An article published on the website grantland.com last week titled “Thunderball,” a play off Michael Lewis' book “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game,” examined the Oklahoma City Thunder's past, present and future.
In the 4,000-word piece, author Zach Lowe presents a dot-connecting look at several minor and major moves that have shaped or soon could shape the state of the franchise.
It's an article every Thunder observer should sink their teeth into if they haven't already.
Most notable about the piece are the first 1,500 or so words. They supply perhaps the most comprehensive breakdown of the controversial trade that sent James Harden to Houston, as Lowe lays out why the Thunder last October parted ways with its former sixth man and fan favorite.
Whether you loved or hated the Thunder's decision, understood the team's logic then or remain utterly perplexed now, Lowe's attempt, if nothing else, should provide some context.
Like many before him, Lowe concludes that holding onto Harden simply was not financially feasible for the Thunder.
“The Harden “What if?” is sexier, but the math says it probably also misses the point,” Lowe writes. “It was going to be impossible for the Thunder to give Harden a max deal and avoid annual payrolls well over the league's tax line — set for next season at $71.748 million. This would have been so even if the Thunder had amnestied the hideous contract of Kendrick Perkins and replaced Perkins with a player at the veteran's minimum.”
Many have tried to explain the Thunder's reasoning behind trading Harden. Few have listened. But what Lowe provided, on the pages of a website founded by Bill Simmons, his boss and the loudest, most unrelenting critic of the trade, were undeniable financial estimates of what the Thunder's payroll would have looked like had the franchise given in to Harden's salary demands.
For the coming season, Lowe estimates that the Thunder's payroll would have been $86 million. That includes the pricier first-year salaries of Harden and Serge Ibaka's contract extensions, as well as Perkins' deal. Had the Thunder waived Perkins this summer using the league's amnesty clause (a one-time measure that wipes a player's salary off the books but requires teams to still pay his salary), the team's payroll would have dropped to $72 million, still above the tax line.
For the 2014-15 season, those figures would have been roughly $89 million with Perkins, according to Lowe, and roughly $80 million had Perkins been amnestied. Again, both numbers exceed the tax threshold.
Those essentially were best-case scenarios for the Thunder.
None of those estimates take into account Kevin Durant's actual contract. Lowe provided those payroll estimates as a way of examining what could have been had the NBA not voted to award Durant a 5 percent pay increase on his new contract, or approximately $3 million more per season for five seasons.
“The estimated payroll figures with Harden on board, and with Durant's actual (higher) salary, jump into the $95 million-$100 million range with Perkins still aboard and $85 million range with Perkins amnestied,” Lowe wrote.
The Brooklyn Nets, with $100 million committed in salaries, project to have the league's highest payroll next season. They play in the country's largest market (which generates considerably more revenue than Oklahoma City) and have the NBA's second richest owner. And even the Nets have folks in disbelief at their willingness to take on a projected tax bill of $86 million.
That tax payment alone is expected to be more than any other franchise will pay in team salary this season.
To this day, many still mock the Thunder for declining a similar distinction; for trying to be smart and, as Lewis put it, master the art of winning an unfair game.
“Harden wanted a max deal, and he deserved one,” Lowe wrote. “Given that basic reality, the four-star dream was financially unattainable.”