January has been a busy month for the Oklahoma City Thunder on multiple fronts, but especially so with the trade market. Sam Presti's opening salvo for 2015 was snagging Dion Waiters from the Cleveland Cavaliers in an attempt to secure cheap labor that could add more punch to their bench. That trade dipped the Thunder's feet into unfamiliar territory: the luxury tax.
Days ago, rumors of Presti's follow-up hit the web. Per reports, the Thunder nearly added Brook Lopez from the Brooklyn Nets in exchange for a package centered around Kendrick Perkins and Jeremy Lamb. That trade, in all likelihood, would've tacked on two to three million dollars on to the Thunder's payroll, accomplishing something even bolder than getting them into the luxury tax. They'd be sent past the point of return.
We now know two things about what the Thunder are willing to do. First, they're willing to be above the tax threshold to improve their team - we know this because they're there right now. Second, they're willing to pay it. That's an important point, because it's possible for a team to cross into the tax threshold and then duck back underneath without paying. As long as a team is beneath the tax threshold on the day of their last regular season game, they don't have to pay the luxury tax.
Ever since the infamous James Harden trade, the Thunder have battled the luxury tax. It is the line in the sand they have refused to cross. For any small market team, the proposition of getting stuck over the luxury tax threshold and being forced to pay the league's punitive tax repeater rate is a scary one. But circa Harden, the Thunder have had to battle the perception of stinginess. The decision to trade Harden was spurred on by fear of the luxury tax, and hindsight shows that fear was most likely undue.
Even as recently as last summer, when the Thunder purposely and controversially drafted Josh Huestis with the intent of stashing him in the D-League, a priority was placed upon leaving as much room under the tax as possible. This, all amid constant whisperings of owner Clay Bennett being a cheapo.
Why are they willing to take the splurge now? Urgency has set in, after injuries to top talent held the Thunder back through the first trimester of their season and they've been slow to establish a rhythm since. The possibility of missing the playoffs is all too real right now, something the Thunder can hardly risk with Kevin Durant's looming free agency is 2016. Get in as the eighth seed, and the talent on this team that has taken them through the gauntlet of the postseason before might be able to break off a playoff run if they can knock off the first seed. Finish ninth or worse, and they don't even get a chance to try.
With a record of 19-20 today, the Thunder sit three and a half games back of the Phoenix Suns for the 24-18 eighth seed, tied with the New Orleans Pelicans. Make no mistake, they'll do something by trade. They sit about $2.3 million above the luxury tax threshold today, and there's no sense in staying there. Either they'll bulk up with more expensive (and appropriately more skilled) players and go all in with exposing themselves to the luxury tax's repeater penalty, as they would've done in trading for Lopez, or they'll shave a few million dollars at the trade deadline and duck the tax for another year.
Whether or not the Thunder choose to remain above the luxury tax threshold is where the path potentially diverges. What they do could make the difference between the eighth seed or the ninth this season, or even the length of their playoff run. With Reggie Jackson, Kendrick Perkins' $9.6 million expiring contract, Jeremy Lamb and Perry Jones, the Thunder have just enough to make a competitive offer to teams.
Jackson and his restricted free agency rights remain a semi-valuable trade asset, although the limited market for starting point guards might mean interested teams (most of which will have even more interest in standout point guard Emmanuel Mudiay in the draft) will elect to wait until the summer before courting him. However, he isn't past chipping in for a few extra wins this season and becoming a supporting piece in a team's core long-term - he's solid and young, so there should at least be some low-end interest. The Thunder would seem to have some incentive to shop him, with Waiters in tow as the scoring spark-plug off the bench and murmurs of Jackson's attitude issues surfacing in a contract year.
With Perkins, the Thunder can go either way. His salary is large enough to dump and get the team back under the cap with ease, or to use as a filler for higher-salaried players like Lopez. In that regard, Perk is the Thunder's best trade chip.
Lamb and Jones are young, on rookie-scale contracts, and have shown flashes from time to time. Now in their third NBA season without any substantial progress towards entrenching themselves as NBA players, however, no team will be looking for them as trade centerpieces. In the proposed trade for Lopez, the Nets wanted payroll relief in the form of Perkins' cheaper, expiring contract - Lamb was only a sweetener.
The Nets pulled out of Lopez talks, and a lot of what happens next for the Thunder comes down to whether or not the right trade materializes. The scope of their trade interests is unknown past Brook Lopez, and there aren't too many similar players to be had around the league - Lopez is available in part because the Nets' payroll is the tenth circle of hell and because he's had potentially career-threatening luck with injury.
But finally, it's nice to know the Thunder are willing to pony up. The Thunder have been skittish with the smackaroos before, paying the price in talent instead. Whether or not they end up paying the tax this season, it's reassuring to know that this team won't make concessions any longer. Crossing that bridge is a small win of its own, and every win helps the Thunder now.