State of the Cap: Oklahoma City Thunder

Tue, 08/21/2012 - 5:02am

20012/13 Payroll: $65.7 million
2012/13 (Projected) NBA Salary Cap: $58 million
Roughly: $7.7 million over cap

Highlights: Three time NBA scoring champion. Three time All-Star. Three time All-NBA. Western Conference champ. Gold medalist. And he is not yet 24. I don’t think $16.6 million could possibly be spent any better next season than on Kevin Durant. His extension runs through the James Harden and Kevin DurantJames Harden and Kevin Durant2015-16 season for a total of $73.5 million and the Thunder couldn’t be happier. Durant is the most likable superstar in the NBA as his humility and love for the game shines through in every performance and interview.

In an age where most ego-driven stars long to play in the most tropical temps and/or biggest spotlights (LeBron, Carmelo, Howard), Durant chose to stay in the middle of the map, Oklahoma City. They don’t have the tradition of the Lakers, the media attention of NYC, or the superb beaches of Miami, but what they do have is the makings of a great organization and Durant will be a part of that for a long time. He is a rare, championship-caliber star and well worth every dollar that comes his way.

Every captain needs a first mate and Durant has one of the best in Russell Westbrook. Despite all of the unwarranted criticism heaped his way, Westbrook continues to play at a high level. He averaged career-highs in points (23.6) and field goal percentage (45.7%) this season and earned All-NBA Second Team honors. There is some room for improvement. Westbrook shot a few too many threes and didn’t distribute as much as in previous years, but part of that can be attributed to the increased role of James Harden as a facilitator of the offense. Aside from that, Westbrook established himself as a true playoff warrior and a guy you can count on in big games. The determination he showed finishing at the rim en route to his 43 points in game 4 of the finals was incredible. Westbrook’s five year extension kicks in this season to the tune of $78.4 million. With a few more playoff performances like that one in his future, Westbrook is a solid bet.

With Serge Ibaka and James Harden entering the final years of their rookie contracts, there is no question that they are severely underpaid for their production. Ibaka led the league in blocked shots by a wide margin and chipped in with 9.1 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 53.5% shooting while displaying an improved jump shot. Harden took a huge leap, easily breaking his career highs in nearly every statistic and shot almost 50% from the field and 40% from the three point line. He also snagged a Sixth-Man-of-the-Year award for his efforts. Harden will be paid just $5.8 million next season and Ibaka will get even less at $2.2 million. Consider this: Cole Aldrich will be paid more next year than Serge Ibaka. That will change soon after the extension Ibaka recently signed. There are some troubling issues to consider with Ibaka and Harden, which I will get into later, but at least for the 2012-13 season they will be considered excellent bargains.

We often see contending teams throw away their late first round draft picks for nothing, sometimes to avoid salary cap issues or keep a roster spot for a veteran. But first round picks are a great way for contending teams to add vital rotation players or gain tradable assets that they otherwise might not be able to pick up. Such is the case with the Thunder’s selection of Perry Jones III. Top ten talents can slip on draft day for a variety of reasons, and Jones’s perceived attitude problem caused him to slide. OKC was thrilled that he did. They are the perfect spot for Jones to land. He can grow and mature into the NBA game at a slower pace with lower expectations while learning from great players in a successful, winning environment with fewer distractions than he would have in a major market. If Jones is a bust, he will hardly cost the team anything and certainly doesn’t jeopardize their short term championship goals. But if he pans out, he could immerge as another horse in an already full stable of young talent or at least become a coveted trade asset that could be used to acquire a missing piece to the puzzle. Either way, it’s a low risk gamble that could pay huge dividends in Oklahoma City.

Lowlights: While Kendrick Perkins has his uses as a role playing center, he certainly isn’t worth the salary of a key starter. Perkins is due $26.8 million over the next three years, which is quite pricy for just 5.1 points, 6.6 rebounds, and 1.1 blocks per game. Even worse is that Perkins only averages about 26 minutes per game. With big contracts looming for more important players, the Thunder should be looking to jettison Perkins’s bloated deal as soon as possible.

The rest of Oklahoma City’s roster is filled with low-salaried players, so their salary cap situation, at least in the short term, looks very good. However, James Harden’s improved play has him in line for a very expensive contract and Serge Ibaka’s new extension is troubling and could make it very difficult to keep Harden. Ibaka is definitely a player they wanted to keep, but at 4 years and $48 million, they paid a hefty sum. For $2.2 million, he is very underpaid. For $12 million, he is overpaid. His shot blocking prowess is well known, but he is not a great rebounder for his size and gifts and doesn’t contribute enough on offense to warrant $12 million. Plus, Ibaka had a tendency to disappear at times in the playoffs, especially in the Finals. For that kind of dough, you need a player you know will show up and produce every night, especially on the biggest stages.

Speaking of NBA Finals failures, James Harden may have cost himself a little money with his performance. Durant, Westbrook, and Ibaka were supposed to cancel out James, Wade, and Bosh, leaving Harden to be the ‘X’ factor that would propel the Thunder to a championship. Instead, we were treated with horrible shooting, ugly turnovers, and poor decision making. One bad series shouldn’t define a player, but it did raise some red flags. Now, with Ibaka’s massive deal in place, where does Harden fit in the grand scheme? Is he also worth $12 million a year, even though he might only be their fourth most important player? Would that money be better spent on upgrading their front line? The Thunder definitely have a major cap decision to make before next summer that could hinder or help maintain their championship-caliber team.

The Rest: Nick Collison. Hasheem Thabeet. Daequan Cook. Sefolosha.

The players remaining on Oklahoma City’s roster are all low-paid role players who aren’t going to drag down their cap space. Daequan Cook is owed $3 million next year despite his poor shooting and Cole Aldrich hasn’t lived up to the $2.4 million owed under his rookie contract after two years in the league, but those are the worst offenders amongst the reserves and they really aren’t all that bad.

Thabo Sefolosha has found a niche as the team’s defensive stopper and is adequately paid at $3.6 and $3.9 million the next two seasons. His 43% shooting from the three point line this year was a nice bonus. Veteran forward Nick Collison is one of the better values on the team. At just $7.6 million over the next three years, Collison always provides good hustle and efficient play whenever he is on the floor.

Hasheem Thabeet was an interesting pick-up. Like Perry Jones, Thabeet can be cultivated in an environment with no expectations. The Thunder will only spend $1.2 million a year on him (if he makes the team) so it was easily worth the chance. You can’t teach 7’3”, after all. With Dwight Howard now standing in the way, it might be nice to have more bigs to around to bother him.

Conclusion: Oklahoma City has a championship caliber core, most of which is signed up for the foreseeable future, so there isn’t much to worry about. The decision on James Harden is their most pressing concern, along with possibly upgrading their depth. Derek Fisher probably won’t be back (thankfully), but his experience and leadership will need to be replaced. How far will management be willing to go over the cap in order to chase their title? That will determine how they handle James Harden and the tweaks they might need to push themselves over the top.

email any questions or comments to Josh at: [email protected]

thparadox's picture
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Great analysis. I just

Great analysis. I just disagree on Ibaka.

He's 22. Already performing as a top 40 player. Perhaps the only pure shot blocker left in the league. He has an excellent midrange jumper and can hit FTs.

Sure, he's not a primary scorer, and he can improve his man defense.

But $12M per year is very reasonable to a player of this quality. Especially when you consider that guys like Hibbert are getting max deals

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Agree with thparadox : Ibaka

Agree with thparadox :

Ibaka is not overpaid at 12M when Jordan get 11M.

Ibaka has a nice offensive game in development (mid range shot) and is a very good defensive player (awareness, timing).

Maybe perkins should be dealt and replaced by a less paid player (à la Chuck Hayes, Reggie Evans) if they want to keep Harden.

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Ibaka for $12 million a year

Ibaka for $12 million a year is good value I feel as he is an elite defensive presence and with other bigs getting $15 million a year then OKC have got an extension in at decent value as someone would have surely dangled a bigger deal at him next year. If they could get Harden signed up for a similar amount then they would have done a great summer's business.

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I would love that deal at 4 years 40 million. There have been some nice points made about other players getting paid in that range but just because one team overpays for a guy doesen't mean you have to. Deandre Jordan is overpaid at 11 mil if thats what he makes. As far as Hibbert he got 58 mil over 4 years. I think Hibbert is well worth 10 mil more than Ibaka over 4 years. He is one of the few players in the league with a good post game. A nice shot blocker though not as good as ibaka. A true 7+ footer. Also he is a better rebounder at his position then Ibaka although both could improve in that area. For Ibaka to justify this contract I'd like something to the tune of 12 ppg 9 rpg and 3+ blocks. This is very duable considring his age but only time will tell

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