The only way for OKC to clear those hurdles is to overpay in free agency, an option the Thunder has wisely declined. In addition to putting the long-term health of the organization in jeopardy, overpaying free agents has long been a route taken by middling teams stuck on the treadmill of mediocrity.
Just look at how a few teams spent this summer: Al Jefferson got a three-year, $41 million deal from Charlotte, O.J. Mayo landed a three-year, $24 million deal from Milwaukee, J.J. Redick received a four-year, $27 million deal from the Los Angeles Clippers, Atlanta re-signed Kyle Korver to a four-year, $24 million deal and Washington re-signed Martell Webster to a four-year, $22 million deal.
By comparison, the most lucrative free agent contract the Thunder has ever offered was a three-year, $15.7 million deal to much-needed center Nenad Krstic in 2008.
The good news for Oklahoma City is the Thunder already has a trio of young stars in Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka locked up long term. Thanks to their presence, the Thunder no longer needs to reel in another big fish. From here, it's about retaining that core and surrounding it with adequate complementary pieces.
That's why the draft and not free agency has been the Thunder's preferred method of building. It annually offers teams more bang for their bucks. For example, Redick's $6.5 million first-year salary with the Clippers will be nearly identical to the combined salaries the Thunder this season will pay Jeremy Lamb, Steven Adams, Reggie Jackson and Perry Jones III. With the Thunder's rising payroll — roughly $500,000 shy of surpassing the $71.75 million tax threshold — it's impossible to overstate the significance of those value contracts.
It might take time for draftees to pan out, and some never do as we know all too well. But while the draft is not as appealing as luring prized free agents, it sure beats the alternative.
That, in Oklahoma City, would be frivolously spending big in the summer or getting spurned.