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Wake Up Call: The Thunder Has a Money Problem

Wake Up Call: The Thunder Has a Money Problem

The NBA salary cap rules are in place for a reason.

I feel like many readers need to be reminded of that, especially with how crazy the trades and contracts have gotten in recent years. Teams can seemingly do whatever they want, sign whoever they want, and trade for whoever they want. No repercussions. With every team becoming so smart about every nuance in the collective bargaining agreement, there’s become this wiggle room for fun.

Acquiring Paul George and Carmelo Anthony in the summer in which your team’s superstar is eligible for a supermax contract extension is one example of “fun.” And no matter what happens, it paid off, because Russell Westbrook will be wearing a Thunder jersey seemingly until the day he retires. That’s a win.

But ultimately money is what wins championships. And the salary cap rules are there to maintain competitive balance. Just as long as every player is being paid at fair market value, superteams shouldn’t happen. Behind every Golden State Warriors superteam you can find a Steph Curry $10 million bargain or a David West veteran’s minimum.

There is a third option. If you want to have a team full of superstars who are all being paid fair market value, it comes at a price. Here is the estimated luxury tax penalties that the Warriors are in for if they wish to keep their entire core in tact over the next four seasons:

It doesn’t matter if you sell out every game, or if the combined net worth of your ownership group is larger than the GDP of a small country, or your franchise is located in the biggest city in the world, that’s a lot of money. Enough that it forces you to start making some basketball decisions.

Take a step back from the daily grind of wins and losses, of talking about chemistry and shot counts and ball movement, and you’ll see that the Oklahoma City Thunder too has a money problem. Let’s crunch the numbers

If the Oklahoma City Thunder wants to retain all of the same players next season as they have this season, it ain’t cheap. Russ’s mega-max kicks in to the tune of $35.3 million. Steven Adams is due $24.2 million, and Andre Roberson will get $10 million. Alex Abrines, Patrick Patterson and Kyle Singler combine for another $16 million more.

Anthony has a player option next season for $27.9 million. If he declines, how much is he really worth on the open market? Nowhere near $27.9 million, that’s for sure. Outside of a crazy Lebron James-inspired team up, Melo will be on the Thunder’s books for the full sum. And if the team decides he’s no longer in their future plans, just ask the Knicks how easy it was to trade him away.

George has a player option as well for $20 million next season, but come on. The fishing in Oklahoma might be pretty good, but it’s not good enough to leave this amount of money on the table. Whether it’s with the Thunder or another team, this offseason he’ll be able to sign a max contract, which for players with seven to nine years of experience is good for 30 percent of a team’s cap. At current cap projections, that’s going to come in somewhere around $30 million per year. The team and all of its fans hopes that’s with OKC.

Rounding out the cap holds are Terrance Ferguson on his $2.1 million rookie deal, and Dakari Johnson at $1.4 million.

Wanna keep the gang all together? That’s going to run you a cool $$137,538,745. For nine players. One of which is Kyle Singler.

But wait, there’s more! The Thunder will be eligible for the repeater tax next season, because they have been in the luxury tax range for what will be three of the past four seasons after this one. And after filling the other roster spots, the team will easily enter the “more than $20 million over” repeater bracket, which gets charged at $4.75 per tax dollar. It gets a bit complicated, but Bobby Marks of ESPN estimates that the Thunder could potentially pay a luxury tax bill near $140 million.

Now, you really think the Oklahoma City ownership group is ready to pay somewhere around $280 million? Yeah, neither do I. They may say they are “all in,” but is the team they’ll be putting on the floor worthy of the most expensive payroll in NBA history? Is it worth paying that to reach the second round or conference finals? Even after Melo’s contract clears the books in 2019, the Thunder will be pressed right up against the salary cap.

This financial constraint is absolutely affecting the games you’re watching every night. Want to know why Josh Huestis isn’t a regular part of the rotation? The team didn’t pick up his team option for next season. That’s a basketball decision based on money. Want to see if Jerami Grant is worth breaking the bank for before he becomes a free agent next season? If Dakari Johnson is good enough at backup center so you don’t have to sign someone else? Basketball decisions.

The biggest thing financial strain does is put your front office in hand-cuffs. How can the Thunder solve this? Where do we go from here?

That’s just it. The NBA salary cap rules are in place to make like difficult. The “leeway fun” that allowed the team to retain its players and go way over the salary cap level and luxury tax level also stops the team from executing practically any transaction.

Which is to say the Thunder has put all its chips on the table. The team for this season is set, without any transactions in sight, and if George is back next season then little can be done next year either — outside of hitting the lottery on four minimum-contract players. Or if you’re the Thunder owners, hitting the actual lottery might be helpful as well.

Remember that every game as you watch the Thunder play. Through all of the frustrating losses and hopefully, eventually, triumphant wins, this is your team. It’s not going anywhere.