One year ago, the Oklahoma City Thunder bet on their culture to win over a star who had longing eyes for another franchise. Just minutes into free agency this summer, that gamble paid off in a major way as Paul George rewarded their faith by staying put.
Despite having every opportunity to head home and sign with the Los Angeles Lakers – the team George had previously made known was his preference – the All-Star forward committed to the Thunder with a four-year, $137 million contract on Sunday.
The deal includes a player option on the fourth year, which means Oklahoma City will have George under contract for at least the next three seasons – a major win for a franchise that shipped Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis to Indiana last year without knowing if they could retain their incoming star for more than a single season.
It seemed like a forgone conclusion that George, a Southern California native, would jump ship to the Lakers this offseason, especially after the Thunder had a relatively disappointing campaign and failed to get out of the first round of the playoffs. His desire to don the purple and gold was why the Pacers traded him away in the first place and why Oklahoma City took such a huge risk in acquiring him.
Yet even with the possibility of joining the Lakers alongside LeBron James and forming the core of a new superteam on the table, George apparently doesn’t believe the grass is greener on the West Coast.
George didn’t just do the Thunder a solid by signing on for another year to run it back, he legitimately surrendered personal flexibility to ensure a long-term commitment. He could have just as well inked a one-plus-one deal with a player option on the second year that would have allowed him to hit free agency again next summer and reassess his options. And if George was adamant on securing a multi-year deal for the sake of security, he could have done a two-plus-one contract to hit free agency in 2020, when he will have 10 years of service and qualify for a max deal that would pay him a starting salary of over $36 million.
Instead, the Thunder can now plan on having a core of George, Russell Westbrook and Steven Adams for the next three years, and building around that in the hopes of contending for a title.
It’s an ideal outcome for Oklahoma City considering the alternative they were staring at last summer when, of those three, only Adams was under contract past 2017-18. But, as it stands right now, the way they’ve built their roster is about to cost them an exorbitant amount of money.
The Thunder currently have a payroll of $156 million for next season and because they will be victims of the repeater tax penalty, that means they’ll have to foot a tax bill of $130 million, the largest in NBA history, according to ESPN’s Bobby Marks.
It would be one thing to pay that much for a title contender, but Oklahoma City couldn’t get out of the first round with the same group this past season. Andre Roberson’s season-ending injury proved to be a crippling blow, but even with the Thunder at full strength going forward, it’s fair to wonder how much of a challenge they’ll pose to the Golden State Warriors, if they can even get through the rest of the loaded Western Conference.
Using the stretch provision on Carmelo Anthony – who picked up his 2018-19 option for $27.9 million – and spreading out his cap hit over the next three years would massively relieve the tax burden on Oklahoma City for the coming season, but it would worsen their financial situation in the two seasons after that.
Stretching Carmelo would produce a $9.3M dead-money cap hit for 3 seasons. That'd be painful. Including it would take the Thunder to $135M to just 7 players in 2019-20, and $128M to just 5 players in 2020-21. The luxury tax lines are projected at $132M and $141M, respectively.— Albert Nahmad (@AlbertNahmad) July 1, 2018
The Thunder could choose to just bite the bullet for the coming season, but that would be uncharacteristic for a franchise that traded away James Harden in 2012 to seemingly avoid the luxury tax.
Even after signing George, general manager Sam Presti has his work cut out, but there’s no doubting the victory Oklahoma City have secured in keeping their core together.
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