Aug 21 2012 12:33PM

No Stealing Their Thunder


Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images

The Serge Ibaka re-signing Saturday was a good sign for Thunder fans that Oklahoma City GM Sam Presti is trying to keep this team together.

By getting Ibaka to re-up for a 4-year, $48 million extension, he talked the 22-year-old power forward down from numbers he may have asked for next summer--either a 5-year, $75 million contract or a 4-year, $58 million junior-max restricted free agent deal from another team.

Now, if Presti can convince Ibaka's 22-year-old teammate James Harden to do the same, then OKC is back in business.

So many in the media--HOOP included--are ready to push the new-and-improved L.A. Lakers ahead of Oklahoma City in their power rankings because of OKC's contract uncertainties.

As a small-market team, it appears the Thunder just cannot afford to pay four young stars $60 million a year. After all, Oklahoma City's team salary last season was $61 million--for its entire team!

But such is life when young stars grow past their rookie contracts and now each is worth about $15 million annually on the open market.

If Oklahoma City continues to be a championship contender, it should be able to afford a payroll that approaches the $70.3 million luxury tax, just like the San Antonio Spurs.

But if Harden were to get the junior-max contract for 2013-14--$13.7 million the first year--the Thunder's team payroll would be $80 million for only 12 players. And that would be after letting go of $3 million players Daequan Cook, Eric Maynor and Cole Aldrich,

Let's assume OKC signs two $1 million players to fill out the roster at $82 million. With the new more-punitive luxury tax penalties taking aim at teams spending more than the new projected $72 million luxury-tax figure in 2013-14, Oklahoma City would be $10 million over the tax, making them also pay a penalty of $16.25 million, bringing their total payroll to $98.25 million.

That's a far cry from both their 2011-12 team payroll ($61 million) and the new projected luxury-tax limit I assume they'd want to stay under in 2013-14 ($72 million).

Granted, if Presti amnesties Kendrick Perkins the last two years of his contract next summer ($18.6 million), they could bring down that initial 2013-14 payroll to $74 million, which would account for a $3 million penalty and $77 million total payroll, not to mention the money lost in by amnestying Perkins.

That might be more in line with Presti's thinking.

Still, the OKC GM might want to talk Harden down to an Ibaka-type contract before he commits to eventually shipping out Perkins, Cook and Maynor.

After all, if he gets Harden down to $12 million annually, he can insure that he will never have to pay more than $60 in salaries to his big four stars as the years go on, making it easier to fill out the rest of the roster with the $12-or-so million it'll take to stay under the luxury tax. If Harden gets his junior max, the Thunder will have to pay its four young stars $65 million in 2015-16, putting them back in the same situation they are today.

It makes sense for Presti to fight for every dollar because that's the price of the new game.

However, Harden also realizes his market value is more in line with a contract similar to Russell Westbrook, who is making the junior-max. I also could see Harden holding out for the 5-year, $75 million deal for awhile because he knows he can at least get 4 years, $58 million on the open market next summer, forcing Oklahoma City to match. And if I was a poker player, I believe Presti would eventually match that deal, giving Harden what he wants.

So, really, I believe, the ball eventually will be back in Presti's court in this season-long game of cat-and-mouse.

If Harden doesn't sacrifice for an Ibaka-type contract, Presti will either play poker and bluff trades during the season for a smaller-contract player. Or he'll keep Harden in the moment of truth, and lose various other role players to make this happen.

Should make for a fun season. Both on- and off-the-court for the genius GM.