Every Thunder fan and undoubtedly, General Manager Sam Presti himself, knows that OKC needs to provide some scoring punch to stand alongside the great Russell Westbrook on the court.

If they don’t, they will  lose him after next season. It is simple as that.

A lot of arm chair GM’s (myself included) offer up suggestions on who we can get to help Russ.

Many people have stated OKC should go after Blake Griffin, with all the speculation around the league that he will be leaving the Clippers in Free Agency. I would love to have Griffin wearing OKC blue. He has an all around game, ability to stretch the floor, commands double teams, is relentless on hustle plays and knows how to play with a ball dominant point guard, after playing so many years with Chris Paul.

All of these things make him an ideal target for OKC to go after except for two standout issues; firstly his constant injuries make him a potential highly paid lame duck, which OKC simply cannot afford and the second reason, I will delve into a bit further into this post.

Other people who do not like Blake Griffin, due to his altercations with the equipment manager, point towards Paul Millsap. Again a perfect fit for OKC. Others still look to replace the small forward they lost in Kevin Durant, with Gordon Hayward.

Some others suggest we should go after a combination of the three; get either Griffin or Millsap and go after Hayward. A starting lineup of Westbrook, Oladipo, Hayward, Millsap and Adams would rival even Golden State and then OKC could finally compete on an equal footing with them. We would have our own big 4!

Right? Uh, I’m sorry, but no little guy. All those suggestions are excellent, if not for that pesky second reason I alluded to earlier; the salary cap.

There are a few things you need to know about the salary cap, before all of this will make sense. I have read various articles as well as the extensive explanation of the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) which the players and the NBA signed back in 2011 and amended this year. The full document from Larry Coon can be found HERE if you have a mind to review it yourself.

Disclaimer:// I am in no way purporting to be an expert in the CBA in any way. I’m sure there are loopholes the experts can exploit, but I believe I have the general gist of what is going on.

I will go through some of the key points which will affect OKC, as well as every other team in the league, in the upcoming free agency. I will try to not get bogged down into too much detail, but I will have to go into some, so please bear with me.

The Salary Cap in the NBA is a soft cap. This means that teams can go over the amount set by the NBA. This season, the salary cap was set at $94,100,000.

The area that teams can go above the salary cap is referred to as the Luxury Tax Threshold. For this current season, the threshold is set at $113,300,000.

What is this threshold used for? It is predominantly used to sign your own players to new contracts which would otherwise push you over the salary cap. Imagine if we couldn’t sign Westbrook because we had gone over the salary cap? That would suck right? That’s what the threshold is there to prevent from occurring.

Teams can use an number of Tax Exceptions to move into the Luxury Tax Threshold without being penalised. The most regular ones used are:

The Bird Exemption, which allows your star or veteran player to be re-signed to the team which had chosen them in the draft, such as Westbrook, or if a team traded for a player with a team which still held that player’s Bird Rights, such as we did for Kanter, Oladipo and Taj. We still own the Bird rights for all 3 players.

The Non-Bird Exemption, which allows a team to sign one of their own free agent players, who the team didn’t hold the Bird rights to, but who played for more than one season for that team.

The Rookie Exemption, which allows a team to go over the salary cap to sign up the rookie who they drafted.

The Traded Player Exemption, which allows a team that is already within the threshold, to trade player or players with another team, as long as they retain an equal amount of salary in return. For instance, if we traded Cam Payne and Morrow who for arguments sake were on $10mil combined for Taj and McDermott, who were also on $10mil combined, then that would be ok if we were still within the threshold.

Those are the only ways really to retain your own players or trade for a player while staying within the Luxury Tax Threshold.

Now, teams can certainly spend over and above the threshold if they wish, but they will be hit with a penalty, which is the Luxury Tax component.

In previous years this tax was a $1 for $1 value, so for instance if you were $10mil over the threshold, you would pay $10mil additional in taxes to the NBA.

Recently this has changed however and the tax begins at $1.50 for every $1, so now if you were $10mil over the threshold, you would pay an addition $15mil in taxes. What is worse, is that the figure increases depending on how far over the threshold you actually are.

Here is the schedule of those tax increases.

 

Ouch! As you can see, the taxes are really incentivising teams to be around or slightly under the Luxury Tax Threshold. This should prevent a repeat of the Golden State Warriors situation, where they have built up a super team with 4 all stars and a few players who would be starters on any other team.

As a side note, it will be interesting to see what happens to Golden State next year, as Curry will be a free agent and move away from his current $12mil contract and receive a max contract of about $35mil per year. Add to that KD’s salary of $27.7mil, Klay’s salary of $19mil and Draymond’s salary of $17.5mil and you can see that they will have to start making some tough decisions.

Those 4 salaries alone amount to circa $100mil and the salary cap for next year is only $101mil with a Luxury Tax Threshold of $122mil. The amended CBA also now makes it so a team must have a minimum of 14 players on its salary.

That means GSW only have $21mil left to pay 10 players on their team next year before they start getting hit with a luxury tax. Good luck trying to sort that one out GSW without losing a star and a portion of your bench to sign up the golden boy, Stephan Curry. There is no doubt that Stephan Curry WILL be a Warrior next year, so lets see who they cut or trade. *Cough* Durant *Cough*.

The reason I say they will need to make some tough decisions soon, is that teams cannot stay above the Luxury Tax Threshold with impunity.

The Repeater Tax which is mentioned on the right side of the scale above, refers to an even heftier tax which is imposed on any team which is above the salary cap for 3 seasons out of the previous 4. As you can see, those penalties really are going to cause some chaos among the league, with teams who are not in contention dumping salary to get under the cap to ensure they don’t end up paying the repeater tax for no reward.

Even teams that are in contention for the championship, such as Golden State and Cleveland, will have to consider revamping their teams at some point, as no matter how rich an owner is, I doubt they want to start paying a tax of $2.50 for every $1 going all the way up to $4.75 and higher for every $1.

Cleveland have already been above the Threshold 2 of the last 3 years and I can imagine they will be again next year, unless they blow up the team. GSW were above the threshold 1 out of the last 2 years, but they will without doubt be over it again next year. If they go over a year after that, for instance to sign KD, then POW! Repeater Tax will hit them.

The Thunder are in the same position as GSW by the way. They were over the Luxury Tax Threshold in the 2015-16 season and actually paid tax to the tune of $14.5mil.

OK, enough talking about GSW and Voldermort KD. I think GSW and Voldermort KD have been linked to OKC enough. I don’t want to mention Voldermort …. I’m sorry, my keyboard just keeps typing Voldermort every time I try to type Voldermort. SEE!

Ohh! He doesn’t look impressed does he?

OK, enough talking about GSW and “He Whose Name Will Not Be Mentioned”, or typed it seems, again and lets focus on OKC.

This season we were back under the salary cap, as shown below, together with what exceptions we used to sign the players with.

So you can see that this season, we were $5,317,596 under the salary cap but we still had $24,517,596 to play with under the Luxury Tax Threshold. Not bad right?

Well, no. Here is the kicker. A team can ONLY sign a free agent using the room it has left UNDER the salary cap. So we only had $5,317,596 we could have used to sign up a free agent with.

There are a 3 exceptions to this rule, but the CBA has severely limited what you can do with it.

The Non-Taxpayer Mid-Level Exception allows a team who is above the salary cap, but still within the threshold to sign a free agent, up to a maximum of $5,797,000 next year.

The Taxpayer Mid-Level Exception allows a team who is above the salary cap AND above the threshold, to sign a free agent up to a maximum of $3,581,000 next year. So over $2mil less than if you were within the Threshold.

The Minimum Player Salary Exception allows a team who is above the salary cap to sign a free agent to the minimum salary. For next year this ranges from $562,393 for an undrafted rookie, like we did for Semaj Christon this season, up to $1,605,797 for a vet who has been in the league for 10 or more years. This will be what David West signed for with the Spurs last season and the Warriors this season.

As you can see, there is not a lot of money to throw around to attract free agents, if you are over the salary cap in any way.

What blows apart the theories of attempting to sign up Griffin or Millsap or Hayward, is that all 3 of those players are looking for max contracts, which will be around $30mil each year.

Where OKC gets even more unstuck, is that Sam Presti signed up Westbrook, Adams and Oladipo to sizeable contracts to ensure the team didn’t just fall apart after “He Whose Name Will Not Be Mentioned” left us high and dry. Those sizeable contracts kick in next season.

Next season the Salary Cap is $101,000,000 for the entire team. The Luxury Tax Threshold is set at $121,000.000.

With those figures in mind, here is what the team salary looks like next season.

As you can see, the Thunder is already $9,431,486 over the salary cap and that is without even signing any of our 3 free agents. We only have $10,568,514 to sign those 3 players if we have any hope of being under the threshold, otherwise we will have been over for 2 of the last 3 seasons and in very real danger of hitting the repeater tax the following year; a situation I am certain the usually frugal Thunder board will not allow.

So we have no hope at all in signing a big name free agent in the offseason. Being over the salary cap precludes OKC from even entertaining the thought.

The one good piece of news, is that nearly all of us fans thought Jerami Grant was a free agent this offseason. It turns out we have a team option on him, to keep him for another season at just $1,524,305. I have included his salary in the equation above, because Presti would be crazy not to retain Grant, especially in light of the next bit of news.

OKC has reportedly put Cap Holds for 3 people for next season. This means, they have allowed a certain amount of money for what they want to sign up our own free agents for.

They have set aside $13,425,000 for Taj Gibson, $1,524,305 to secure Jerami Grant’s team option (I knew Presti was a smart man) and $5,457,681 for Andre Roberson. These amounts are added to the teams salary, until another team signs up those players.

So in reality we are actually $28,314,167 over the salary cap taking into account Taj and Dre’s Cap Holds, which pushes us straight over the Luxury Tax Threshold.

That is just to keep the team we already had this season!

A couple of things of note here. First is that no money has been put aside for Nick Collison, so I am assuming he is retiring this offseason, or being made an assistant coach.

Second is that from all the reports I have been reading, teams are likely to offer Andre Roberson anywhere from $18,000,000 per year up to $22,000,000 per year. This is 4 times the amount OKC have set aside for him, so we will be saying goodbye to Dre next year. There is no way he would, or should, pass up that sort of money. I hope he flourishes for whatever team he ends up with.

So we will have exactly the same team we have now, except without Dre if we retain Taj Gibson?

This year we got to 6th place, but only off the heroics of Russell Westbrook and remember the first point of this post? We need to get some shooters to help Westbrook out or we will probably lose him too!

So where to from here?

I would drop Dre’s contract straight up. There is no way OKC is going to match $18mil – $22mil to keep Dre, so why tie up $5.5mil you could use to offer a free agent come off-season?

Personally, I really like Taj Gibson, he is a solid rebounder, a solid defender, a solid low post player, has a solid 15ft jumper and he is a great locker room guy who can mentor the young guys we have. He is a solid C++ type player all around.

What he doesn’t have however, is what OKC needs to be competitive. He does not have enough range on his shots to space out the floor to allow Russ and Adams to operate.

Also, for some reason, he did not play more than 20mpg all season, including the playoffs. I don’t know if that was because of Coach Donovan wanting to go with different options, if the coach thought there were better options on the team, or if it was because Taj’s old legs can’t handle more than 20mpg. Either of the 3 scenario’s don’t make a compelling argument for keeping Taj, in my opinion.

I would waive his contract in search of a perimeter shooter, either at the SF position or as a stretch 4.

So that brings us back under the threshold, but still has us at the $9.43mil over the salary cap I estimated before. It still doesn’t allow OKC to sign up a meaningful free agent, so how do we get some help for Russ?

Time for some hard decisions.

Kanter is a key component of the bench for OKC. He is a great team mate and the fans, including me, all love him, especially his dynamics on and off the court with Steven Adams. However, it has to be noted that he could hardly be played at all in the playoffs. He was excellent when we had Russ and KD who spaced out the floor for him, but without both those guys on the court with him, the Rockets were able to focus their efforts on him, causing him to struggle offensively; his major strength of his game was negated in the playoffs and his major weakness, his defence, was exposed again and again as they attacked him relentlessly.

Bearing in mind we have another stud centre, who will very likely be promoted to the pro’s next season in Dakari Johnson, I would make the tough choice and trade Kanter for future draft picks. If possible, I would package him and Singler together for future draft picks. It will be the only way we could unload Singler’s hefty salary onto another unsuspecting victim team.

Boston, Brooklyn, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Indiana, Lakers, Miami, Minnesota, New York, Orlando and Philadelphia are all teams with sufficient cap room to pick up either one or both contracts and still retain their core group.

That would leave us looking something like this:

We would have about $13mil to try and sign up a decent, not a star mind you, or even fringe star free agent, but a decent free agent. We would need to be very strategic about who we went after. Someone who we could afford and would help our team get better.

Personally, I believe we should go after the Aussie, Joe Ingles who hits free agency this year. From what I am seeing he will be signed up in the vicinity of $12mil-$13mil per year which fits in perfectly for what we would have available under the salary cap.

Even better is that Utah needs to expend all their efforts in securing their star player in Gordon Hayward, so they only have a Cap Hold of $4mil on Ingles. He is definitely leaving them this off season.

Ingles would be a perfect starting SF for us. He is a very good defender. He is a 6’8, 226lb SF with long arms, who is able to lock down opposition 2’s to 4’s, which makes him a GREAT defender switching against a pick and roll.

He has played lock down defence against players like Lou Williams, who you may remember as the guy who torched us in the playoffs, all the way up to “The King” Lebron James.

He is also has that savvy veteran presence about him. Make no mistake, Ingles is not the usual guy coming off his first rookie contract. He used to be one of the biggest names in basketball in Australia’s NBA. This guy can play.

He dribbles the ball like a point guard and is a very able passer which allowed Utah to promote him to the starting 2 guard position for them towards the latter part of the season.

What makes him perfect for OKC, other than his defence, his ball handling, his passing skills and his veteran savvy, is that he ended the season averaging 44.1% from 3 point range.

He is a great cutter to the basket and can hit open mid range jumpers and layups as well, with an effective FG stat of 58.9% for the season. Those are great numbers.

Since the all-star break, when he began seeing more playing time with the Jazz, Ingles also chipped in 4.1rpg, 3.4apg and 1.3spg. All very handy numbers.

This guy is one of the best SF’s at the price range we could afford, that we could ever pick up for the team in my opinion. There would be minimal drop off on the defensive end from this season, but he will space the floor wide open for Russ and Adams to do their thing.

The other player I thought would be worth going after was Danilo Gallinari from Denver, but he is already pegged to get over $16mil with them and he is likely to go to free agency and lock in maybe $20mil per year. Too rich for the Thunder.

The other position we desperately need to get assistance from is the backup point guard position. We need someone who can keep the scoreboard ticking while Russ sits on the bench. OKC went on just plain, dry bone, arid droughts every time Mr Triple Double was not on the floor. They blew large leads when they had them and if they were behind, they were WAY behind by the time Russ got back out there.

That trend just cannot continue next season. Russ is going to tire of that real fast, no matter what he says on the press conferences about not seperating the bench players from himself.

My choice for backup PG, is this guy.

Langston Galloway is a 6’2, 200lb PG who can also play the SG position, if OKC wanted to play small ball, which Coach Donovan does like to play with.

He is a dogged defender who chases guards all over the floor and is just a pure sniper from long range. He averaged 39% from deep for the entire season, putting up over 4 three point shots per game in just 20mpg.

Since he got traded to the Pelicans however, for the last 19 games of the season, he averaged 47.5% from 3 point range! He also got 2rpg, 1.5apg and 0.6spg for the season.

Galloway is currently with the New Orleans Pelicans, but has a player option to opt out of his contract this offseason. He is owed $5,430,000 if he stays with the Pelicans, but we should entice him to play for OKC for the Mid-Level Exception of $5,797,000 in the first year, with an extension over that amount for the following years.

The opportunity to play and learn under the MVP and best PG in the league might be a great selling point to pull him across to wear OKC blue.

Once we have those two positions locked up, we would need to look at the rookies. OKC does have the number 21 draft pick, but if it goes like every other year, they will probably stash that player in the D-League to develop for at least a year.

OKC currently have 3 players in the D-League who in my view should be promoted to the pro’s next year.

First is Josh Heustis. He is no longer a rookie, but OKC took up his option last year, so his salary is against the books whether we play him or not. With Roberson very likely departing, he should find playing time as a backup SF behind McDermott.

The kid has really worked on his game and has been playing great basketball in the D-League this season. He has always been known as a great defender, in the mold of Andre Roberson, except this kid is averaging 14.6ppg, 6.2rpg, 1.3apg, 0.7spg and 1.7bpg. This kid is turning into a real solid two way player.

What’s impressed me most about his development, other than his great shot blocking and new found offensive prowess, is that he is putting up 6 three point shots per game and hitting 38.5% from deep. That, to me at least, is a guy who deserves some valuable minutes on this team. He has been patient all these years developing his game and really should be given a chance to now shine.

The second person who I have no doubt will be brought up to the pro’s, is Dakari Johnson. He is a 7ft, 255lb monster who has dominated the D-League this year. He’s averaging 18.5ppg, 8rpg, 2.3apg, 0.8spg and 1.3bpg. He is a great low post defender, has great low post moves and can hit 18ft jumpers. This kid has an all round game and would be the perfect backup C for Steven Adams. We won’t lose too much in way of offence, from losing Kanter, but we will gain tremendously on the defensive end.

To me this one is a no brainer, especially when you consider you could sign him for the Minimum Salary Exemption of $562,393 which is just perfect for OKC.

The third player I feel we should promote to the pro’s is Alex Caruso. He is a 6’5, 186lb guard who is another solid 2 way player. He averaged 12ppg, 4rpg, 5.2apg and lead the D-League in steals with 2.2spg. He was also deadly from 3 point range, putting up 3 shots per game and hitting 40% from deep. He would also be on the Minimum Salary Exemption of $562,393 which again, is just perfect for OKC.

The other changes will be just internal growth of the players. Oladipo, Grant, Abrines and Sabonis all gained valuable experience in the playoffs this year. I fully expect them to develop their games further in the offseason and become a much greater factor for the Thunder next season.

OKC has the option of starting Jerami Grant at the starting 4 spot as a true stretch 4 (he shot 37.7% from 3 this season) who is a great shot blocker and very mobile defender, who can defend all 5 positions on the floor. The other option is to start Domontas Sabonis, as a bigger and stronger PF who is more of a post up scorer, but also has shown he can hit from deep. Personally I would prefer Grant, just to stretch the floor that much further.

If we could sign those free agents and promote the 3 rookies we would have a starting lineup of Russ, Dipo, Ingles, Grant and Adams with a bench of Galloway, Abrines, McDermott, Sabonis, Dakari, Huestis and Caruso.

That would give OKC all the scoring power they would need to both spread the floor and support Russ to keep the score board ticking along. All those players (other than maybe Abrines and McDermott) are true 2 way players who can score AND defend at a high level.

Most importantly, all those players salaries would fit under the Luxury Tax Threshold meaning we would be 2 years in a row without paying the Luxury Tax, a very important component in ensuring we don’t end up paying the repeater tax for at least another 4 years.

What do you think would be the best fits for the Thunder next year, taking into account the reality of the Salary Cap, the Threshold, the Luxury Tax and the Repeater Tax which Sam Presti will definitely be taking into account in any moves we make in the offseason?

 

 

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