Thunder: OKC will eventually have to pay for its thrills

NBA commissioner David Stern said if the Thunder wants to win big with its current core, it eventually would have to be a luxury payer. And that might be a good thing.
BY DARNELL MAYBERRY, Staff Writer, dmayberry@opubco.com Published: December 25, 2011

Minutes before the Oklahoma City Thunder tipped off what is expected to be a promising 2011-12 campaign, NBA commissioner David Stern conceded that if the franchise wants to win big with its current core, it eventually would have to be a luxury tax payer.

And the commissioner considered that a good thing.

“That means you've arrived and you're out there being competitive,” Stern said as he both addressed and stood behind several topics in the league's ratified collective bargaining agreement.

The NBA opened its regular season on Christmas after a five-month lockout pushed back the start of the season and shortened the customary 82-game schedule to 66 contests. Stern traveled to Oklahoma City for the Thunder's opener against Orlando after attending the Dallas-Miami game earlier in the day as the defending champion Mavericks raised their championship banner.

The labor dispute, the second in 14 years to cause the league to forfeit regular season games, made sweeping changes to such things as the league's revenue sharing model, the overall split in total revenues between owners and players, the luxury tax, and player contract lengths.

“The way this deal was constructed, everyone knows that teams are going to be tax payers for a given period of time, when it's time to “Go for it,” Stern said. “The teams that are not going to be considered smart are going to be the Knicks when they were a taxpayer and had nothing to show for it, and Portland that had a $57 million tax bill with nothing to show for it. So you're going to have to decide as a team, ‘Do we have the roster that's ready to go for it?'”

After building through the draft and developing from within, Oklahoma City now has a stable of young talent with which it will chase a championship. But there has long been a fear that the Thunder would not be able to retain its core, which includes Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins, all of whom are projected to be highly paid players in the near future.

A more punitive luxury tax, which is set to take effect in two seasons, could soon become the demise of the Thunder. The new rules in the ratified collective bargaining agreement allows players like Durant, who outperform their rookie contracts, to be paid 5 percent more on their extensions under the so-called “Derrick Rose rule.” Westbrook could qualify for the same bump Durant already has, which could put pressure on the franchise to pay top-dollar salaries to retain its stars — and surround them with a competitive cast — or lose them out of fear of potentially falling into luxury tax hell.

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