NBA@2: Can Thunder Afford to Stay Together?
The Oklahoma City Thunder need to win three of the next four against the Miami HEAT to clinch the NBA Finals from behind. With two-straight in Miami, it will be difficult . . . but by no means should the Thunder be counted out.
OK City has been a great story over recent years. Each season they’ve improved, climbing from the lottery to Finals in very short order.
The team’s offense is built around the three young, explosive stars in Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden. Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins anchor the defense.
Like any squad there are imperfections but the Thunder roared through the Western Conference playoffs to oust the Dallas Mavericks, Los Angeles Lakers and San Antonio Spurs . . . each a champion in their own right.
Whether they win or lose will be decided on the court. The question that seems to linger over their every accomplishment . . . can the Thunder keep this core together through the rigors of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA)?
Oklahoma City is not a large NBA market. This team has a combined payroll of just $61.3 million (before proration). Durant just started his extension, jumping up to $15.5 million from his rookie contract. Westbrook’s money kicks in next season at $13-14 million.
Harden and Ibaka can be extended this offseason in time for the 2013/14 season. Both will be paid handsomely but the question is by whom exactly?
With an oppressive tax system built into the CBA, do the Thunder even have a chance?
A source close to the team tells HOOPSWORLD, it’s not a concern. Not today anyway.
The first two years of the new CBA are relatively fixed (through 2012/13) with the cap at about $58 million and the tax threshold a hair over $70 million.
The source explained that there’s no real way to know what the cap will be in 2013. Will Basketball Related Income (BRI) climb raising the cap and tax lines or will the numbers decrease? How willing will teams be to give out maximums salaries under the new paradigm?
Predicting the market in 2013, when the league is still has to go through a draft, offseason, trade deadline and then another draft before hitting 2013 free agency, makes projections even vaguer.
The deadlines for Harden and Ibaka may be sooner but that’s just for extensions. Restricted free agency awaits in 2013, which keeps the decision-making process firmly with the Thunder if deals aren’t reached this offseason.
Perhaps it will be too much for the Thunder to bear when the time comes but the team isn’t going to move one of their young studs or look to amnesty an important cog on a maybe.
The cap may climb significantly in a couple of years which would drive up the tax threshold but also raise maximum salaries. It might shrink.
All things being equal, if it stays the same at $58/70 million, the Thunder have very little breathing room to keep Harden/Ibaka.
It will mean some tax if they do. If the Thunder are following the Spurs’ model (where Thunder General Manager Sam Presti earned his stripes), a light tax can be manageable under a watchful eye . . . as long as the team is contending.
Will the Thunder pay the tax given they’ve managed to stay right at about the cap itself thus far? If they’re in the NBA Finals every year? To a degree they will.
Should Harden and Ibaka combine to make $26 million (theoretically a high estimate), the Thunder can still field their team with Durant, Westbrook and Perkins. They’d still be able to carry Thabo Sefolosha and Nick Collison, but it would be expensive with seven players combining for roughly $73 million. Round out the roster with six young players to about $78 million, and there’s a tax hit to follow.
If the threshold is $70 million, the Thunder would be on hook for about $12.75 million in tax for a total of $90.75 million.
Because the Thunder do not project to be a luxury tax team this coming season, their “repeater tax” clock wouldn’t start until 2013/14. That means the increased tax rate, presumably too big a burden for almost any team, wouldn’t kick in until 2016/17.
The Thunder have four more seasons without a prohibitive jump in tax although that initial splash in 2013/14 (should they keep Harden and Ibaka) is hardly a joke.
If the league’s income continues to grow, the problems for the Thunder may resolve themselves. Should the tax threshold climb 5% to about $74 million by 2013/14, that $90.75 million shrinks quickly down to a slightly more manageable $84 million for the same roster.
Certainly the Thunder will have other moves and options in mind to minimize tax.
If the Thunder are playing through June every year, the added revenue stream would certainly help.
The math can only be estimated looking forward. The market for potential free agents like Harden and Ibaka may shrink across the board.
Regardless, there’s enough potential within the numbers for OK City to grow with their exciting, young nucleus intact.
No, there won’t be a Thunder fire-sale win or lose this week against the HEAT.
If OK City can stay healthy, they will be a force in the Western Conference for many years to come.
Sessions Opts Out
A source confirmed that Ramon Sessions, of the Los Angeles Lakers, has opted out of his contract. He’ll be an unrestricted free agent this summer but the Lakers are in possession of his Bird Rights.
As such, the LA can pay him up to the maximum salary although Ramon won’t near eight-figures.
Sessions turned away $4.6 million for the chance at landing a larger, long-term deal. The Lakers are a very real possibility although both parties will weigh all their options before making their next moves.
Ramon came over midseason from the Cleveland Cavaliers and while he made an immediate impact on the floor through the regular season, he struggled in the playoffs.
The Lakers are looking at trade options for Pau Gasol. If the return is a point guard, it could diminish the team’s interest in Sessions although at this point it’s anyone’s guess of LA finds a deal for Pau.
Given more teams will have salary cap room and added flexibility in July, Gasol may not be a draft-time move although that too is certainly possible.
Because the Lakers have limited options in free agency with just $3.1 million to offer (Mini Mid-Level Exception), retaining Sessions may end up being the best path to fielding a team this season.
Chalmers and HEAT Confident – Trying not to be Over-Confident
The HEAT barely escaped Oklahoma City with a victory but managed to steal home court advantage away from the Thunder. Now they have the opportunity to win three-straight on their home floor to take the title.
Game 3 was still close in the fourth but the Thunder weren’t able to threaten like they did in Game 2.
Miami has been here before, up 2-1 in the NBA Finals just a year ago against the Dallas Mavericks. They know how important Games 3 and 4 will be . . . and how difficult.
“I don’t get too confident,” said HEAT point guard Mario Chalmers. “We have to finish this series . . . and keep fighting till the end.”
The HEAT had actually lost home court to the Mavericks in 2011 but were able to quickly regain it in Game 3. From there Dallas won twice at home and closed on the road in Miami.
“I wouldn’t say we were too confident but we struggled last year, all year, with having big leads and letting teams come back,” said Mario. “This year we’re just being patient – keep playing our game throughout the whole series and not let any let-downs happen.”
In a sense, the near-loss in Game 2 in Oklahoma City helped the HEAT recognize very quickly how fragile any lead is against the Thunder.
“That’s a good moment for us,” said Chalmers. “It showed that we kept fighting. Good way to come back and get the victory.”
Individually Mario said he feels more comfortable this year having already gone through the Finals once before.
“I learned a lot,” said Chalmers. “Going through last year’s Finals, it was my first experience ever being there – trying to get a feel out and see what it takes to win. This year we’re very confident. We feel good about those situations and we gotta keep playing.”
After the Thunder took out the Spurs, the “experience-factor” went out the window. The HEAT still need to out-play the Thunder two more times to achieve their goal.
“I wouldn’t say it’s easier,” said Chalmers on his second trip. “But you know you’ve just been through it before so you kind of know what it takes and know what you gotta’ do.”
Game 3 tips at 9:00pm Eastern in Miami . . .
Dunlap a Strong Hire
The hiring of St John’s assistant coach Mike Dunlap may have come out of left field as he wasn’t thought to be a finalist with the Charlotte Bobcats, but he was a good get for the franchise.
The Bobcats are a young team going through the rebuilding process. As long as management gives Dunlap the support he needs in staff, players and, more than anything, patience, he’ll be good for Charlotte.
Dunlap is well-respected in the coaching community as both a tactician and a teacher.
Was he cheaper than some of the bigger names (Brian Shaw, Nate McMillan, Jerry Sloan, etc.)? Sure.
Does that make him any less of a hire?
No, it does not.
Shaw will get his first opportunity to coach soon enough and wasn’t partial to the Charlotte job, preferring Orlando or a more winnable opportunity. Would more-experienced coaches like McMillan or Sloan be happy in a losing environment as the Bobcats find the pieces to build around?
Lakers’ assistant Quin Snyder would have liked the chance at his first coaching job and certainly was well-qualified but he’ll have to look for the next opportunity when it comes.
Twitter: Make sure you are following all of our guys on Twitter to insure you are getting the very latest from our team: @stevekylerNBA, @AlexKennedyNBA, @TheRocketGuy, @EricPincus, @joelbrigham, @alexraskinNBA, @TommyBeer and @YannisHW.