HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – As Memphis, $37 million lighter after Wednesday’s dumping of Rudy Gay, visits Oklahoma City tonight, crystallized further is the small-market Thunder standing as the league’s one-and-only Super Team built to survive this new era under a sharp-toothed collective bargaining agreement.
The Super Team era is dead and the staggering luxury tax penalties that take effect next season scared Memphis straight into a salary sell-off. The Grizzlies moved lesser pieces in a deal last week that spared them from the last of the dollar-for-dollar tax penalty this season and could have allowed them to take one more postseason stab with its core four — Gay, Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol and Mike Conley.
But the Grizzlies’ new ownership and management groups decided not even to do that. Gay is now a Raptor. Who knows where Randolph and Gasol will be come July?
Soon even LeBron James and the Super Friends might have to short-circuit LeBron’s “not one, not two, not three…” proclamation because the owners’ demands in the CBA is squeezing the three superstar model onto life support. LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh will be owed a combined $62 million in the 2014-15 season before which all three can opt out. That three-player total already tops this season’s salary cap and is just $8 million from entering the luxury tax.
Starting next season, the luxury tax penalty increases incrementally with each $5 million over the threshold.
The Lakers? The Nets? The Knicks? The Spurs? The Bulls? Name another team with a core as young, as talented and as manageably locked up as the Thunder with All-Stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook and ever-emerging big man Serge Ibaka. Surely not the Grizzlies. Perhaps the Los Angeles Clippers if they re-sign Chris Paul this summer to pair long term with Blake Griffin.
“We like our team,” Durant told NBA.com recently. “[General manager] Sam Presti, [assistant general manager] Troy [Weaver], do a great job of putting everything together and making it work, bringing great guys in here that fit with each other, making money fit, the salary cap, all that stuff. They make that work and we really trust them in every decision they make because they always try to put our team in position to do well.”
Presti and Co. made their difficult-but-necessary CBA-related move just days before the start of the season, further confirmation that the three superstar era is as good as dead when they gave up on signing James Harden and traded him to Houston. The deal netted sharpshooter Kevin Martin, and any criticism of the CBA pistol-whipping OKC into a chemistry-disrupting deal on the heels of an NBA Finals appearance evaporated with its seamless transition and fast start.
“We got rid of James, that had to happen, but we didn’t get rid of KD,” OKC coach Scott Brooks said. “We’re going to be good for a long time. KD is still here and Russell, and we have some young guys that are improving. Serge is only 23. Jeremy Lamb (Houston’s No. 12 overall pick acquired in the Harden deal), he hasn’t played much, but he has a chance to be really good, he’s only 20. [Hasheem] Thabeet, he’s not a known guy, then we’ve got some first-round picks.
“So we’re excited about where we’re going, but still we want to win a championship now. We’re not playing for next season or the next season after. We’re like every team, if you have a chance to win you want to win now.”
The Thunder are the favorite to return to the NBA Finals and a combination of shrewd decisions and foresight by the front office, good timing and great luck have positioned them to rule the West, if not the league, for seasons to come. No other team has such desirable young talent locked up for the long haul and locked into contracts that make it at least possible to swim around the luxury tax line of doom without being financially severed by the sharks.
Durant and Westbrook are 24, and Ibaka, incredibly, is only 23. Durant is already signed to a max deal through 2015-16 and Westbrook is too, and through 2016-17. Ibaka signed an extension in the offeseason and is on board through 2016-17 on a reasonable deal that will begin to pay him $12.3 million next season.
Martin becomes a free agent after this season. With just one playoff series in his first eight seasons with Sacramento and Houston, Martin, who is making more than $12 million this season, says he wants to re-sign with OKC.
And if OKC needs an escape hatch, Presti still holds the amnesty card, which he can use, if he so chooses, next offseason on a player such as center Kendrick Perkins, who will earn $18.6 million over the next two seasons.
“Our management does a great job of putting the right people around the organization,” Westbrook said. “It’s showing and it should help us out for years to come.”
The new CBA is ending the Super Team era and it threatens any young building team with uncomfortable decisions and short-term cohesion.
At the moment, no team is better positioned to conquer it than the Thunder.