Your turn, James Harden. No wait, your turn, Clay Bennett.
Just seven months ago, the future of the Thunder core was only 25 percent secured. Now it's 75 percent secured, with the Saturday announcement of Serge Ibaka's signing.
Only Harden remains unsigned for the 2013-14 season. Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Ibaka, they're all under contract for OKC season after next. Get Harden in the fold, and the Thunder has the NBA's brightest future. Brighter than Miami's. Brighter than the Lakers'.
But this final signing will be the toughest. The numbers are sobering. So sobering, that Harden's future as a Boomer is reliant on two major decisions.
Harden will have to sacrifice significantly from what he could get on the open market — Eric Gordon, perhaps the most similar player to Harden in production, got the maximum $58-million, four-year contract offer from the Suns.
And Bennett will have to swallow hard and agree to let general manager Sam Presti take the Thunder into the risky land of the luxury tax. That's not the prudent nature of this franchise.
“We said all along that there are going to be some inherent challenges for our team and our organization just based on the system,” Presti said of the new labor contract. “We never tried to paint that in a different light.
“With that said, there is still a commitment from us to try to find a way to make it work for everybody. We know there are going to be some difficult decisions that have to be made. We're looking forward to trying to figure those things out.”
When Yahoo! Sports first reported that Ibaka signed a four-year extension at $10 million a year, there was cause for celebration. That's less than what I figured Ibaka would get but in the neighborhood of what the Thunder needed to also secure Harden.
When Yahoo! adjusted the report to $12 million a year for Ibaka, optimism waned. That's $2 million a year closer to the dreaded tax, and now there seems no way the Thunder can keep Harden without risking severe financial penalties.
The expected luxury tax threshold for 2013-14, when the Ibaka and Harden contracts kick in, is $72 million. Just in Durant, Westbrook, Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins, the Thunder has $53.9 million committed.
Sure, the Thunder can use the amnesty clause of the latest union contract and cut Perkins. That would free up $8.4 million and work out swimmingly so long as Dwight Howard promises to sign with Brooklyn and Tim Duncan retires.
Even scrapping Gran Torino's salary and signing Harden for, say, $12 million, that's $57.5 million for four players. Even if the bottom five guys on the roster make the minimum salary, that's still in the neighborhood of at least $3 million. So the six role players who support the stars would need to average about $2 million a year each to stay away from the luxury tax.
With Thabo Sefolosha set to make $3.9 million and Nick Collison $2.5 million in 2013-14, that means four guys that will be counted on to play would have to make the minimum, too.
Here's the truth. If the Thunder keeps Harden, it is headed for the luxury tax, which becomes very punitive starting in 2013-14.
An example: go $4.9 million over the threshold in 2013-14, the tax rate is 1.5, so a franchise would owe $7.35 million. Go $9 million over, which is about the necessary territory to keep Harden and put a decent team around the stars, and the tax rate is 1.75. The Thunder would owe $15.75 million.
Read that again. If the Thunder has an $81 million payroll in 2013-14, it also would have to pay the league $15.75 million in luxury taxes.
Harden probably is willing to sacrifice. He talked like it in June and he certainly acts like he wants to be part of the Durant/Westbrook show. The lingering image of the NBA Finals' Game 5 in Miami was Durant, Westbrook and Harden, arm in arm, watching the final seconds tick down and reminding each other that they didn't want to experience such defeat again.
“We have been and will continue to work with James in the hopes of him continuing on with the team moving forward,” Presti said. “I don't want to speak for James or any of our players, but I can say that he is a very big part of the Thunder and he knows how much we think of him as a player and a person.”
Still, no matter how much Harden wants to be here, he's not going to sign for $8 million a year.
And even with sacrifice, Bennett has to decide if his franchise, without major money coming from a local television contract, can approach $100 million in payroll costs. If the Thunder signs Harden, it will be a major step of faith for Bennett and his fellow owners.
Before signing Ibaka, the Thunder had two mountains to climb. Now that OKC has signed Ibaka, two mountains remain.
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.