into the tax. They were headed in by about $10 million for James Harden’s deal had he accepted it. They’re not philosophically opposed to it. Thing is, they’re just not going to pay it for the sake of it. Just because the organization is profitable and making money doesn’t mean they should simply just pay the money now. Because again, that’s a season in. Two more, and you become a repeater. Spending just to spend has been franchise suicide for a lot of teams. You should know by now that the Thunder do things differently.
And look at the Thunder’s future salary situation: With escalating raises for Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant coming, the Thunder are going to have to get creative to stay over the number, or just bite the bullet and do it. Durant is under contract three more years, Westbrook four. They’re both still under 25 years old. The Thunder are going to break into the tax — they will — but they want to postpone it for as long as possible.
It’s frustrating, I realize. Trying to rationalize running in place when there’s a championship contender ready made just because of money isn’t easy to swallow. But think of it this way: The Thunder have a championship window, but is it possible that they’re not actually even in it yet?
Well, that’s stupid. Clearly they are. They went to the Finals two years ago and could’ve been headed there again last season if not for an injury. Point is, with the youth of the team and the way the roster is built, is it possible that the organization really views 2015-16 and 2016-17 as their years to really go for it? And anything previous to that is just gravy?
The way they’re dancing around the luxury tax right now would suggest that. If Jeremy Lamb and Reggie Jackson develop into studs then yippee, but the Thunder are minding their wallet with the next two seasons in mind. That’s when Westbrook and Durant will actually be entering into their prime, and that’s when Durant’s contract is closer to being up. It’s painful and annoying and frustrating to not be going for it now, but this core will be in place the next three seasons, at least. Which means the hardest part of building a contender is done. You have Durant and Westbrook. It’s about adding to that when necessary.
Presti had a very specific plan when he started clearing cap space and acquiring assets in 2008. Except he did too good of a job. You can’t predict how quickly a plan will manifest and develop. And obviously the rate at which the Thunder progressed surprised everyone, including Presti. When he drafted Russell Westbrook, he wasn’t anticipating shelling out a max extension for him. Certainly not for James Harden. And never $48 million for Serge Ibaka. The development of this young roster, which completely awesome, kind of backfired in the Thunder’s face. They got too good, too fast. We’ve all enjoyed the ride the last couple seasons, but truthfully, that success probably cost the Thunder their core.
But, with that, have come four really fun seasons. And an opportunity to break through way ahead of schedule and add a bonus trophy to the case. That’s the beauty of even next season for the Thunder. Maybe they didn’t do anything this offseason, maybe they’re not “going for it,” but they’re still going to be in the mix for a championship regardless.
It’s upsetting to possibly put a title chase on hold, but really that’s not what the Thunder are doing. Think of it more as walking instead of running. Trust in some younger players, see what happens, see if they develop and keep a little of that future financial flexibility in your pocket. The Thunder are treading water this season, making sure they keep their heads above the surface. Which is a way to set up the chance to break out a full on Phelpsian butterfly the next two seasons.
Of course, there’s the potential they may not. But all indications are that the Thunder might just consider their true “title window” to be Durant’s final two seasons of his first extension. And anything prior is just money in the bank.