The hypothetical super team du jour seems to revolve around Kevin Durant ditching the Thunder for Golden State. But if Durant wants to join a super team, there’s a scenario where he can build one of his own in Oklahoma City. In 2017, OKC native Blake Griffin will become a free agent. And if the Thunder play their cards right, they can save enough money to sign him… without losing Durant, Russell Westbrook or Serge Ibaka.
It’s unlikely. Most fans would call it impossible. But we all assumed what Miami did in 2010 was impossible until they actually did it. That seems like the right place to start because it took Miami two years of careful planning to pull off their free agency coup, and the Thunder will have to start this summer if they want to make a run at Griffin next year.
Step one is not only re-signing Kevin Durant, but making sure he signs on for a full five-year max deal. That is critical not just in making sure Durant is locked in and Griffin sees that he isn’t going anywhere, but from a math standpoint as well. If Kevin Durant signs a longterm max contract this summer, it will start at 30% of the 2016-17 salary cap. That is because he will have accrued nine years of NBA service time. If he signs for only one year and re-enters free agency in 2017 he will not only have a higher salary cap to work with, but also a higher max, as players with 10 years of experience can earn up to 35% of the cap.
The difference is staggering. If we assume a projected $90 million cap in the summer of 2016 and $108 million in the summer of 2017, Durant would stand to make $29,025,000 in 2017-18 under the first scenario and $37,800,000 under the second. The Thunder could not afford Griffin while paying Durant nearly $38 million, so he would have to be aware of the plan and sign on this summer.
The next two major dominos are Westbrook and Ibaka. Both are going to be free agents in the summer of 2017 and both should command the 30% max on the open market. However, neither will cost nearly as much on OKC’s balance sheet. That’s because of their cap holds. A cap hold is the fictional number that appears on a team’s salary cap to represent their own free agents (assuming they have bird rights). There are several different variables that determine what a player’s cap hold is, but Ibaka’s and Westbrook’s are relatively simple. As they are not coming off of a rookie deal and they both will make above the league average salary in 2016-17, their cap holds will be 150% of their ’16-’17 salary.
For Westbrook, that’s $26,654,061 and for Ibaka, that’s $18,375,000. Both will receive contracts worth more money than that, but that is how much salary cap space they will take up for the Thunder before signing their new deals. Add those two salaries up with Durant’s and you get $74,045,061. That would love Oklahoma City with a max salary slot if they traded or renounced every other player on their roster and were only responsible for three salaries. But they aren’t.
Even if the Thunder managed to clear every non-Durant/Ibaka/Westbrook player off of their roster, they would still be responsible for nine minimum salary cap-holds. These cap holds represent the minimum-salary players Oklahoma City would have to sign to fill out their roster if they used all of their cap space. Of course, functionally, they would only need to retain eight of these cap holds if they signed Griffin, as he would be a fourth player on their roster and the NBA minimum is 12. The projected minimum salary for the 2017-18 season (via Larry Coon’s indispensable Salary Cap FAQ) is $562,493.
Add eight of those slots to OKC’s balance sheet and you get a total of $77,991,512 on the books for the Thunder. With a $108 million salary cap, that would leave them with a little over $30 million in cap space. Griffin’s max would be $32.4 million, or 30% of $108 million. So Griffin would have to agree to take less than the maximum salary to join the Thunder, but it would still be a substantial raise from his previous contract and thanks to cheaper state income taxes (5.25% in Oklahoma, 13% in California) and a more reasonable cost of living the functional difference would be nearly nonexistent.
This assumes that the Thunder would be alright with building a four-man roster. If they wanted to keep some of their existing talent there are ways, but they would all depend on Griffin taking less money. The three most obvious candidates are Cameron Payne, Steven Adams and Andre Roberson. Payne is the simplest case. All the Thunder would need to do is pick up his team option for the 2017-18 season and he would be locked in under contract for $2,203,440. Adams and Roberson will be harder to retain.
Both will be restricted free agents in the summer of 2017, which could help the Thunder keep them but would require quite a bit of cooperation on both of their parts. If OKC wants to keep them (with or without Griffin, so this will happen regardless), they will extend qualifying offers to both depending on where they were drafted. Adams’ would be for $4,321,352, and Roberson’s would be for $2,148,142. Those are the numbers that would exist on Oklahoma City’s salary cap until either sign new contracts. Of course, the Thunder won’t have exclusive negotiating rights. Other teams can offer Adams and Roberson contracts as well, and as soon as an offer sheet is signed their cap number jumps to their new salary. The Thunder would either have to match it and accept that new number or lose them.
With that being the case, keeping both is likely impossible. Even keeping one with Payne is likely asking too much from Griffin. But keeping Roberson at a little over $2 million, and then signing him to a contract after Griffin has signed his, seems feasible. He would be a likely starter and the Thunder wouldn’t have any means of replacing him. If Griffin would accept a contract closer to $28.5 million, they could sign both. That would mean renouncing Adams and expired unrestricted free agents Anthony Morrow and Nick Collison (whose cap holds follow similar rules to Westbrook and Ibaka), and getting rid of the following players under contract:
- Payne, who would likely be attached to other names on this list to make acquiring their salaries more palatable for other teams
- Enes Kanter, whose close to $18 million salary sounds big on paper but is actually going to be reasonable under a $108 million cap and comes with the cost certainty of him being signed through 2018-19 (assuming he picks up a player option, which he likely will). Kanter is also a useful player, someone teams would gladly pick up for free.
- Kyle Singler, whose contract runs about $5 million and is no longer a useful basketball player. The Thunder will likely have to attach an asset in order to trade him.
- Mitch McGary, a young player who has looked good in spurts and has value to other teams.
- Josh Huestis, who has a team option that will likely be declined.
- Their 2017 first round pick, who will make somewhere around in the neighborhood of $2 million. This is trickier because the Thunder have traded their first round picks in 2016 and 2018, so the Stepien Rule prevents them from trading the 2017 pick until after the draft unless they acquire another first round pick in either the 2017 or 2018 drafts. Difficult, but not impossible. Worst case scenario, the Thunder trade their pick after the draft and free agency moratorium.
If the Thunder could accomplish all of that, they would position themselves to sign Blake Griffin to a near-max contract as a free agent. They would then sign Westbrook, Ibaka and Roberson to new contracts afterwards. The new contracts would increase their salary cap numbers, but because the Thunder have all of their bird rights, they could go over the cap to sign them and with Griffin already on the roster they’d have no need for cap space. After that, they’d have to fill out the bench.
The most useful tool at their disposal with be the Room Exception, a salary cap exception given to teams who begin free agency with cap space. It is determined annually and usually hovers at around 60% of the mid-level exception (which is whatever the average salary was the year before). That should give them a slot for a player at around $5 million, and picking the right one will be crucial as the team won’t have any other salary exceptions to spend in 2017. The rest of the roster will have to be filled out with minimum salary players.
Fortunately, the Thunder will be at the top of every ring-chasing veteran’s list, and there will be plenty available in 2017. An incomplete list: Kyle Korver, Thabo Sefolosha, Jarrett Jack, Tony Allen, Vince Carter, Zach Randolph, Jose Calderon, Carl Landry and Kris Humphries. That list doesn’t include any veteran 2016 free agents who will likely only sign one-year deals, but some names to consider from that group are Kirk Hinrich, Joe Johnson, Raymond Felton, Josh Smith, Amar’e Stoudemire, Tayshaun Prince, Chris Kaman and Luis Scola. None of these players are still stars, but they can all be useful for the minimum.
So yes, it would be possible for the Thunder to create the salary cap space necessary to sign Blake Griffin without giving up Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook or Serge Ibaka. It would be extremely difficult. It would force the Oklahoma City ownership to pay higher luxury tax bills than they’ve ever been comfortable with. It depends on a level of labor stability that is frankly in flux right now. But if things break and the Thunder choose to pursue such a plan starting this summer, they could conceivably create the next great NBA juggernaut.
*All salaries courtesy of Hoops Hype