In retrospect, it’s hard to fault Kevin Durant for joining forces with the Golden State Warriors. For 27 million dollars, Durant plays on a super team, with the 2-time reigning MVP, that romped their way to an NBA Championship. To top it off, he earned Finals MVP honors after showing up LeBron James. Durant cannot take back both his team and individual successes of the past year, but the new NBA Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) would’ve allowed Durant to have equal success with the Thunder. The supermax would have made this possible and Durant would have made more money. With the CBA, the Thunder could have been this era’s superteam — not the Warriors.
The CBA helps teams manage the enormous salaries of NBA stars and construct their championship rosters. Most competitive teams dance around the salary cap – $99,093,000– through Bird Rights. These allow teams to sign their own players to a contract over the cap if their salary will not fit into the cap. Bird Rights apply to players who have fulfilled three years of service to any team. The Clippers hold the Bird Rights to star veteran Blake Griffin, but not to draftee Jawun Evans. The Rockets hold the Bird Rights to Chris Paul, since he spent his three years with the Clippers and then was traded. The Warriors avoid hitting the cap by signing Steph Curry to a 5-year, $201 million dollar deal. Durant, who doesn’t have Bird Rights, resigned for about $26.5 million a year and slot comfortably into the Warriors’ cap space of $60.8 million. Without Bird Rights, both Curry’s and Durant’s deal would not fit under the $99 million cap, thereby breaking up the Warriors’ super team.
The CBA also includes the Traded Player Exception (TPE) and the Mid-Level Exception for teams to avoid the salary cap. TPEs exempt teams from the cap to trade for a key player. A team that is under the luxury tax ($119,260,000) can get a star player with a yearly salary over $19.6 million, if it sends 80% of that salary back through the salaries of the players it trades in return for the star. The TPEs are most crucial when acquiring stars for a championship run. The Rockets complied with TPE during the Chris Paul trade, whose $24.2 million salary was offset by trading off minimum salaried players. Through the trade the Rockets made a run at Golden State during the season.
The Mid-Level Exception allows teams to sign useful free agents when over the cap or approaching the luxury tax. Offers made up to $8.4 million per year are exempt from the luxury tax, letting a team gain solid role players. Shaun Livingston, a key contributor to the Warrior’s two titles, has played every season with the Warriors under the Mid-Level Exception.
The supermax clause of the CBA entices the NBA’s elite players to stay with their original team. The supermax only applies to players who have made an All-NBA team or have played 10 years in the league. It makes re-signing with a team better than changing teams in free agency for those players. A qualifying player’s team can offer a 5th year, and with the supermax can now offer upwards of $70 million extra as well. For many elite players, it becomes impossible to pass up better money and more years through the CBA. Since many of these players have Bird Rights, the team can exceed the cap and then use TPEs and Mid-Level Exceptions to bring in other valuable pieces.
That brings us to Kevin Durant and the Thunder. Oklahoma City needs to contend now while they still control the league MVP, Russell Westbrook. Before free agency began, the Thunder traded Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis for Paul George. Westbrook and George are dangerous, but adding Durant would make them unstoppable. Even without George, the Thunder almost beat Golden State in the Western Conference Finals in 2016, infamously blowing a 3-1 lead. With George, it seems completely viable that the Thunder could defeat the Warriors, and thus the Cavaliers, to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy. Indeed, Oklahoma City could construct a star-studded roster around Durant and rival Golden State.
Let’s assume Durant signs the same deal with the Thunder that he did with the Warriors in 2016. Since Durant made 2nd Team All-NBA this year, he is eligible for the supermax. Durant would agree, in principle, to the same deal Curry received: 5 years, $201 million, though with an incremental raise each year. Thus, Durant’s salary for 2017-2018 would be $30 million, but GM Sam Presti would wait until his roster is complete before inking Durant. After the Paul George trade is complete, Oklahoma City would actually decrease their payroll by $3.95 million, leaving them at $108,690,000 of payroll pre-Durant and pre-free agency.
The starting lineup of Westbrook, Doug McDermott, George, Durant, and Steven Adams could improve if Thunder utilizes the CBA. First, using TPEs, Oklahoma City could create about $9 million dollars to spend on a crucial rotation piece. Wings Alex Abrines and Kyle Singler are useful, but the Thunder could improve upon those two. If both Abrines and Singler trade for second round picks, their contracts would free Oklahoma City up to sign a true backup point guard. For that money, Rajon Rondo would be an excellent addition. If he were willing to accept a backup role to Westbrook, Rondo would immediately improve the second unit. The Bulls collapsed after his injury, and he could provide that same value for the Thunder in the hunt for a title. That signing would leave the OKC payroll unchanged.
To finding a backup point guard, Oklahoma City needs to augment its frontcourt depth. Besides Durant and Adams, only Enes Kanter would play meaningful minutes next season. Kanter provides a multitude of value on offense, but his defense lacks, and he can’t space the floor enough to play solid minutes with Adams. Thus, the Thunder should shop Kanter, especially to the Celtics, who could use Kanter’s post skills and rebound at center. Assuming Boston re-signs Kelly Olynyk to a deal around 4 years, $40 million, the Thunder could trade Kanter to the Celtics for Olynyk, Tyler Zeller (for salary matching), and the protected 2019 Clippers pick, assuming Danny Ainge is willing to actually make a trade. The Thunder would immediately cut Zeller and his non-guaranteed $8 million, but Olynyk would be a solid backup center. Kanter is a better player and would fit in Boston, but Olynyk provides valuable floor spacing from the center position and can protect the rim well. Also, Olynyk would have a lower cap hit than Kanter, about $8 million next season, which gives OKC room to add a frontcourt player.
After creating a little bit more breathing room with the cap, the Thunder could avoid incurring an exorbitant luxury tax. Post-Kanter trade, the Thunder would have a touch more than $100 million in salary. Oklahoma City could draft Terrance Ferguson, who immediately adds 3-point shooting and defensive energy off the bench. His first-year salary is a mere $1.95 million, raising the OKC payroll to precisely $102,640,000. Since the Thunder would be below the luxury tax, OKC could use the Mid-Level Exception to add the Shaun Livingston-type player they need. In a perfect world, Andre Roberson would agree to the MLE, but he just signed for $10 million a year. Though Roberson should be the Thunder’s first choice, Ben McLemore acts as an excellent compromises. McLemore, the 7th pick in the draft, has struggled in Sacramento, but still shows flashes of elite skill. In every season of McLemore’s career, he has been a net positive defender according to Defensive Win Shares. Moreover, McLemore’s 3-point percentage has increased each season of his career, reaching a respectable 38.2% this year. A 3-year, $18 million contract could lure him — he provides a steady wing alongside George and Adams and increased floor spacing for Westbrook to drive. McLemore’s $6 million fits under the Mid-Level Exception, so there is no pressure to the Thunder’s luxury tax.
That would be fortunate, considering Durant has still yet to file his $30 million onto the Thunder payroll. Before OKC exercises Durant’s Bird Rights and signs him while over the cap, they would still need one more front court player to solidify their bench. Enter Taj Gibson. Gibson came over with McDermott in the Chicago trade and was a very useful veteran off the bench. His role as a strong bench power forward would improve the Thunder’s second unit. While Gibson earned $14 million on the market this year, he might accept a slight pay cut to chase a ring with OKC. Gibson in a 1-year contract with a player option worth about $11 million a year could let him capitalize on the Oklahoma City superteam. The real kicker for OKC, besides Gibson’s inherent basketball value, is that they control his Bird Rights from the trade with Chicago. The Thunder can then sign Gibson to an $11 million deal this year with no cap repercussions. This would have been prior to Gibson signing a 2 year, 28 million dollar contract with the Timberwolves, as Durant and George could have made OKC a more attractive destination. As soon as Gibson signs, Durant can also sign and allow the Thunder to exercise his Bird Rights as well, also neglecting the $99 million cap. While McLemore’s deal will not affect the luxury tax, the other two contracts will, sending OKC’s total payroll to upwards of $143 million. The luxury tax would be very steep, but the incredible talent on the roster speaks for itself.
Imagine if Durant had stayed. This Thunder team would be unbelievable, and could stand to win a title. They have the star power, size, athleticism, shooting, post skills, defense, leadership. The singular example Durant and the Thunder provide speaks to a much larger point about the flexibility the CBA offers NBA teams. Superstars like Durant should want to stay home with the lucrative supermax. Bird Rights allow teams to circumvent the cap and make room for other acquisitions. Other stars with large contracts are now more accessible via trade because of TPEs. Role players seeking a ring can slot themselves into a championship roster with the Mid-Level Exception. Under this CBA, superstars should never leave home. Super teams can rise at home seemlessly with players making more money over more years. What could be better than that?