Rather than bore you with a number and CBA terminology-laden article that would put you to sleep faster than a Golden State playoff game, allow me to present a little Q&A. Here are a few general questions I keep getting, so hopefully these answers are somewhat helpful.
Q: Can the Thunder sign Blake Griffin/Gordon Hayward/Insert Name of Superstar Player this summer?
A: First question, huh?
Not really. As of this writing, the Thunder have $110M in salary cap commitments next season. That doesn’t count an additional $2.8M in potential guarantees to Jerami Grant and Semaj Christon. The salary cap is expected to arrive at around $101M. The maximum salary for a superstar with 7-9 years of experience will be right around $30 million. Such a player would have to be willing to take a substantial (and unheard-of) pay cut to sign with Oklahoma City.
Q: I thought OKC was under the cap?
A: Oklahoma City indeed fell under the salary cap after some event of some sort happened on July 4 last year. However, the Thunder used most of its cap space to renegotiate and extend Russell Westbrook’s contract. Oklahoma City used the remainder of that space to sign Alex Abrines and trade for Joffrey Lauvergne. It also, for reasons I still don’t fully comprehend, used some of that room to sign Ronnie Price to a two-year, $5M contract.
Oklahoma City is technically under the cap by about $3M right now, but not really because it still has roughly $5M remaining of the Ersan Ilyasova trade exception. That tool counts against the Thunder’s cap for determining if it is over or under the cap. Come July 1, it’ll be over the cap.
Q: So if the Thunder is under the cap now, how will it be over the cap this summer?
A: Lucrative extensions for Steven Adams and Victor Oladipo kick in on July 1. Oladipo’s salary jumps from $6.5M to $21M. Adams’ salary also increases from $3.1M to $22.4M. Add in Westbrook’s $28.5M salary and Enes Kanter’s $17.88M, plus assorted other salaries, and it racks up quickly.
Q: So what would it take to create enough space to go sign a star player?
A: Put it this way: even if the Thunder could jettison every player except Westbrook, Oladipo, and Adams, it STILL wouldn’t create enough room for a maximum salary superstar free agent.
Let’s say by some miracle that actually happened. Roster spots 5 through 15 would be made up mostly of minimum salary players. That’d make for an awfully lean supporting cast.
Doable? Sure. Realistic? Probably not.
Q: So the Thunder are screwed and can’t get better!
A: That’s a statement, not a question.
But seriously, I get the concern. Making a big splash in free agency gets everybody giddy, and sometimes for good reason. When your favorite basketball team finishes 47-35, you may see free agency as the only way to improve.
As has been mentioned a lot lately, the Thunder were the NBA’s third-youngest team last season, and the youngest team in the playoffs. That’s a better situation than, say, the Memphis Grizzlies, the league’s third OLDEST team coming off a 42-40 season. It’s also better than the Pacers, an aging team without a ton of upside and a star player it might not be able to hang onto.
In short, the Thunder can improve simply by allowing the likes of Oladipo, Adams, Sabonis, Abrines, and Grant to follow the (hopefully upward) growth curve.
Q: Is there any way the Thunder can sign a free agent? Any free agent?
A: There are tools available like the Mid-Level Exception, but it’s possible that OKC doesn’t tap into them. Tax ramifications could be one concern. Triggering a hard salary cap and limiting flexibility could be another. Most likely, the Thunder roster will improve via internal development, re-signing its own players, and via trade.
Q: Speaking of trades, do the Thunder have enough to trade for Jimmy Butler without giving up Westbrook?
A: I doubt Gar Forman and John Paxson are answering calls from the 405 area code right now.
Q: What about Paul George?
A: It seems doubtful. Other teams may have better things to offer. Also, if George and his agent are indeed trying to steer him to the Lakers, any attempt to trade for him may be pointless anyway.
Q: Will Russell Westbrook stay in Oklahoma City?
A: I’ve learned my lesson about reading tea leaves and imparting my own basketball sensibilities on players. But let’s just say that if you’re looking for positive indicators, there are plenty to find.
Q: Kendrick Perkins said that he wouldn’t be surprised if one day KD…
A: I’d be surprised.