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Thunder won't have an easy time keeping this core together

Now it's time for Sam Presti to corral James Harden and Serge Ibaka, but getting them signed will not be easy. Even if the two sign for slightly less than market value, the team could run into significant luxury tax problems eventually.
by Berry Tramel Published: July 2, 2012

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.

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by Berry Tramel
Berry Tramel, a lifelong Oklahoman, sports fan and newspaper reader, joined The Oklahoman in 1991 and has served as beat writer, assistant sports editor, sports editor and columnist. Tramel grew up reading four daily newspapers — The Oklahoman,...
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