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.
With as much movement that now exists among players in the NBA, the summer has become a sort of second season, providing seemingly endless entertainment and intrigue.
This offseason has already been a compelling one, but it’s about to reach a new level with free agency getting under way at midnight on Saturday (EST, 08:00 UAE time). That means we could quickly learn where LeBron James will play next season, as well as the fate of others on the open market.
Of course, for many of the big names, free agency will mostly be a formality as they promptly re-sign with their current teams. That will likely apply to Kevin Durant, who is expected to stay with the Golden State Warriors, as well Chris Paul and Clint Capela, who were essential to the Houston Rockets coming within one win of the NBA Finals.
With that said, here’s a look at the biggest free agents whose immediate future isn’t so predictable.
All eyes will be on the best player in the world as he makes his decision on where to take his talents – or where to keep them.
The chances of James leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers again, most likely for the Los Angeles Lakers, appear to be somewhere around 50-50. While he’s reached the Finals four straight years since returning to Cleveland, they’ve been beaten three times by Golden State and look to have plateaued.
The Lakers, at least as of now, aren’t exactly a ready-made contender, but the prospect of bringing in another star or two to form a new superteam makes them a legitimate threat to lure James away.
Similarly, George may want to see what James decides before making his pick between the Lakers and Oklahoma City Thunder.
The star forward seemed destined for Los Angeles last year when it was reported the Lakers were his preference, but after a year with the Thunder, George apparently is seriously considering giving it another go with Russell Westbrook and Co.
George grew up just outside of Los Angeles, but Oklahoma City are banking a year with their franchise has changed his mind.
Either way, he may be a major domino for LeBron, and vice versa.
Almost any other year, the supremely talented Cousins would be the most interesting name on the market, but with LeBron and the Lakers grabbing all the headlines, the big man is somewhat going under the radar.
Part of that is the fact Cousins is coming off an Achilles tear, so it’s unclear if he’ll be back to his dominant self right away, or ever again. Plus, the New Orleans Pelicans were arguably better after he was sidelined, so it’s possible his gaudy numbers don’t translate to winning contributions.
Still, the Pelicans will likely do whatever they can to keep hold of him, if for no other reason than to at least show Anthony Davis they’re willing to spend to be competitive.
If Cousins doesn’t get offered a max contract though, he may take a short-term deal to prove he can return to an All-Star level.
After opting out of the final year of his contract with the Los Angeles Clippers, it seems all but certain the centre will be plying his trade elsewhere next season.
And the worst-kept secret in the league may be the mutual infatuation between Jordan and the Dallas Mavericks, who secured a verbal agreement from him in the summer of 2015, only for the big man to renege and stay with the Clippers.
Playing the market
Cap space is in short supply among teams this summer, which could affect the length and worth of several contracts for non-stars.
Role players who are entering free agency hoping for a nice payday are likely to be disappointed as teams try to keep their powder dry for next summer’s class.
That said, there are still a bunch of young, promising restricted free agents who could draw big offer sheets, such as Aaron Gordon and Jabari Parker. But teams may be less inclined to take risks this summer in the current cap climate.
LeBron James’ decision as to whether or not to opt out of the final year of his contract is more than just a formality.
While it’s still unclear who James will be playing for next season, his choice – which must be made by midnight on Friday (EST) – will be telling of where he could potentially end up.
Here’s a look at what LeBron’s decision could mean, one way or the other.
What opting in means
On the surface, James opting into the final year of his deal – which will pay him $35.6 million for 2018-19 – seems like an obvious signal he’ll remain with the Cleveland Cavaliers. But that’s not necessarily the case.
While that route would technically commit him to the Cavaliers, it actually opens the door for James to go practically anywhere in the league. The reason for that is with James under contract, any team can theoretically trade for him and fit him into their payroll by matching salaries in a swap. It opens the door for teams that otherwise wouldn’t have enough cap space to sign James outright in free agency.
The biggest beneficiary of this scenario is likely the Houston Rockets, who are considered a potential LeBron destination but are strapped for cap space. Instead of general manager Daryl Morey needing to gut the team to sign James in free agency, the Rockets could trade for him and then go over the cap to re-sign Chris Paul and Clint Capela – a key figure to their contention hopes.
Houston basically did this last summer with Paul, who opted in with the Los Angeles Clippers to facilitate a trade to his preferred destination.
James’ decision to opt in could also mean he’s willing to play out another year in Cleveland, but if staying put is what he wants, it may make more sense for him to opt out and sign another one-plus-one deal with a player option on the second year. That buys James more flexibility and protects his earning potential from a potential serious injury.
James opting in would also give the Cavaliers more leverage. Instead of allowing James to find a trade partner, Cleveland could force him to play out the final year of his contract – although that type of hard-ball tactic, especially with someone as powerful as James, would be unwise and leave the Cavaliers with nothing to show for their troubles when he eventually walks out the door next summer.
What opting out means
James opting out drastically limits the field vying for his services. The only teams he’s been linked to that also have the necessary cap space to hand him his max contract are the Cavaliers, Los Angeles Lakers and Philadelphia 76ers.
That puts the onus on the Lakers to get a deal done with the San Antonio Spurs before James’ deadline so LeBron can opt out and sign with Los Angeles in free agency. If he opts in, that would mean the Lakers would have almost no chance at landing both Leonard and James this summer, as one would require most – if not all – of their desirable trade assets.
The stakes couldn’t be higher for everyone involved and while James isn’t facing a deadline on his decision of where he wants to go, it could narrow down his options.