Thunder Zoom Into NBA's High Rent District
By Randy Renner
Never let it be said again that the Thunder have "cheap" owners.
Sunday evening the Thunder matched Portland's 4-year/$70 million offer for restricted free agent center Enes Kanter, placing the team's projected payroll for 2015-16 at just south of $98 million.
Last season Brooklyn had the NBA's highest payroll at just more than $91 million.
Without some roster moves the Thunder would face a tax bill at the end of the season of about $24 million for a total financial outlay of $122 million.
But roster moves will almost surely be on the way to knock that number down into a more manageable range. Perry Jones and Steve Novak are the most likely candidates and if rookie point guard Cameron Payne proves capable of taking over backup duties by the trade deadline in February, D. J. Augustin could be gone too.
All those moves would shave about $9 million off the payroll and reduce the tax payment by more than half.
The Thunder would need to add at least one more player, perhaps the OKC Blue's Josh Huestis or Semaj Christon at rookie salaries and the Thunder would still be well under the punitive third tier tax penalties.
When the salary cap and luxury tax levels zoom up in 2016 to $90 million and $105 million, it's highly likely the Thunder would be under the tax line even after giving Kevin Durant a new max contract.
More interesting than the financial gymnastics will be Kanter's role next season.
He's being given a max contract but may end up coming off the bench for the Thunder next season and also may not be able to play in crunch time because he's such a defensive liability.
Even more of an unknown is how Billy Donovan plans to handle things. Kanter gives him another offensive weapon on a team that's already stacked with offense. But the Thunder have never had a center like Kanter, who basically averaged 20 points and 10 rebounds during his time in OKC.
The Thunder had never had a center record a 20/10 game until Kanter and he did it 11 times in his 26 Thunder games. He shot 56.6 percent and about half of the 11 rebounds a game he averaged for the Thunder came off the offensive glass.
It will be interesting to see how Kanter and Kyle Singler for that matter, mesh with the Thunder's main group. Put Augustin in there too because none of those guys were on board before Durant was lost for the season with his third foot surgery.
There's no questioning Kanter's offense or his rebounding. As we've all come to know by now it's his defense that's the problem.
By some statistical metrics he's the worst defensive center the NBA has seen since at least the early 70s.
Since Kanter is so athletic you have the think the defensive issues are more mental than physical and can perhaps be fixed or at least improved.
If they can then $70 million might look like a bargain as the salary cap and luxury tax go up. If not, if Kanter remains a disaster on defense, things could go south. The Thunder could be left hoping that if the Collective Bargaining Agreement is re-opened for discussion in 2017 an amnesty provision will be added again and they can dump Kanter then.
But that's way down the road. Right now the priority is getting the 23-year-old Kanter to begin figuring things out on defense while keeping up his already outstanding offensive game.
Get that done and no one needs to worry about the road ahead.