Much has been made about the clock that seems to be ticking on the Oklahoma City Thunder's current core. With Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook locked up to big, long-term contracts, and James Harden and Serge Ibaka poised to become restricted free agents a year from now, it seems impossible that a small-market team like the Thunder could keep all four players.
But CBA rules certainly won't prevent Oklahoma City from keeping all its stars if the team is willing to pay for them. Since Harden and Ibaka are restricted (rather than unrestricted) free agents in the summer of 2013, the Thunder will be able to match any offer those two players receive from another team. However, paying all four of its core players while staying below the luxury tax threshold will be a challenge.
With Durant slated to make about $17.83MM in 2013/14 and Westbrook due about $14.69MM, maximum salaries for Harden and Ibaka would take the Thunder's total payroll up to $60MM+ for four players. Even with increased cap and tax thresholds, and the chance to potentially trade or amnesty Kendrick Perkins, the Thunder would be commiting enough to four players that there's a strong chance they'd be a taxpaying team. With more punitive tax charges beginning in the summer of 2014, and those max salaries increasing annually, that's not good news for the team.
Still, there should be a way for the Thunder to retain both players and still have a chance to avoid a large tax hit. If the club hopes to keep both Harden and Ibaka, contract extensions would make more sense than waiting until next year's free agent period. As we saw with free agents like Roy Hibbert and Eric Gordon this summer, you don't necessarily have to be a perennial All-Star for rival teams to be willing to offer you a max deal, and Harden and Ibaka are good bets to receive max offers next summer. If the Thunder pre-emptively offer long-term extensions for a little below the max, the team has a chance to save a few million dollars -- perhaps Harden and/or Ibaka would sign slightly below-market deals to hedge their bets against poor performance or a serious injury in 2012/13.
Let's take a look specifically at Harden's case. Kevin Durant declared earlier this month that there was no way Harden would hit the open market next summer, and while he backed off that comment today, I do get the sense that the Thunder are prioritizing a Harden extension at this point. When the season ended, the Sixth Man of the Year talked about how much he loved playing in Oklahoma City, and said he hoped to sign a long-term deal to remain with the club.
The fact that Harden is hoping to be extended rather than talking about testing the free agent waters could provide some hope that he doesn't intend to squeeze every last dollar out of the Thunder. Additionally, this offseason might just be the time for the Thunder to strike, with Harden coming off a disappointing Finals performance against the Heat. The 22-year-old's play in that series certainly didn't impact his value significantly, but it could have been enough to save the Thunder a little more money.
Unfortunately, the Thunder lost one additional piece of leverage when they inked Westbrook to a five-year extension earlier this year. Each team is only allowed to sign one player to a five-year deal coming off a rookie contract, so Westbrook is now the Thunder's "designated player," meaning Oklahoma City doesn't have the advantage of offering Harden that extra year.
What might a four-year extension for Harden look like then? I doubt the Thunder are able to get it done for less than $50MM, but something in that neighborhood could work for both sides. Harden would receive his first massive payday, while the Thunder would avoid having to pay him the max (which figures to amount to well over $60MM), saving some room for Ibaka and others.
If Oklahoma City isn't willing to go that high, or maybe even higher, for Harden, he likely won't be in any hurry to sign an extension. With a shortage of elite shooting guards around the league these days, Harden would draw plenty of interest on the open market next summer, perhaps from the Suns, the team that missed out on Gordon. Phoenix should have a decent chunk of cap space available a year from now, and is said to have interest in Harden, interest that could be mutual.
"Yeah," Harden told Dan Bickley of the Arizona Republic, when asked if he'd consider signing with the Suns. "Of course. I love it there. My mom lives there still. So that's definitely my second home as far as my comfort level and going to school there."
Harden quickly reiterated that he's a member of the Thunder, and indicated he'd like to remain in Oklahoma City for the long-term. And I think there's a good chance the two sides work out an agreement sometime before October 31st to make that happen. If they do, it'll be yet another sign that the Thunder are committed to keeping their core intact, ensuring that they remain a perennial threat for the NBA title for years to come.