It says something about us that our first thought after Serge Ibaka's new contract extension with the Oklahoma City Thunder had nothing to do with Serge Ibaka. Instead, we thought about his teammate, James Harden. Specifically: whether the small-market Thunder would have enough money left over to re-sign him and avoid an enormous luxury-tax bill in the future.
We obviously don't know the answer to that question yet, and we won't until Harden makes up his mind. Still, to me, a lot of the assumptions made about Harden's future were people seeing the forest for the trees. If anything, keeping Ibaka makes it more likely Harden stays, not less.
What assumptions? With Ibaka now under contract for $48 million over the four years following this one, the Thunder owe their top stars a lot of money. In 2013-14, the Thunder's four highest-paid players -- Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins -- will make more than $51 million by themselves. The luxury-tax threshold is going to be just more than $70 million that year, and the penalties are much steeper than ever before. Plus, Oklahoma City is Oklahoma City, not a glitzy market like Los Angeles.
So, people ask, how can OKC afford Harden? Simple: look at how much long-term money Russell Westbrook and Ibaka just sacrificed to stick around.
Westbrook did sign a hefty extension last January, but it could have been even bigger. Thanks to a new provision in the CBA, players can be eligible for a "super max" extension after their rookie contract. If a player agrees to a "super max" deal and then makes one of the all-NBA teams twice in his first four years, he could earn an average of $3 million more per season over the course of a five-year deal.
Westbrook could have added that to his new deal and, after his second straight all-NBA honor last year, he would have reaped the benefits. Instead, he agreed to simply sign the standard max deal, saving his team a little bit in the process just to help keep the band together.
And Ibaka? Let's call a spade a spade here. In a league where Brook Lopez and Roy Hibbert garnered multiple $60 million contract offers as restricted free agents, Ibaka would have too. Given his age and shot-blocking skills, he probably would have been worth it too. By signing now, Ibaka is sacrificing at least $10 million over the course of his contract, all in the name of keeping the band together.
These dollar figures aren't large, but they matter; $3 million saved with Westbrook and $2.5 million saved with Ibaka is more like $6 million and $5 million, at least, because of the new tax rules. To this point, the Thunder have never said they'd be completely unwilling to go over the tax threshold. They just want to manage it enough so they don't get hit with the escalating charges and the repeater penalty.
More importantly, though, the Westbrook and Ibaka situations set the stage for Harden. Already, two of the team's biggest stars left money on the table to play for a winning situation. Bigger picture, the practice of stars teaming up is en vogue across the league. LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh laid the foundation; Dwight Howard, Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant continued the legacy and the many heralded recruiting classes that come to Kentucky help ensure the younger generation keeps up the trend.
That's perfect for Sam Presti, of course. The Oklahoma City Thunder GM just needs to sell Harden on the idea that winning provides the kind of value that a couple extra million on his new contract can't make up in another situation. He can kill two birds with one stone, keeping his championship-contending nucleus together while lowering his team's luxury-tax bill. All he has to do is tell Harden to look around and see what everyone else is doing. Suddenly, that $11-million-per-year contract offer looks much more attractive.
It doesn't matter how many dollars are at stake. Peer pressure is still peer pressure, and nobody knows this better than Presti. He's been setting this sequence up for a while and, now, only one more domino has to fall for him to keep his team together for years to come.