Though his positioning is still a work in progress, Serge Ibaka was able to block a league-best 3.65 shots per game last season for the Thunder, who will need his size to remain in NBA title contention. (AP)
The craziest trade rumors of the last few months were those that had Oklahoma City seriously considering flipping James Harden to Charlotte for the No. 2 pick in the draft. I’m sure someone in Oklahoma City’s front office mentioned the general idea, because smart front offices kick around every option. But a team so close to a title does not voluntarily downgrade from an All-Star-level player to a total unknown with one season still to go before that team’s luxury tax concerns actually become real.
The Thunder could trade Harden for a major asset anytime between now and next season’s trade deadline. Why rush the process and cripple a potential 2012-13 championship team with so many variables left to sort out — the potential use of the amnesty provision on Kendrick Perkins; Serge Ibaka’s precise price tag; the projected level of the salary cap and luxury tax for the next three seasons; Harden’s willingness to take a discount; the health and chemistry of this roster, and many others.
Over the last few months, and especially over the last 48 hours, two of those variables have sorted themselves out:
• Ibaka will make $12 million per season thanks to a four-year, $48 million extension Ibaka’s team and Thunder GM Sam Presti hammered out on Presti’s wedding day. (Yahoo!’s Adrian Wojnarowski broke the news).
• Harden is going to get a max offer sheet in free agency next summer if he wants one.
That leaves Harden to decide how badly he wants max money, and the Thunder’s ownership to decide how much in tax they are willing to pay based upon their own projections of the future tax level and those provided by the league and the players union.
There are, by my count, 13 teams who could carve out something very close to the cap space required for post-rookie deal max contract next summer. Some of those teams don’t have to do any work at all to clear that space; Houston, Dallas, Cleveland, Charlotte, Atlanta and Detroit likely fall into this group. Others have to renounce their rights to important outgoing free agents (San Antonio with Manu Ginobili, Toronto with DeMar DeRozan, Utah with several players), decline various team options (Phoenix with Wesley Johnson, New Orleans with Xavier Henry and Hakim Warrick) or execute several complex moves that may or may not be realistically possible in combination (Orlando, Milwaukee). Take that market in the aggregate, and the need for a shooting guard across that spectrum of teams is probably larger than the need for a defense-first big man on the rise. People around the league agree with something close to unanimity: Harden is getting a max offer if the Thunder don’t offer an equivalent extension before Oct. 31 and Harden decides to hit the open market.
If Harden gets that max deal from Oklahoma City, the Thunder will be paying the tax for at least the 2013-14 and 2014-15 seasons. Assuming a max deal for Harden and that Oklahoma City gets the No. 30 pick in each of the next two drafts, the Thunder would be set to have about $75.5 million committed to 10 players in 2013-14 and $77 million committed to the same number of players in 2014-15. Fill out the rest of the roster on the cheap — forget the mid-level exception — and Oklahoma City will be looking at $80 million payrolls in those seasons.
(Note: These projections don’t include Eric Maynor, a valuable back-up point guard who probably will get squeezed here; this is why the Thunder drafted Reggie Jackson, after all).
The tax line is at $70.4 million now, and it will go up as league revenues rise. But most projections have the tax line somewhere around $75 million in the 2015-16, and very solid growth (about 3 percent) would have it jump only to $72.5 million in 2013-14 and $74.6 million in the following season. Note again: These are estimates.
Under the harsh new tax rates that kick in for the 2013-14 — just in time! — the Thunder would be paying a tax bill ranging from $7.5 million to $12.5 million or so, depending on the exact tax level and how much the team’s ownership is willing to spend on the back of the roster.
Is Oklahoma City, the league’s second-smallest market, willing to spend something like $85 million or even $90 million to fill a team? Read More…