The NBA set out on a social-media campaign last week designed to familiarize fans with the league's final proposal for a new collective bargaining agreement.
NBA commissioner David Stern and deputy commissioner Adam Silver spent part of their Sunday night answering questions on Twitter, and the league posted a minute-and-a-half soundless slide show on YouTube explaining details of the league's offer.
At the end of the YouTube slide show, one final graphic depicted a sample team roster in 2013-14. It was a model payroll structure the league argues can give every team a chance to compete while also affording it the opportunity to make a profit.
Although players ultimately rejected the offer, two significant issues surrounding the Oklahoma City Thunder emerged from that final slide: a possible preview of what Russell Westbrook's extension could look like, and a glimpse of how the Thunder might be able to retain its core.
Under the league's proposal, a team should be able to field a 15-man roster in 2013-14 for $75 million, or the projected luxury tax line annually established to penalize teams that greatly exceed the salary cap.
The sample roster allowed for one “superstar” who earns a maximum salary of $17 million, one “All-Star” at $14 million, a starter at $10 million and two other starters at $8 million a piece. A team's sixth man would earn $5 million, and rotational players seven through 10 would have salaries descending by $1 million starting at $4 million for the seventh rotational player. Players 11-15 would earn $3 million collectively, or $600,000 a piece.
Using that formula, it becomes easy to pencil in the Thunder’s cast. The catch, of course, is nobody knows how high the ceiling of certain Thunder players will be.
But let’s have some fun.
Kevin Durant, who received the maximum allowable extension last year, fills the “superstar” category. By 2013-14, Durant would be in the third year of his five-year deal worth upward of $85 million.
Westbrook, who is eligible for an extension whenever the lockout is lifted, currently is the team's biggest mystery from a payroll standpoint. Still, he clearly will fill the second slot defined as “All-Star.” It's just a question of whether the explosive point guard commands a max contract. If so, that could place the Thunder under an enormous financial burden and potentially squeeze out others. But if somehow GM Sam Presti is able to ink Westbrook for less than the max, the structure remains well intact.
Going off the league's sample, the Thunder could comfortably sign Westbrook to a five-year, $75 million deal. It would give Westbrook an average salary of $15 million starting at $13 million. While it wouldn't be a max deal, it would, by comparison, be $20 million more than Boston point guard Rajon Rondo received.
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.
SAMPLE TEAM ROSTER IN 2013-14
A look at the NBA's model team salary.
Superstar (max salary); $17 million
All-Star; $14 million
Starter; $10 million
Starter; $8 million
Starter; $8 million
Sixth man; $5 million
Rotation player; $4 million
Rotation player; $3 million
Rotation player; $2 million
Rotation player; $1 million
11-15) Remaining players; $3 million
*Projected tax level is $75 million