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NBA AM: The Thunder Have Retooled

A look at the Oklahoma City Thunder’s big moves and why they decided to make each of them.

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Planning For The Future:  The Oklahoma City Thunder have always been a progressive franchise. Long-term planning, strategic cap manipulation and an analytic approach to resources has kept the Thunder among the NBA’s elite for almost a decade. How the Thunder have worked the system over the last year is an interesting look at how teams that are spending big money have to look at the world.

So with that in mind, let’s dig into how the Thunder worked the system to create tools to help them exploit the rising NBA economy and why they did some of the deals they have done.

James Harden

The biggest blemish on the Thunder’s track record was the decision to trade away guard James Harden to the Houston Rockets. While that decision has always been characterized as a cap-related decision, the truth of the matter is the cap impact of Harden played a very small part in the decision to ultimately move Harden.

If you rewind back, the Thunder had just come off an NBA Finals run in which Harden was not overly impressive. That summer, Harden’s representation pushed for a maximum contract and a starting role on the Thunder.

The problem is the Thunder discovered, sometimes painfully, that their offensive efficiency went way down when both Harden and guard Russell Westbrook were on the floor together. Both players required the ball to be effective and there was only one ball.

The Thunder had just come off a Finals run and their plan was keep things as they were, but Harden’s camp was adamant and clear that Harden needed a bigger role and should be a starter. After weeks of back and forth, the Thunder arrived at the painful conclusion that as much as they valued Harden, what he wanted and what they wanted were two very different things, mostly related to Harden’s role on the team. Then, when factoring in the cost of keeping Harden, it became clear that neither side wanted the same things and ultimately a deal was made.

To be fair to Harden and his camp, all the things they said Harden could become in a featured role turned out to be true; however, none of those things are what the Thunder wanted from Harden.

Paying Tax

There has been a long running narrative that the Thunder would not pay the NBA’s luxury tax, an additional penalty charged to teams that overspend. There are two schools of thought on this from the Thunder’s perspective, the biggest being that they have already done this.

Without paying tax, the Thunder were one of the better teams in the NBA for most of the past seven seasons. They went to the Conference Finals and the NBA Finals, all without paying tax. Would more spending have yielded a better result? Maybe, but when you are winning at the rate the Thunder were, overpaying the seventh and eight man didn’t make a lot of sense especially consider the nature of the NBA economy and the size of the OKC market.

The Thunder are, however, starting to understand that it’s time to spend a little more and they have. The Thunder were tax payers last season and will be sizable tax payers this season.

Spending just to spend has never been a core part of the Thunder’s process, but there is a window of opportunity that the Thunder understand is wide open for them and their spending this summer shows that understanding.

Trading Reggie Jackson

Last season, the Thunder found themselves in a similar situation with former guard Reggie Jackson that they found themselves with Harden. It was time for a new contract and Jackson wanted a big deal and to be a starter. The Thunder, like with Harden, did not have that kind of role for Jackson and he was not happy and not overly productive.

This is where things get interesting for the Thunder.

The Thunder started to look at the long-term. They understood there were several needs on the roster in order to make another run at the Finals: a quality back-up point guard, a solid back-up at small forward to star Kevin Durant and some additional size.

The Thunder were going to be a tax team, which meant they would need to fill all of those roster needs with minimum contract guys or the $3.8 million tax payer exception.

There was also another factor to consider: the massive jump in the salary cap in 2016.

As the Thunder were sitting, they would have likely gotten under the cap next season if they held their ground. Jackson likely would have gotten an offer sheet the Thunder would not have matched and veteran center Kendrick Perkins had run his course with the Thunder. They loved his leadership, but his production made it unlikely that he’d be retained beyond his final contract year.

Falling under the cap in 2016, would mean the Thunder could not capitalize on the huge range between the cap and the luxury tax line. Hence the deal the Thunder made shipping out Jackson.

In that deal, the Thunder received D.J. Augustin, Kyle Singler and Enes Kanter, getting their backup guard, their backup small forward and the young big man they coveted.

Singler and Kanter were Bird Righted free agents, which allowed the Thunder to lock them into new deals and maximize their spending power going into 2016.

A key part of the Thunder’s thinking was how could they get the most out of the pending cap and tax line increase without falling below the cap. The players the Thunder got back for Jackson and Perkins helped achieve that.

Matching Enes Kanter

The Thunder opted to match the $70 million offer sheet Kanter received from the Portland Trail Blazers. On the surface, that seems like a lot of money for a player who may not start for the Thunder, but there were a couple of things about Kanter that made that decision a little easier.

The cap is ballooning, and individual player values are going to get silly. While $70 million or an average of $17.5 million seems crazy, keep in mind Aron Baynes got $21 million for three years on a career average of 4.8 points and 3.6 rebounds.

The other part is Kanter’s age. The 6’11 big man just turned 23 in May; in comparison Charlotte’s Frank Kaminsky, who was drafted this year, is 22 as is Knicks guard Jerian Grant.

The point here is investing $17 million per in a 23-year-old big man isn’t nearly as risky as, say, investing in a 30-year-old player at the end of his career.

The final part is that $17 million per year price also makes the contract tradeable down the road if the center spot in Oklahoma City starts to take shape in a different direction.

Going Forward

The Thunder feel like they are set up nicely going forward. They have an average age in their core of roughly 26 years old. They have a cap situation structured to maximize the increase in cap and luxury tax room and they feel like their window is wide open, accept for the elephant in the room – the future of Kevin Durant.

There is no escaping that for all the clever cap moves and strategic thinking that’s gone into to reshaping the Thunder roster, that none of it will matter if Durant opts to leave as a free agent.

The mantra around the team is to “control what you can control” and there is a real understanding and acceptance that the Thunder cannot control what happens a year from now, and they are not going to try and do that.

The belief is that the roster is poised to be really good, if healthy, and that would give the team the best advantage in keeping Durant right where he is.

While some teams might try and placate a possible free agent, surrounding him with friends, the Thunder believe the best way to keep their own players is to continue to win at a very high level.

Time will tell if that’s what happens, but if you look at the last year for the Thunder they rounded out their roster and have set themselves for a chance at a title run.

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Steve Kyler is the Editor and Publisher of Basketball Insiders and has covered the NBA and basketball for the last 17 seasons.

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