OKC Thunder and small market teams face uphill battle to be competitive

OKC Thunder General Manager Sam Presti (Photo by Layne Murdoch/NBAE via Getty Images)
OKC Thunder General Manager Sam Presti (Photo by Layne Murdoch/NBAE via Getty Images) /

Superstars have seized control of the NBA as teams like the OKC Thunder get the short end of the stick. With the CBA set until 2023 does this concerning shift mean small markets face an uphill battle to being competitive?

Following the OKC Thunder trades of Paul George, Jerami Grant, and Russell Westbrook it seems to signify the first rebuild in the 11-year franchise history. The news cycle is focused on how and why the Thunder were put in this situation with further emphasis placed on how small market teams are in a terrible situation with top tier players holding all the power in the NBA. I alluded to this concerning shift in recent articles. And, I’m not alone in this thought process as Charles Barkley gave credence to my hot take.

George initiated the start of the toppling dominos virtually forcing the Thunder’s hand. And while  General Manager Sam Presti could’ve taken the ridiculous draft pick haul he received to land another star was that really an option? Truthfully, no – because of the OKC Thunder cap situation.

Still mired in the luxury tax bracket OKC must continue to make moves to ensure the team are not repeat offenders or face an even larger tax hit. Fortunately, Sam Presti has shaved a significant portion of the team’s overhead but is still above the luxury tax line.

As of this date, the OKC Thunder salary is projected to be $136,322,790 (includes Abdel Nader and Deonte Burton salary but does not include 2-way contracted players) with the luxury tax line set at $132,627,000. Presti has until season end to make moves to cut another $3,695,790. That could be accomplished just by waiving or trading Patrick Patterson who is contracted for $5,711,200 this coming season as long as the trade involves unguaranteed contracts which can be waived.

For all intents and purposes, Presti could pursue landing another superstar, but the majority of the top 10 NBA players were part of this summer’s free agency group. Pairing Russell Westbrook with a superstar like Giannis Antetokounmpo, for example, wouldn’t work just based on fit, nevermind the Bucks aren’t about to trade him.

The upper echelon of the NBA could vary based on your preference and opinion but most analysts would cite (in no particular order) Kawhi Leonard, Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James, Anthony Davis, James Harden, Paul George, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Joel Embiid, Russell Westbrook, Damian Lillard, Kyrie Irving, Jimmy Butler, Nikola Jokic and Karl-Anthony Towns. Of these 15 players, seven moved in the past few weeks and a further five were affected by trades or by free agent signings.

The players have control of the league and are calling the shots and unfortunately for franchises that aren’t considered one of the “big markets” like the OKC Thunder and Toronto Raptors they can do everything right and still end up on the losing end.

That is going to be a problem moving forward with no immediate relief given the current Collective Bargaining Agreement. In a few of my recent posts, I’ve noted how the next CBA will need to address the situation. Most specifically because all the changes made to pay middle-tier players and entice star players to stay put has backfired.

Instead, what’s occurred is superstars are foregoing the big payday (or taking it then demanding a trade) and the middling players are getting paid but ONLY in small markets. Conversely, the big star teams are luring those players to join them for a small percentage of what they would get paid elsewhere.

In short, the superstars have redefined the playing field with the top talents having all the control. OKC Thunder got hit hard by these offseason decisions. At least those who aren’t fans of superteams can be thankful for Kawhi’s choice of the Clippers instead of the Lakers which means there will be far more parity in the NBA this season. Unfortunately, it came at the expense of the Thunder, Pelicans and Raptors.

Sir Charles is one of my favorite old school unicorns and his comments regarding Westbrook’s trade to the Rockets and the subsequent fall out of free agency are in line with my thoughts.

This situation won’t be resolved this season or even next season because the next CBA was negotiated in 2016 with a seven-year contract term. That takes the League and players through to the end of the 2023-24 season.

Notably, most of the areas addressed in the current CBA were tied to contracts and it’s no coincidence some of the new concessions were tied to contracts for aging stars given Chris Paul and LeBron James were among the NBPA leadership group. Most notably the addition of the minimum salaries for veterans with 10 or more years of service. From the original NBA.com article, it even cites the above two players:

"The bi-annual exception will also increase. The expected maximum salary in 2017-18 for a player with 10 or more year’s service—including many of the game’s superstars, like LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Chris Paul, each of whom can become an unrestricted free agent next summer, will be $36 million, allowing a player to sign a five-year deal with his existing team for around $210 million."

And yet another tweak to the CBA which affects the above group (note the wording):

"A new “designated veteran player exception” has been created, adding a sixth year for players on veteran contracts who meet certain criteria."

I’m not trying to bury these two, but it’s clear there was a mandate in place by them when the negotiations occurred.

Barkley feels a strike could be inevitable given how much control the players have and because of how the small markets (or more specifically any teams outside LA, New York and arguably the historic markets like Chicago, Philadelphia, and Miami) are suffering based on the current superstar’s choices.

Let’s hope that’s not the case, but it sure feels like the CBA only served to do precisely the opposite of it’s intent and resulted in the big markets coming out with more power instead of an even playing ground for all markets.

More from Thunderous Intentions

Moving forward, this situation will be important to monitor especially when the Board of Governors meet to discuss the status of the NBA. Again, with the CBA not due for renewal for another five seasons there may not be much which can change. Yet, if the majority of owners feel the current status is a deterrent to being competitive will it lead to earlier discussions?

Perhaps, but contracts are set in stone, so the only real power owners have is to take a hard stance. For example, if more players follow the trend of demanding trades early in their contracts don’t be surprised if management denies those requests.

In the OKC Thunder situation, Sam Presti could’ve denied Paul George’s trade request and forced him to honor his contract. Given Presti kept declaring the need for the Thunder to cut salary and stop paying luxury taxes it isn’t surprising he agreed to PG’s demands and possibly even welcomed the request.

Let’s just hope Presti learned from the mistakes made when constructing the team he’s now dismantling. That doesn’t mean the Thunder shouldn’t look to sign superstars but there are two key takeaways to take from this era.

First, Presti needs to make better decisions specifically when it comes to fit and surrounding his top players with assets who enhance their games. And second, he’ll need to be better in salary negotiations with a view to not overpaying the supporting cast.

That reality could be a long time coming, but OKC Thunder fans have a vested interest in his ability to learn when we reach that stage. Let’s cross our fingers the current situation changes by that point or it might not even matter how adept Presti is at his job.

Next. Thank you, Russell Westbrook; a trip down memory lane. dark

One thing we know for sure is owners outside the big markets won’t be happy all these concessions were made to player contracts in order to appease the NBPA but the goal of an even playing field with star retention is in worse shape then it was prior to the revised CBA.

Suffice to say, something’s got to give, but it might be five years before changes can even be addressed.