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How a hard cap could hurt the Thunder

How a hard cap could hurt the Thunder
Ronald Martinez/NBAE/Getty Images

One of the biggest sticking points in the current labor negotiations is the issue of a hard salary cap. Owners want, players don’t.

(If you’re asking, “Wait, what’s a hard cap?” basically it’s a system where there’s no give over whatever max salary number the league sets. Currently, the league has a “soft” cap meaning teams can go over in certain situations. A hard cap doesn’t allow that.)

Most see a hard cap as a help to small markets. And for the most part, I agree. The playing field financially is leveled as big markets can’t pile up $20 or even $30 million over the cap (hello Mavericks) while smaller markets fear the wrath of the luxury tax.

A hard cap would help out in most ways because New York, Dallas, Chicago and Los Angeles wouldn’t be able to flex their checkbooks and absorb bad contracts at quite the rate they do now. No denying that.

But at CBSSports.com today, I couldn’t help but wonder how a hard cap might actually hurt small market teams, especially one like the Thunder.

I wonder about a team like the Oklahoma City Thunder, one of the smallest market teams in the league. The feeling is that a hard cap would help smaller markets compete because talent would get distributed a bit more evenly throughout the league. With teams unable to pay a bunch of guys on the roster $15 million or go $30 million over the cap line, either players would have to take a serious pay cut or go somewhere else.
Except in the case of the Thunder, a straight hard cap would destroy them.
Kevin Durant just signed a five-year extension that will pay him around $16 million a year. Russell Westbrook, an All-Star point guard at the age of 22, is eligible for an extension and would probably have it if there weren’t a lockout. He’s probably a max player or close to. So that would be another major mark on the cap for the Thunder. Then the other guys — Serge Ibaka, James Harden and Eric Maynor — all eligible for extensions next summer.
If the league has a stiff cap of even $60 million, how can the Thunder dream of re-signing these guys and keeping the core intact?
Answer: They can’t.
That’s been the Presti Plan since day one though. He wanted to draft a bunch of young guys and let them grow together. Let them progress, develop and become a team all together. And when they did, lock them all up long-term and have yourself a contender for the next decade. It’s worked. The Thunder just went to the Western Conference Finals with one of the youngest teams in the league and should be in the mix for at least the next five.
Unless of course they have to let a couple of their big pieces walk.

Again, let’s say the league goes with the $62 million hard/flex cap as proposed by the owners. Durant is hogging roughly $17 million of that. Say Westbrook gets $15 million a year. Harden is probably a $7-9 million a year player in the current system and Ibaka likely the same, maybe more depending on how good they perform next season (Westbrook wasn’t a max player until last year). That’s about $53 million between those four players and that doesn’t count Kendrick Perkins ($6 million), Nick Collison ($3 million), Thabo Sefolosha ($3 million) or Nazr Mohammed ($3.7 million).

The Thunder’s core is most certainly Westbrook, Durant, Harden and Ibaka. Those are the four long-term players Presti has a vision of carrying the team over the next 5-7 years. But with a hard cap, there’s simply not enough room to fill out nine other roster spots if you want to keep those four players. Even in a soft cap system it’s going to be a challenge.

(That’s why I wonder if Reggie Jackson is more of a contingency plan not to replace Eric Maynor, but maybe Russell Westbrook. But that’s for another day.)

Who knows what the NBA landscape will look like when the dust clears in this lockout mess. The players have taken a hard line on a hard cap and supposedly will refuse to back down. The owners though are committed in their efforts to get one. Yeah, it’ll reduce salaries. Maybe the system will stay the same but just instead of Harden getting a $10 million a year extension, he’d get a $6 million one. That’s possible.

But this is the NBA and just because a new salary system is in place doesn’t mean the league doesn’t have impulsive general managers that are ready to snatch away a player like Harden and give him that $10 million a year simply because they know the Thunder can’t go that high. That’ll be the world teams operate in. One where the Thunder Way is no longer the blueprint for small market building success.