Two words were tossed around at Thunder headquarters Saturday that served as the basis for how Oklahoma City could keep its spectacular young roster together.
Dynasty and sacrifice.
In order to accomplish the first, players say they must each exhibit some of the second.
As Thunder players packed their belongings and prepared to disappear into NBA offseason obscurity, they left behind a trail of pressing questions that, depending on how they're answered, could shape the direction of the franchise for years to come.
James Harden, Serge Ibaka and Eric Maynor are all eligible for extensions to their rookie contracts this summer. All are among the best at their positions. All could command more salary than the Thunder can afford to pay.
Oklahoma City already is on the hook for long-term, high-dollar contracts to All-Star duo Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, both of whom received maximum contracts in the past two years. Kendrick Perkins also is owed approximately $25 million over the next three seasons.
Yet just when it seemed like no one had the answer to how the Thunder could keep its core together under the league's new stringent salary cap structure — not to mention while competing in small market Oklahoma City — the players who ultimately will decide the fate of the franchise stepped up and supplied the blueprint.
“Sacrifice,” said Maynor, “if we really want to continue. It feels like we got something special here. I feel like if guys sacrifice to get something done then everybody will be here still.”
Talk about a tough sell.
Harden is widely considered to be a top five shooting guard. He won Sixth Man of the Year honors after averaging 16.8 points, 4.1 rebounds and 3.7 assists, all career-highs.
Ibaka is a rising defensive star. He led the league in blocked shots per game this season after leading the NBA in total blocks last season. He finished second in Defensive Player of the Year voting behind New York center Tyson Chandler.
Maynor, meanwhile, is perhaps the best backup point guard in the league. Though he sustained a season-ending knee injury early in the year, Maynor's floor-general skills are recognized throughout the league as being elite.
Each player easily could net more cash and, quite likely, better roles elsewhere.
Harden, however, said, for him, winning trumps dollars.
“This is something special here,” Harden said. “A dynasty could be, is being, built here. So we're winning, we're having fun and we're brothers. The other stuff, you can't buy it.”
Quickly, and quietly it seems, the Thunder has established a culture of sacrifice when it comes to contracts. Four of the five most significant signings in Thunder history have come with the players forfeiting one thing or another from their contracts.
Perkins took less money than what he likely could have commanded on the open market when he signed a four-year, $32 million extension last year.
Westbrook was content with the regular maximum allowable contract that constituted 25 percent of the team's salary as opposed to playing out this season and seeking the newly instituted “super max” contract that could have paid him up to 30 percent.
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