Two words were tossed around at Thunder headquarters Saturday that served as the basis for how Oklahoma City could keep its spectacular young roster together.
Dynasty and sacrifice.
In order to accomplish the first, players say they must each exhibit some of the second.
As Thunder players packed their belongings and prepared to disappear into NBA offseason obscurity, they left behind a trail of pressing questions that, depending on how they're answered, could shape the direction of the franchise for years to come.
James Harden, Serge Ibaka and Eric Maynor are all eligible for extensions to their rookie contracts this summer. All are among the best at their positions. All could command more salary than the Thunder can afford to pay.
Oklahoma City already is on the hook for long-term, high-dollar contracts to All-Star duo Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, both of whom received maximum contracts in the past two years. Kendrick Perkins also is owed approximately $25 million over the next three seasons.
Yet just when it seemed like no one had the answer to how the Thunder could keep its core together under the league's new stringent salary cap structure — not to mention while competing in small market Oklahoma City — the players who ultimately will decide the fate of the franchise stepped up and supplied the blueprint.
“Sacrifice,” said Maynor, “if we really want to continue. It feels like we got something special here. I feel like if guys sacrifice to get something done then everybody will be here still.”
Talk about a tough sell.
Harden is widely considered to be a top five shooting guard. He won Sixth Man of the Year honors after averaging 16.8 points, 4.1 rebounds and 3.7 assists, all career-highs.
Ibaka is a rising defensive star. He led the league in blocked shots per game this season after leading the NBA in total blocks last season. He finished second in Defensive Player of the Year voting behind New York center Tyson Chandler.
Maynor, meanwhile, is perhaps the best backup point guard in the league. Though he sustained a season-ending knee injury early in the year, Maynor's floor-general skills are recognized throughout the league as being elite.
Each player easily could net more cash and, quite likely, better roles elsewhere.
Harden, however, said, for him, winning trumps dollars.
“This is something special here,” Harden said. “A dynasty could be, is being, built here. So we're winning, we're having fun and we're brothers. The other stuff, you can't buy it.”
Quickly, and quietly it seems, the Thunder has established a culture of sacrifice when it comes to contracts. Four of the five most significant signings in Thunder history have come with the players forfeiting one thing or another from their contracts.
Perkins took less money than what he likely could have commanded on the open market when he signed a four-year, $32 million extension last year.
Westbrook was content with the regular maximum allowable contract that constituted 25 percent of the team's salary as opposed to playing out this season and seeking the newly instituted “super max” contract that could have paid him up to 30 percent.
In late 2010, Nick Collison inked a four-year $11 million extension. It came with a $6.5 million signing bonus, however, that bumped the total deal up to slightly more than $17 million. Although Collison claimed on Saturday that he didn't sacrifice anything, the truth is he helped the franchise a ton by agreeing to a descending contract that will pay him a cap-friendly and relatively inexpensive $2.2 million in the final year of his deal. That's less than $1 million more than what the minimum salary would be in the 2014-15 season for a veteran with Collison's tenure in the league. It's a sacrifice that allows the Thunder to maintain additional room to pay its high-priced players.
Finally, just before the start of the 2009-10 season, guard Thabo Sefolosha took the security of a four-year, $13.8 million contract rather than exploring the open market as a restricted free agent. It's possible the defensive stopper could have scored more dollars outside of Oklahoma.
You can understand why Durant got every possible dollar.
But will the next batch of complementary players now fall in line?
“We'll see what happens,” Collison said. “Obviously, we want everybody back. We feel like we've got a really good core group, and we feel like we can get it done with our group. So hopefully it can happen.”
Maynor on Saturday spoke about how he specifically is willing to sacrifice. A potential NBA starter, Maynor said he would gladly remain in a reserve role behind Westbrook to preserve what the Thunder has built.
“Of course I want to be a starter in this league,” Maynor said. “But at the same time, wherever I'm at I want to enjoy it while I'm playing basketball. Sometimes it's not about that. Sometimes it's, like I said, about that word sacrificing. That's basically what I'm about. I just like to win and enjoy doing it.”
Maynor and Ibaka share the same agent, which puts them in a potentially awkward spot of seeing what's good for one might not be good for the other. But Maynor said he believes his teammates share his selfless mentality.
“Yeah, I feel like guys got that mentality,” Maynor said. “I think the main thing is we all play basketball because we love to do it. So we're trying to win. And I think this is a good spot to try to do that.”
While fans seemingly freak out about the upcoming contract quandary, players aren't expressing any anxiety about the matter — even if it results in the demise of a potential dynasty.
“As players, we don't fault guys when it comes to contract stuff,” said Collison. “That's between the guy and the team and his agent. When we all get together, that's when we play and build that team. But we don't judge guys on what they do in those situations. As a player, you're happy for your teammate that they're going to have good opportunities.”
And though it might sound silly in the big-money world of professional basketball, the Thunder's camaraderie could just be the conduit that preserves Oklahoma City's promising young core.
“This team is like a family,” Harden said. “Like, we're really brothers. We hang out most of the time every single day. You won't find any other team like this. I love it here.”