No one can accuse the Thunder of penny-pinching on salary. In fact, the Thunder is perilously close to the luxury tax threshold, which is in excess of $71 million.
However, the Thunder's payroll structure is top heavy. Kevin Durant will make $17.8 million this season, Russell Westbrook $14.7 million, Serge Ibaka $12.35 million and Kendrick Perkins $8.7 million. That's $53 million for four players.
The Thunder thus must be cost-conscious with the rest of the roster, which explains why Kevin Martin left in free agency and the Thunder had to shop the bargain table for new players. Call this bench a Blue Plate Special.
Here are the pluses and minuses of a salary structure like the Thunder's:
You win NBA titles with stars. And the Thunder has stars. Durant and Westbrook have top-shelf talent; Durant likely is the league's second-best player, and Westbrook isn't far behind.
Paying maximum or near-maximum salaries to players limits flexibility, but the whole reason to have a team is to accumulate talent like Durant's and Westbrook's.
The Thunder also has Ibaka under contract for four more seasons. So while yes, there are roster questions this season and in coming years, there also is great comfort. No team can match the Thunder's three-year assurance of elite talent.
When the luxury tax threshold is $71.7 million, and you've got $53.5 million tied up in four players, do the math. That's $18.2 million for at least 10 players.
It's hard to build a deep roster $1.8 million at a time.
So when Kevin Martin left in free agency, there were no available funds to replenish. Thus Jeremy Lamb has to play, proven or not. Thus ancient Derek Fisher will be counted on again. Thus rookies Steven Adams and Andre Roberson might have to play before they're ready.
The Thunder isn't trying to win on the cheap. But the Thunder is trying to supplement is stars on the cheap.