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Postups: Small-market Thunder on shaky ground as Harden talks loom

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OKC is already committed to $52M in 2013-14 for four starters before Harden talks open. (Getty Images)  
OKC is already committed to $52M in 2013-14 for four starters before Harden talks open. (Getty Images)  

Not much warrants dissection in the lazy basketball days of September, especially a lockout-free September with training camps and tipoffs around the corner instead of posturing and a $4 billion game of chicken. But this one ... wow, this little morsel I couldn't let go.

On the occasion of announcing Serge Ibaka's four-year, $49 million extension with the Thunder, general manager Sam Presti said something extraordinary. In a refreshing dose of candor, Presti addressed the shaky ground upon which he's perched when it comes to the extension that's behind curtain No. 2: that planned for prolific sixth man James Harden.

This is what Sam Presti said: "James is somebody we value. We think he's an important part to what we're trying to do with our team and we're hopeful that he'll be with us. By the same token, we've been very upfront and transparent with everybody that we have some inherent challenges that we face as an organization as a result of the new collective bargaining agreement. I know we'd love to have him here. I think James would like to be here as well. But at the end of the day ... you have to find a way to make it work for everybody."

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Incredible statement, but true.

Remember all the bickering from 12 months ago? The posturing threats, poker faces, lawsuits, hissy fits and Heimlich maneuvers? The five-month lockout, which cost the owners and players almost a half-billion dollars in lost revenues alone, was supposed to fix the problem that Presti was not so much alluding to Monday but waving at with a white flag of surrender.

Here was a low-budget, small-market GM -- one of the brightest men in his field, mind you -- admitting the new collective bargaining agreement that was supposed to have leveled the NBA playing field has created "inherent challenges" for his organization.

This is a topic we've touched on before, and I continue to say it's too early to judge the new agreement until we see it fully implemented over a three-year period. The measures designed to rein in big-spending teams and provide competitive tools to those at the bottom are phased in as follows:

First came the financial reset -- 12 percent less for the players right off the top -- and elimination of the mid-level and bi-annual exception for luxury tax-paying teams. Then, beginning in 2013-14, a team that is $4 million above the tax line can no longer receive a player in a sign-and-trade transaction. That same season, a vastly more punitive luxury tax equation comes into play, raising the previous dollar-for-dollar penalty exponentially and punishing teams heavily for exceeding the tax line for a third time in four years.

The new CBA already has reframed the financial landscape in some big markets. We've already examined the Knicks' decision to let point guard sensation Jeremy Lin walk as a restricted free agent and the Bulls' decision to let three rotation players go even while dipping into tax territory for the first time ever. It also has presented a reality lesson for free agents who still don't have jobs, including some who were directly involved in negotiating the deal. Union president Derek Fisher still doesn't have an employer, nor does executive committee member Maurice Evans.

But with home-grown stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook already locked up with long-term deals, the Thunder's decision to reward Ibaka as they attempt to get back to the NBA Finals and ultimately win a championship has ushered the elephant into the room. Alas, system changes that were so vital to the future of the NBA that they were almost worth losing an entire season have ramifications for the Oklahoma Cities of the world too.

Ibaka's deal will pay him a flat $12.25 million per year, which helps create a dilemma for the Thunder. In 2013-14, the first year of the supertax, Oklahoma City will have four players -- Durant, Westbrook, Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins -- on the books for $52 million. If they extend Harden, it will be virtually impossible for them to avoid the luxury tax. This for a team that built itself from the ground up and made it to the Finals in the culmination of a five-year period during which its average payroll was 28th in the league.

But the bills have come due, as always in sports, and they hurt more for a team that sees a fraction of the regional TV receipts enjoyed by teams like the Knicks and Lakers.

The true test of the new CBA will not be the big-market Nets or Lakers taking one last plunge into the deep water of the dollar-for-dollar tax or sign-and-trade privileges before Taxageddon arrives. It will be what happens when a small- or mid-market team like Oklahoma City loses one of its home-grown stars. Specifically, what pre-emptive measure will a savvy GM like Presti take before losing an asset like Harden for nothing? And where will that asset land on the Ouija board of chemically engineered competitive balance? If a free-agent-to-be like Harden winds up in Charlotte or Sacramento, then I guess the bargaining high-wire act of a year ago was worth it. But if he winds up in Dallas, where the historically gluttonous Mark Cuban is in the throes of a hunger strike and ready to pounce when his rivals feel the pinch, what will that mean?

For now, it means that Presti was simply being honest Monday when he directly addressed the elephant in the room. The jury is still out on competitive balance, and balance itself depends entirely on your perspective.

With that, on to the rest of this offseason edition of Postups.

 Speaking of Cuban -- and candor -- the Mavs owner expounded on his recent comments that Dallas is better off going forward without landing Deron Williams in free agency. Asked about the Mavs' strange offseason by the Dallas Morning News, Cuban said, "No disrespect to Deron, but sometimes from a team perspective, the best deals are the ones you don't get done. We would have made it work with Deron. But I think it's better for our team the way it turned out."

Cuban doesn't have to sell me on the effectiveness of landing five capable rotation players -- O.J. Mayo, Chris Kaman, Darren Collison, Elton Brand and Dahntay Jones -- with all but Mayo coming on one-year deals. By making these moves, Cuban kept some powder dry for 2013 free agency and also maintained the flexibility to acquire players with the mid-level exception and sign-and-trades. Having said that, I do look forward to March 20, when the Nets visit the Mavs and Williams shows up with an enormous chip on his shoulder.

 Michael Jordan apparently is stepping out of the way and letting GM Rich Cho call the shots. Long overdue, if you ask anyone who's watched Jordan bungle one personnel decision after another during his foray into the management/ownership side of the sport he once dominated as a player. If this doesn't work, he'll have someone to blame -- and fire -- other than himself.

 Scott O'Neil's sudden resignation as president of Madison Square Garden Sports was hardly surprising to industry insiders familiar with a) the pitfalls of working at the World's Most Famous Arena and b) O'Neil's autonomous management style and lofty career ambitions. You can fumble personnel moves for years and drag the entire company into the gutter of an embarrassing sexual harassment lawsuit and remain in MSG chairman James Dolan's good graces in perpetuity. (We're looking at you, Isiah Thomas.) But if you have your own ideas about how things should be done and want more responsibility, as O'Neil did, you can forget about having your proverbial number retired in the Garden's famous rafters.

Contrary to the sensationalized version of events, it was likely not a specific clash but rather philosophical differences about his role that led to O'Neil's mutually agreed upon departure, industry sources said. Also, O'Neil had reached the finish line in one of his most important assignments, that being the successful management and sales work associated with the approximately $800 million transformation of the Garden. O'Neil now goes on the free-agent market having passed that test with flying colors. Any sports executive with a proven record for selling and bringing in revenue won't be on the market long. O'Neil, however, is said to aspire to more of a dual role that encompasses both the business and basketball side of things. Such autonomy is hard to find at the team level. So don't be surprised if O'Neil's name surfaces with regard to a role in which he could wield enormous financial and personnel influence in the NBA -- with the talent and representation firm that has as much power as anyone other than Dolan at MSG: Creative Artists Agency. Just a thought.

 As for Isiah, those close to him are downplaying a recent meeting with Dolan in the wake of O'Neil's departure. "They meet all the time," one Thomas confidant said. In truth, it seems awfully farfetched that Thomas -- though free of restrictions on involvement with an NBA team now that he's no longer a college coach -- would assume his previous perch as MSG executive when he already has all the influence he wants at the Garden with none of the accountability or responsibility. A more likely scenario is for Thomas to remain in the shadows a while longer, only to resurface in an official capacity sometime, somewhere at an arena near you. Be very afraid.

 Great news out of Seattle that the City Council and the investor group led by Chris Hansen have reached a compromise that would bring a new sports arena to the city that lost the SuperSonics to Oklahoma City in 2008. Seattle, for obvious reasons, is a far more attractive and realistic landing spot for the Sacramento Kings than Virginia Beach ever was or will be. The news also sets the stage for the most awkward of exercises: If and when the Kings reach the inevitable crossroads when the Maloofs cut the nonsense and file for relocation, the petition will arrive at the desk of an ownership committee chaired by the very man who airlifted the Sonics out of Seattle four years ago: Thunder owner Clay Bennett. That's one thing the collective bargaining agreement couldn't solve: the NBA's endless game of franchise musical chairs.


Before joining CBSSports.com, Ken Berger covered the NBA for Newsday. The Long Island, N.Y., native has also worked for the Associated Press and can be seen on SportsNet New York. Catch Ken every Saturday, when he hosts Eye on Basketball from 6-8 p.m. ET on cbssportsradio.com
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