The Thunder’s Long-Term Dilemma

Posted by    |    April 7th, 2012 at 5:30 am

Mar. 27, 2012; Portland, OR, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder small forward Kevin Durant (35) celebrates with point guard Russell Westbrook (0) after Westbrook hit a three point shot during the fourth quarter of the game against the Portland Trail Blazers at the Rose Garden. Westbrook scored 32 points as the Thunder won the game 109-95. Mandatory Credit: Steve Dykes-US PRESSWIRE

The Oklahoma City Thunder are one of the top 3 teams in the NBA, with one of the top players at four different positions: PG (age 23), SG (age 22), SF (age 23) and PF (age 22).

There’s only one problem, as I get into in an article over at RealGM:

With the development of Serge Ibaka and James Harden to go along with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, the Oklahoma City Thunder have become one of the best teams in the NBA. The bad news? They’re not going to be able to pay all of them.

 

This is the downside of the owners insistence on parity (read: saving themselves from their own incompetence by creating a system which drags the best teams back to the pack). Apparently it’s in the best interest of the league to break up one of the most exciting young teams to come around in a long time.

The Miami Heat, after paying three players near max salaries, have a payroll of $80 million this season. With the prohibitive cost of luxury tax penalties in the new CBA, the math just doesn’t add up for Oklahoma City to be able to pay James Harden the max and Serge Ibaka $60 million plus.

That leaves three questions:

1) Should the Thunder just hang on to both and go all-in on a title run in 2013?

2) If they only keep one, should it be Ibaka or Harden?

3) What’s the best return they could get for the one they don’t keep?

Here’s my reasoning:

If there aren’t any surprises in the lottery, the Portland Trail Blazers will have picks #7 and #12 while the Utah Jazz will have #9 and #14. Both teams would probably jump at the chance to pair Harden with the young big men they already have. From there, given how deep the 2012 draft is and the Thunder’s impressive draft history, they could set themselves up with two big talents on cost-controlled contracts for the next four years.

There’s something to be said for going all in next season, but in three years, Dwyane Wade will be 33, Chris Bosh will be 31 and LeBron James will be 30. Durant and Westbrook will still only be 26. Your mileage may vary on how important that is.