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Sounds of Thunder: The Thunder’s Long Road Back to Contention, Part 2

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Paying the piper won’t come cheap.

The third highest luxury tax bill in league history.

You can find Part I of this series here.

***

Bleacher Report’s Dan Favale wrote a projection on April 19th, 2017 of every NBA team’s salary-cap situation going into the summer. What he wrote about the Thunder is almost as sobering as finding out your new President may not be able to keep a state secret any better than a grade-school gossip.

Favale writes:

The Oklahoma City Thunder are not in an enviable position. Indeed, they have Russell Westbrook, who could probably drag a cast of middle-schoolers to the No. 8 seed. But life is about to get expensive—untenably expensive for a 47-win team that doesn't have the firepower to knock off any of the Western Conference's Goliaths.

Hold serve, and the Thunder fly over the cap. Keep pre-contract hits for Taj Gibson and Andre Roberson, and they rocket into the luxury tax. And their spending wouldn't necessarily stop at $133.2 million. That's actually a generous projection.

Gibson's hold could be right around his market value. Pushing 32 with an offensive game that borders on obsolete, he might cost less. But with the Nets and Sixers likely to shower every half-competent restricted free-agent wing in big bucks, Roberson should end up costing around three times more than his cap hold.

Oklahoma City can taper costs by moving on from Gibson, but that doesn't keep it out of the tax. That'll take a demonstrative salary dump or bidding Roberson adieu.

General manager Sam Presti always seems to have something up his sleeve, but even a magician like himself will be hard-pressed to pull a reasonably priced roster out of his hat this offseason.

The Numbers:

Guaranteed Salaries: $110,037,026

Notable Free-Agent Holds: Taj Gibson ($13,425,000); Jerami Grant's team option ($1,524,305); Andre Roberson ($5,457,681)

Notable Non-Guarantees: Semaj Christon ($1,312,611)

First-Round Pick Holds: No. 21 ($1,487,500)

All-Inclusive Total: $133,244,123

Projected Starting Cap Space: -$32,244,123

The Tax:

Wikipedia

Adrian Wonarowski reported via Twitter on April 6th that the NBA had informed teams of the upcoming season’s cap:

When we take Favale’s admittedly generous projection for the Thunder and subtract $121 M, we get a staggering $12, 244,123.00 . That amount would earn the $2.50 per excess dollar rate and a luxury tax bill of $30,610,307.00.

In the immortal words of Jackie Gleason..... woof.

Talk about your mean green reality checks. Not only for Thunder fans, but especially for Thunder GM Sam Presti. If he can somehow turn this sow’s ear into a silk purse, Presti will have earned his paycheck and then some.

Hard Choices

At this point, many GM’s might hit the panic button. Dump it all and build from scratch. Presti himself did it in 2007 but under different circumstances. The 2006/07 Sonics were an aging team that didn’t make the playoffs while the 2016/17 Thunder are one of the youngest teams in the league and had a real shot at finishing as high as the 4th seed in the West before some untimely losses late in the season dropped the Thunder’s Young Guns to number 6. Additionally, the Thunder don’t have a Ray Allen and Rashad Lewis that Presti can parlay into multiple 1st round picks.

For obvious reasons, the 2016/17 Thunder were not ready to contend and in all likelihood, considering the direction Presti will be forced to go, neither will the encore version next season. At this point, big money free agents are basically off the table and it’s ludicrous to even consider paying the third highest luxury tax bill in league history to maintain the status quo.... but something has to give. The tax man is knocking at the door and he won’t leave without something to show for his time. What’s it going to be Presti? $30.6 M in cash or $12.2 M in flesh.

Obviously, Presti is not going to pay a $30M luxury tax. Not at this juncture at any rate. So that leaves the $12.2 payroll reduction option and letting go of players that are a part of the Thunder family and in some cases, even some fan favorites.

Trimming the Fat

At first glance, the Thunder’s $110M total doesn’t appear hard to work with. Then you notice Andre Roberson’s salary is just the qualifying offer and Taj Gibson is yet to be signed. Presti needs to trim between $15 and $25 million to first get under the tax threshold and hopefully create space for replacements.

First on the block is Kyle Singler. In just under 2 12 seasons Singler has brought very little to the team other than an unfortunate haircut and a bad contract. The trade value for a 29 year old hitting only 19% of his 3-point attempts and sporting a 5.9 PER is zip. The general consensus from beat writers Brett Dawson and Fred Katz is that the Thunder will utilize the seldom used Stretch Provision and spread the 2 remaining guaranteed seasons of Singler’s contract over 7 years. Doing so would clear $3.3 M in cap space next season, $21.7 to go.

It’s doubtful there would be many tearful goodbyes among Thunder fans surrounding the loss of Singler, but the next most obvious move is getting Enes Kanter’s $17M off the books and this writer, even after writing how big a mistake it was to match Portland’s offer in 2015, is surprised at how much the idea of losing the “Big Turk” stings today.

The reality is this: Kanter brings an excellent and elite offensive skill set that is also quickly becoming antiquated as the league is trending more and more toward smaller lineups. Furthermore, Kanter is a terrible defender, and there has been precious little evidence that that will change. Bottom line, it’s not working. Most importantly, against the league’s best, Kanter is a colossal negative net player and barely playable.

Kanter’s Net Rating against Western Conference playoff team per stats.nba.com:

Golden State -

3/20/2017 -26.9
1/18/2017 -7.4
11/03/2016 -139.6

San Antonio -

3/11/2017 -32.9
3/09/2017 +28.2

Houston Rockets (2017 Playoffs)

Game 1 -79.3
Game 2 -33.4
Game 3 +3.9
Game 4 -54.4
Game 5 -29.7

LA Clippers -

01/16/2017 -39.1
12/31/2016 +24.6
11/11/2016 +6.4
11/02/2016 -21.9

Utah -

03/11/2017 -18.7
02/28/2017 +17.2
01/23/2017 -0.7
12/14/2016 -28.6

Memphis -

04/05/2017 +12.9
01/11/2017 +11.5
12/29/2016 -34.2

Portland -

03/07/2017 -30.2
03/02/2017 +29.3
12/13/2016 -48.9

And against the cries that Kanter is a victim of circumstance, we find this:

basketballreference.com

Because Billy Donovan “can’t play” Kanter against the best, moving forward, Presti has to acknowledge he “can’t pay” $17 M to a player that only shines against lottery teams.

As I wrote in Part 1, Presti should get what he can, but if someone is gullible enough to offer their first round pick in the upcoming draft, Sam should pounce on the deal like a starving crow on a June-bug. Dropping Kanter gets us to within $5 M of our $25 M goal.

The Final Pound of Flesh

The third player that may have to be sacrificed is beyond a doubt the most painful for Thunder Nation because the loss comes with the highest degree of risk. Robes.

(whoa, I literally had to walk away from the keyboard after typing that...)

Andre Roberson won me over in the injury plagued 2014/15 season and, had his shooting continued to improve as it did last season, I would consider him untouchable. I would have stood by him if he had at least retained his stroke from last season, but he didn’t. Robes’ FT% and 3-point % dropped to the lowest since he took over Thabo Sefolosha’s starting spot. As nbc.com’s Dan Feldman puts it:

Roberson’s postseason confirmed everything we thought we knew about him: He’s a defensive dynamo, and he can’t shoot.

Feldman added this:

His postseason 3-point percentage (41%) was way better than his regular-season baseline (25%), but he attempted just 17 3-pointers in 185 playoff minutes. Not only is that a small sample, it speaks to another problem. The Rockets typically left him open, and he was reluctant to shoot. That allowed Houston to defend 5-on-4 elsewhere with only minimal repercussions. Despite playing more than 90% of his minutes with Westbrook, the Thunder still scored worse with Roberson on the court.

In another NBA cap related article titled “The 10 NBA Free Agents Most Likely to be Overpaid in 2017 Offseason”, Bleacher Report’s Dan Favale wrote this about Robes’ upcoming free agency:

Andre Roberson is going to be a quintessential gauge for how far aggressive buyers will go to poach a quality restricted free agent.

The Oklahoma City Thunder need him. He is, by far, their best perimeter pest. He places in the 88th percentile of points allowed per possession against pick-and-roll ball-handlers and has added more value on defense than stud wings such as Danny Green and Otto Porter, per NBA Math.

At the same time, Roberson has yet to develop into a dependable three-point marksman. He's shooting 26.2 percent from distance, even though almost 85 percent of his looks have gone uncontested.

"Obviously, Dre does a lot for our club," general manager Sam Presti said after the trade deadline, per the Oklahoman's Erik Horne. "We see him as being an important piece going forward. We're excited about having him, and I think there's a commitment to him in that regard."

Not exactly a ringing endorsement.

Presti is known for moving soon-to-be restricted free agents rather than losing them for nothing, so maybe the plan is to re-sign Roberson. But the Thunder will have more than $111.5 million in guaranteed money on next year's books once they pick up Jerami Grant's team option, and Roberson will cost eight figures annually on a good deal.

Blowing past the luxury tax for a defensive-minded wing who can't shoot is fine if you're a patented championship contender, not when you're a team trapped in the middle. Roberson is a flight risk no matter what, and that will only bring out opportunistic deep-pocketed suitors who are looking to make a splash.

It’s 2015 in reverse. The Thunder were waiting on what the market would dictate as the price on a one-way player. The Thunder paid that price in 2015 and have little to show for it other than a daunting luxury tax bill. If, as Favale suggests later in his article, that the spend-crazed Brooklyn Nets are interested in Andre, the Thunder may well be faced with matching another max type offer to keep Roberson. Fool me once?

By stretching Singler’s contract and dumping Kanter’s the Thunder, if Flavale’s numbers are right, they would still be over the cap but under the luxury threshold by roughly $8M. Not matching another team’s offer for Roberson adds another $3.2 M cushion but costs the Thunder one of the premier defenders in the league who happens to only be 25 with his best years in front of him.

Had the cap stayed at $108 M as originally projected a year ago, the prospect of paying Roberson $10 M or more per year wouldn’t be as big a concern, but that $7 M drop has put the hurt on, particularly if Brooklyn puts Roberson’s price tag at $12 M plus/yr. It is hard to see Presti hanging onto Roberson, with Josh Huestis waiting in the wings. When Presti allowed Thabo Sefolosha, a far better offensive player and an elite defender in his own right, leave without so much as a fare-thee-well 3 years ago, it was because he had Roberson to fall back on. It isn’t an easy decision, but it may be a necessary one.

A pound of flesh. No more, no less.