If there is a recipe for taking an NBA franchise from the lottery to the NBA Finals, the Oklahoma City Thunder have followed it to perfection. Or perhaps they're the ones who wrote the recipe in the first place. Teams have made the transition from the bottom of the league to the top of the league in the past, and faster than the Thunder in some cases. Most recently, the Boston Celtics went from 24 wins in 2007 to the NBA Championship in 2008, but the circumstances of that transition (trading for two Hall of Famers and exceeding the salary cap for multiple seasons) could hardly be considered a recipe, which after all is a process that others are supposed to be able to follow.
The progression of the Thunder has been impressive and inexorable -- the team decided to blow things up and start over after winning 31 games in Seattle in 2007 (a decision that coincidentally helped bring that title to Boston in their fast track rebuild when the Sonics traded Ray Allen for a lottery pick). Over the next five seasons, the Thunder have:
- won 20 games in 2008;
- won 23 games in 2009;
- won 50 games and lost in the first round of the playoffs in 2010;
- won 55 games and lost in the Western Conference Finals in 2011;
- won the Western Conference title to advance to the NBA Finals in 2012.
They have accomplished all this with a roster that includes exactly two free agents, Derek Fisher and Royal Ivey, making $2.3 million and $1.2 million respectively. The core of the team was acquired via the draft, with some smart trades tossed in for good measure.
It's exactly the kind of success story the NBA wants to see. After all, these Finals follow a bitter lockout over a new collective bargaining agreement, a lockout in which a central theme was competitiveness. The NBA owners argued vehemently that small market, small revenue teams were at too great a disadvantage in the old system, that the biggest markets and biggest spenders were destined to dominate the league. More stringent luxury tax penalties were among the biggest wins for the owners in the eventual agreement (along with a reduced share of revenues going to players). The penalties designed to make it more difficult for the big market teams to simply buy more wins, supposedly leveling the playing field for the small market teams.
So with the Thunder, playing in Oklahoma City, the No. 43 largest metropolitan area in the United States and No. 28 among 30 NBA markets, advancing to the NBA Finals, it's a vindication for the new CBA, right? Not exactly.
In fact, this marvelous Thunder team, so painstakingly and expertly assembled, rather than being nurtured by the new CBA, will likely be one of its first casualties. You see, the new luxury tax doesn't care how a team arrives at a large payroll, whether the stars are brought in as hired guns as in Miami or homegrown as in Oklahoma City.
The bottom line is, Kevin Durant is already making the maximum, Russell Westbrook's maximum extension kicks in next season, and when James Harden and Serge Ibaka both reach free agency a year from now in 2013, the Thunder will not be able to retain both of them unless they intend to venture well into luxury tax territory. And because Durant and Westbrook won't be going anywhere any time soon, large contracts for Harden and Ibaka would likely mean paying the tax for the duration of those contracts -- which means the extra harsh "repeat offender" tax. There's no guarantee that OKC would have been able to keep both Harden and Ibaka under the old CBA -- but the irony remains that the new supposedly small market friendly CBA will almost certainly drive at least one of them out of town, quite possibly to a much bigger market.
The process is working as intended at some level, of course -- competitive balance means distributing the good players across more teams, and if OKC happens to have four stars, the cap is there to pry one of them loose, making him available for a less-talented team. But it's the part of the process that no one talked about during the CBA negotiations. The Knicks and the Mavericks and the Lakers -- those are the bad guys in the narrative, the big market, big money teams that have flouted the rules and tilted the tables. Those are the teams the CBA was supposed to handcuff. The Thunder? Shouldn't the idea be to draft well, assemble a great young team, and then watch them compete for championships for the next decade or so?
Sadly, the reality is different. The Thunder's outstanding core of Durant, Westbrook, Harden and Ibaka was assembled in the course of three drafts, and all four players are between 22 and 23 years old. Shouldn't we be watching this group play together for the next five seasons, the next 10? They haven't even come close to reaching the primes yet. How much fun would it be to watch them mature together over time?
The one reason that a hard cap would never, ever work in the NBA, is that everyone -- players and owners alike -- sees the value in players remaining with their teams over the long term. The primary exception to the salary cap, the Larry Bird exception, exists because Bird was a Celtic, and everyone knew it. No other sports fans have quite the same personal relationship with the players on their team as occurs in the NBA. There are only five players on the court, a single player can completely transform a team, there are no helmets to make them less human -- you see the faces of the players you're supporting. Teams want to be able to retain their own players, and they should be able to -- but if they're to be paid a competitive salary, the simple fact is that a team can draft too well. The Thunder may want to retain their home grown stable of stars, and it's arguably the interests of the league that they be allowed to -- but it will be too expensive to keep all of them.
The fact is that OKC's window is about two seasons -- last year, led by a couple of 22-year-olds, they were just too young. Two seasons from now, one of the key pieces will in all likelihood be gone. Which means this group has these Finals and next year to get over the top.
The Thunder will continue to be a great team even if they lose Harden or Ibaka in 2013 as expected. The NBA is a superstar-driven league, and with two of the most spectacular and youngest stars around, the Thunder will continue to be an elite team provided they can put some semblance of a supporting cast around them. If general manager Sam Presti continues to make shrewd moves, there's no reason to suspect that the Thunder can't continue to compete throughout Durant's career while avoiding the luxury tax. But this core -- this wonderfully compelling group of four youngsters who are so much fun to watch -- this group likely has only one more season together after the Finals.
Because the new CBA was put in place to help small-market teams.