At 11 p.m. June 30, 2010, Sam Presti knocked on Kevin Durant's door. At 11:02, the Thunder and Durant had a deal on a contract extension.
Don't expect anything like that in this summer of numbers crunching.
The Thunder has secured the services of Durant and Russell Westbrook, and now comes time to corral James Harden and Serge Ibaka — starting Sunday, with the window open until Halloween for contract extensions.
But getting Harden and Ibaka signed will not be as easy as knocking on a door. More like solving a Rubik's Cube.
To keep this core together, the Thunder is going to have to take some organizational risk, and Harden and Ibaka are going to have to sacrifice, perhaps greatly, and even that combination might not suffice.
“We've got to understand there's going to be some tough challenges ahead,” said general manager Sam Presti. “We're going to do everything we can to make it work.”
The numbers are staggering against the Thunder.
The luxury tax, which penalizes teams for surpassing the payroll cap, has been fortified by the new collective bargaining agreement.
The tax is designed to keep the big-market franchises from spending exorbitantly to pad their rosters. It's quite possible the tax's effect will make it so that only the big-market franchises can afford to pad their roster.
Let's get inside the numbers.
First, Harden. Next summer, he could be a restricted free agent, which means he could sign with any team, and the Thunder can match the offer.
What is Harden likely to get on the open market? He's a 22-year-old guard whose production has risen in each of his three seasons, to 16.8 points a game, 49.1 percent shooting and 39 percent 3-point shooting. He's got a knack for passing and isn't bad defensively.
That's a heck of a ballplayer. That's similar to what Joe Johnson was in summer 2005, when Johnson was 24. The Hawks gave Johnson a five-year contract that averaged $13.5 million a year and five years later gave him $19.8 million a year when he wasn't any better.
Kevin Martin, who for his career has averaged 18.4 points a game but is not nearly as efficient a scorer or as good an all-around player as Harden, makes $11 million a year. So does Monta Ellis, who is sort of a new and improved Kevin Martin.
Harden is worth at least $11 million a year and probably more. Absolutely he could get more.
OK, now Ibaka. Harder to simulate Ibaka's contract, because there's really no one in the league like him. No NBA player came within 100 blocked shots of Ibaka's total of 241.
Plus, Ibaka is 22 and getting better on offense. Just ask the Spurs.
Teams will pay for basket protectors. Theo Ratliff led the NBA in blocked shots in both 2003 and 2004; he made $10.1 million and $10.9 million those seasons and was on the downside of his career. Ibaka is going to be a lot better than Theo Ratliff.
Maybe the closest current player to Ibaka is the Clippers' DeAndre Jordan, who again, isn't nearly the offensive player Ibaka is or will be. Jordan made $10.8 million this year.
So Ibaka, too, is going to be worth $11 million a year and probably can get more if he wants.
Let's say the Thunder gets Harden and Ibaka to play at less than market value. Let's say $10 million each. That's possible.
The Thunder does have something special going. These guys do seem to be a fraternity.
“I love it here,” Harden said a week ago. “This team is like a family. We're like really brothers. You can't find a team like this.”
But can the Thunder afford to pay Harden and Ibaka each $10 million?
By 2015, the Thunder will be paying Durant and Westbrook somewhere around $35 million combined.
Add $20 million to that, and that's $55 million.
The payroll cap hasn't been set, but this season was around $70 million and figures to be close to that next season.
Let's say the NBA has good times ahead, and the cap rises to $75 million. That leaves only $20 million for the rest of the team.
For the $9 million of the Kendrick Perkins contract's final year. For Thabo Sefolosha or whatever defensive stopper replaces him. For Nick Collison or another blue-collar big man. For a backup point guard. For a shooter off the bench. For a veteran to fill a need in the playoffs. For Perry Jones III, if he pans out. For two or three handy squadmen who lead the cheers and keep the chemistry going.
Even if Perk is gone by then, traded or amnestied for contract relief, which the new labor agreement allows one time per franchise, that's $20 million for the rest of the team. And if you don't have Perkins, you better have another big guy in the middle, because young Americans aren't shrinking and aren't fleeing gymnasiums.
What good is it to keep Durant, Westbrook, Harden and Ibaka if you can't put a roster around them?
“We gotta be able to build a team that can win year in and year out,” Presti said. “And those are the challenges that have to be balanced.”
So just pay the luxury tax, some say. Clay Bennett and Aubrey McClendon are rich. The Thunder is making money. Playoff runs fill the coffers.
Except the new luxury tax is a killer. The old luxury tax had a straight 1:1 ratio. Go $5 million over the payroll cap, pay a $5 million tax to the league, to be shared by non-violators.
The new luxury tax escalates, starting with the 2013-14 season, which is when the new contracts for Ibaka and Harden would kick in. Up to $5 million over the cap, the tax rate is $1.50. From $5 million to $10 million, the rate is $1.75. From $10 million to $15 million, $2.50. From $15 million to $20 million, $3.75. From $20 to $25 million, $4.25.
So, a franchise that goes $12 million over the cap would pay a tax of $21.25 million — $7.5 million for the first $5 million, $8.75 million for the second $5 million and $5 million for the last $2 million.
I know it's confusing, but you've got to understand this to know why signing Harden and Ibaka will be so difficult.
And it gets even worse. A franchise that is over the cap for three straight years pays a different rate in Year 3 — $2.5 million for every dollar over up to $5 million, $2.75 for every dollar for the next $5 million, $3.50 for every dollar between $10 million and $15 million, $4.25 for every dollar between $15 million and $20 million, and $4.75 for every dollar between $20 million and $25 million.
Let's say the Thunder signs Harden and Ibaka, keeps a good roster together and goes a little over the cap. In summer 2016, if the Thunder has been over the cap for three years, and is $13 million over for 2015-16, the Thunder would be taxed $36.75 million.
Did you catch that? Not only would the Thunder be spending big on salaries, it would have to write a check to the NBA for $36.75 million.
From where does that money come?
And here's the sobering part. Busting the cap by $13 million probably isn't enough. ESPN's Tom Penn, an expert on NBA economics, said most league champions in recent years have been around $20 million over the cap.
Maybe that will change when Mark Cuban and the Buss family and Micky Arison study that escalating tax.
But whatever the case, this is a sobering summer for the Thunder.
Harden seems unconcerned. “It'll do a pretty good job of working itself out,” he said. “This is something special.”
Special? Yes? Work itself out? No. These are cold and hard business decisions.
Keeping Harden and Ibaka isn't just a case of Bennett opening his wallet. The franchise's financial foundation is at stake.
“That's part of our process internally, understand the effect of that, not only on the team, but on the franchise,” Presti said of the luxury tax.
“I can say, if there's a piece of compensation that's not going to a specific person or player, that doesn't necessarily mean that's going into Mr. Bennett's pocket. It's just going towards another player that ultimately can help us win.”
That's groundwork for the possibility of Harden or Ibaka leaving.
Maybe Ibaka and Harden will take less money. Maybe the payroll cap will rise. Maybe we have another energy boom and the Thunder owners give Presti a blank check to make sure Oklahoma City becomes Titletown.
But I wouldn't bet on any of it. It will be very difficult for the Thunder to keep both Harden and Ibaka.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at email@example.com. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.