In trying to win now and later, Thunder's biggest foe is new CBA
With the realities of the new CBA bearing down, the Oklahoma City Thunder are avoiding summer shopping sprees and hoping to sustain success from within.
It's that time of year again -- time to marvel at the Oklahoma City Thunder and all they accomplished during the offseason.
Wait, the Thunder hardly did anything this offseason? You don't say ...
It has become an annual rite of passage for Thunder GM Sam Presti to watch other executives flush with cap space go shopping on the free-agent market. Those other GMs go to the butcher and select only the finest cuts of meat. Presti doesn't make it past the check-out line, where he carefully selects a couple of packs of chewing gum and calls it a day.
It's the Thunder way, born of both philosophy and necessity. For one thing, you can't spend what you don't have. For another, unless you have the chance to get the best free agent of his generation and pair him with two other great players -- as the Heat did with LeBron James in 2010 -- don't bother trying to build a championship in July. Those teams are built 12 months out of the year.
That's Presti's approach. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't believe Presti has signed a single free agent to more than a minimum contract since he's been running the team in Oklahoma City. This summer was no exception.
The Thunder's behavior since the 2011 collective bargaining agreement was adopted has provided a fascinating study in small-market management. With more punitive rules in place for teams that spend, Presti has traded James Harden; extended the contracts of Serge Ibaka and Russell Westbrook; failed to re-sign free agent Kevin Martin (acquired in the Harden traded); and generally pursued a path to championship contention through the draft and internal development. He also traded backup point guard Eric Maynor for a trade exception at the 2013 deadline, a move that came back to bite him when Westbrook went down but one that, at the time, was the only way to preserve Maynor's value beyond the expiration of his contract.
(Before the lockout hit, Presti also extended the contract of Kendrick Perkins, who was acquired in the Jeff Green trade. Though the Perkins extension came before the new luxury-tax rates and other penalties went into effect, it was done with full knowledge that serious spending restrictions were coming.)
There is no question the Thunder have been affected disproportionately by the new CBA; while teams like the Nets blow past luxury-tax penalties like they don't even exist, the Thunder proceed with caution. They have decided not to be a tax-paying team for the third straight season, a strategy that in the short term has cost them Harden, and now Martin.
In fact, the NBA's Board of Governors acknowledged the Thunder's plight last month by approving an unusual payment to OKC to account for the increase in Durant's contract based on the new 30-percent max rule in the 2011 CBA. Durant's five-year max extension was agreed to in 2010, prior to the lockout, but didn't take effect until after the lockout ended. At that point, the league and National Basketball Players Association agreed that, since Durant met the criteria for the new, 30-percent "super-max" deal in the new CBA, he should be paid accordingly. The Thunder were on the hook for approximately $3 million per year over the course of Durant's five-year that they didn't plan for when they signed him. The owners voted to reimburse the Thunder approximately $8 million.
It should be noted that the Thunder don't regain cap or tax room as part of the reimbursement; they only get cash. The reimbursement doesn't restore any of the payroll flexibility that might -- and I stress might -- have resulted in a different outcome with Harden.
Increasing Durant's contract retroactively was odd, to say the least. No other contract in the league was treated that way. For example, Carmelo Anthony was traded to the Knicks via an extend-and-trade provision that was wiped off the books in the new CBA. Anthony, you may have noticed, was not sent back to the Nuggets after the lockout.
But regardless of all this, it's important to make a distinction about OKC's strategy. It isn't that they can't afford to pay the tax; owner Clay Bennett is a little better off than the average guy. It's that Presti and his brain trust, including trusted assistant GM Troy Weaver, have decided that now is not the time.
The Thunder are coming off a 60-win season and have won 50-plus games in each of the past four seasons with the exception of the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season (when they won 47). They have two of the top 10 players in the NBA, and both are only 24 -- Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Their third-highest paid player, defensive standout Serge Ibaka, is 23. If Westbrook hadn't injured his knee last season, the Thunder arguably were the best team in the West with an excellent chance at preventing Miami from winning a second straight title.
Now Westbrook is back, and the Thunder are keeping their spending in check for now and hoping to take the next step from within. (Presti also decided to bring back 38-year-old backup Derek Fisher on a minimum deal, but that hardly qualifies as high-end free-agent shopping.) At some point during their effort to stay atop the West, the Thunder eventually will dip into the luxury tax. But they're not doing it when they have a 60-win team with a core that is 24 years old or younger; they're not starting the clock on the dreaded repeater tax before they deem the return on investment to be worth it.
That's a judgment call that Presti will have to live with. The Thunder's behavior under the NBA's new financial and competitive paradigm will be put to the test over the next three years, as the contracts of Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka approach their expiration dates. So, too, will the very different strategies being pursued in other small markets like Detroit, where the Pistons signed Josh Smith and acquired Brandon Jennings in a sign-and-trade.
Every team perceives its window for winning differently. What the Thunder are trying to do flies in the face of the CBA's goal -- which is to shrink that window for everyone. Presti is trying to find a way to have his championship shot now and keep the window open longer than the rules want to allow.
Say what you want about trading Harden and letting Martin walk in free agency. By staying under the tax line as long as they have, the Thunder will have the opportunity to push above it at some point in the next three years -- when other teams now competing with them for supremacy in the West presumably will be forced to pull back. That's the plan, anyway -- one that I have a hard time assailing.
Rather than break form and make a free-agent splash, the Thunder chose to rely on their existing core getting better. They are banking on increasing contributions from Jeremy Lamb, Perry Jones and 2013 draft pick Steven Adams. They have a $6.6 million trade exception from the Martin sign-and-trade, and overseas assets including 2013 pick Alex Abrines and 2010 pick Tibor Pleiss.
Will it work? There are no guarantees. Unless you're the Knicks, Nets or Lakers, the NBA's new rules are a minefield that you have to navigate the best way you see fit. For the Thunder, winning July has little to do with what happens the following June. Summer shopping, in other words, is overrated.
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