The rest of the puzzle then begins to crystallize. The only remaining question would be whether James Harden or Serge Ibaka would fill the $10 million starter slot.
But a quick look at the Thunder's books for 2013-14 shows how the franchise has already set up this exact structure. Durant is slated to earn $16.4 million (although it likely will be more when the salary cap is set), and Kendrick Perkins is down for $8.4 million. Only two other players currently are on the books: Thabo Sefolosha for $3.9 million, or the value of the seventh rotational player, and Nick Collison for $2.5 million, or the value of the ninth rotational player.
That leaves a sixth man, an eighth rotational player and a 10th rotational player. Those slots seemingly would be filled by Eric Maynor, Cole Aldrich and Daequan Cook. By the time his rookie contract is up, Reggie Jackson would either replace Maynor or be moved depending on his performance.
Slots 11 through 15 would annually be filled with rookie contracts, minimum-salaried players and journeyman veterans looking to hitch their wagon to a potential champion.
San Antonio has succeeded in this manner for years, constructing perennial 50-plus win teams through sound salary balance.
The Spurs have maintained a well-defined hierarchy for much of the past 14 years. The formula, though, began in earnest when Tim Duncan's rookie extension kicked in before the 2000-01 season. Since then, that hierarchy has been topped with a three-man core that has typically received the bulk of the cash — Duncan, David Robinson and Avery Johnson, then Duncan, Robinson and Steve Smith, then Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili.
As a result, the Spurs have never been in the top five in payroll over the past 14 seasons. And they've been in the top 10 in payroll only six times over that same span.
The league’s formula is completely hypothetical and can be maneuvered in many different ways. It’s just one example, and by no means is it a fool proof formula. Not every team, for example, can or will spend $75 million. Only five teams did so last season. Many other franchises don’t field a “superstar” or maximum-salaried player.
But the blueprint has been laid.
So the next time you think the Thunder can’t possibly maintain its core, think again. Not only is it possible, but it may also be done without Oklahoma City being a tax-paying team.