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With Serge Ibaka in the fold, Thunder's focus turns to James Harden

Commentary — If OKC wants to keep its star sixth man, it probably will have to venture into luxury tax territory.
by Berry Tramel Published: August 18, 2012
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photo - Miami Heat's Chris Bosh, center, fights for position under the basket against Oklahoma City Thunder's Serge Ibaka (9) and James Harden (13) during the third quarter of Game 3 in the NBA Finals basketball series, Sunday, June 17, 2012, in Miami. The Heat won 91-85. (AP Photo/El Nuevo Herald, David Santiago)  MAGS OUT ORG XMIT: FLMEH308
Miami Heat's Chris Bosh, center, fights for position under the basket against Oklahoma City Thunder's Serge Ibaka (9) and James Harden (13) during the third quarter of Game 3 in the NBA Finals basketball series, Sunday, June 17, 2012, in Miami. The Heat won 91-85. (AP Photo/El Nuevo Herald, David Santiago) MAGS OUT ORG XMIT: FLMEH308

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.

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by Berry Tramel
Columnist
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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