On August 18, 2012, the Thunder were in a good place. This was the day that Oklahoma City re-signed shot blocking extraordinaire Serge Ibaka to a 4 year, $48 million contract, a bargain for the young, talented big man.
You may have read stories about the other player the Thunder attempted to re-sign, but that's another story for another day. What matters today is, back in 2012 Sam Presti accepted the risk that James Harden might be better than anyone accepted and to let him walk away anyway in order to maintain personnel and salary cap flexibility.
In order to keep the 2012 Sixth Man of the Year, Presti would’ve had to shell out max dollars. In retrospect, the Thunder could’ve kept both Ibaka and Harden, but they would’ve pushed the Big Red Button too early. We can argue all day about whether James Harden really wanted to be in OKC (he didn’t), but that’s not the point. If Harden would’ve signed his max extension with the Thunder, that would’ve left the team with virtually no money to fill out the rest of the roster. In 2013-14, which would’ve been the first year of Harden’s new, max contract, OKC had a payroll $70.7 million, about $1 million below the tax line. Take out Jeremy Lamb and Steven Adams’ contracts, add Harden’s, and you get a new cap number of $77.3 million, which is nearly $6 million over the tax line. This $6 million over puts you in a different tax bracket. Instead of the standard $1.50 per dollar over, it’s $1.75 per dollar over, a increasingly crippling tax burden.
Regardless, the first, or even the second year isn’t what Presti was worried about. He was worried about that third year. If over the tax for three out of four years, a team will trigger the Repeater Tax. This dreaded thing that you hear about, but have never really seen, is real. The Repeater Tax adds an extra dollar to that $1.50 or $1.75 per dollar over the tax. If Presti re-signed Harden, the Repeater Tax would’ve triggered next year, with no end in sight (nobody knew about the cap boom in 2017). All for a redundant scorer that didn’t really want to be in OKC. So, when the Big Red Button was brought before him, Presti decided not to push it.
If the Thunder had re-signed Harden to a maximum level contract, they would've been headed for repeater tax territory in 2016-17, the year they'll need to re-sign Durant, and the year after Westbrook and Ibaka will be seeking new deals. (Of course, now this is a bit different, with the rising salary cap. Too bad Presti couldn't see the future.)
So Presti essentially did this: He bet on the futures of Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant to be good enough to take what would've likely been a five-year window, to try turn it into a 10-year one (or longer). A gamble, no question, and one that hasn't paid off yet.
Fast forward 2 years. Each of the Thunder’s two previous title runs have ended prematurely due to injury. As Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and Serge Ibaka are starting to enter their primes, Sam Presti had another decision to make. The Big Red Button was brought before him again. In an almost deja vu type of situation, sixth man Reggie Jackson was up for an extension. After saving the Thunder in their first round series against Memphis, Jackson was a hot commodity. However, a deal didn’t get done. Rumors suggested that Presti offered Jackson about a 4 year $48 million contract, Jackson didn’t sign, though, as he wanted more money, and a starting role. For the second time, Sam Presti decided not to push the Big Red Button.
Pouting through most of the first half of the season, Jackson killed his value. A trade request before the deadline was just a formality. As the trade deadline moved closer, Presti had another decision to make. The Brooklyn Nets reportedly had offered the Thunder former All Star center Brook Lopez for Jackson. Making this move would have required pushing the Big Red Button. You’d be getting an excellent player and low post scorer in Lopez, but he was also injury prone. Lopez hadn’t played a full season since 2011. Sam Presti decided to wait this one out, and entertain other offers, electing to not push the Big Red Button for Lopez.
All Deadline Day, the thought was that the Lopez trade was done. Presti was just doing his due diligence and would eventually send Jackson to Brooklyn. We were all dead wrong. With 20 minutes to go before the Deadline, it was announced that Enes Kanter, D.J. Augustin, and Kyle Singler would be heading to the 405. Some uneducated people saw it as the Thunder being cheap, again. Well, they’re wrong.
With this dynamic Westbrook-Kanter combination, Kanter’s stock has soared. There will be a lot of teams that are going to try to splurge on him in free agency. With the cap boom after next season, you shouldn’t be surprised to see an offer around $15 million out there for the big man. The thing is, Presti pushed the Big Red Button to get Kanter. The Thunder have decided to go all in. All their cards are on the table for everyone to see. With the smoothing of the cap boom idea shot down by the Player’s Association, OKC will assuredly be in luxury tax hell next year, but it’s totally okay with them. The Thunder have never had a problem paying the tax. Presti has always needed his flexibility, though (see: Clippers, L.A.)
With the deadline deal, Presti sent a PSA to the world. The Thunder are done building. This type of move was all part of the Presti Master Plan. Oklahoma City just wanted to delay the inevitable until their core was entering their prime. Now that they are, Sam Presti and the Thunder have pushed all of their chips to the center of the table. Now, in a way only he could, Presti pushed the Big Red Button. He just launched a nuclear weapon at the rest of the NBA.