NEW YORK — There may be a deeper meaning when general manager Sam Presti boasts about the talent already on the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Reach back to almost two months ago, when Presti spent much of his end-of-season exit interview discussing continuity, the value in keeping together a youthful group that was actually the NBA’s youngest playoff team this past season. He was signaling more than just faith in the present talent when he explained the Thunder's offseason prospects.
“Continuity has been a really big factor in our success over time, and it also has been a big factor in a team like [the Memphis Grizzlies],” Presti said. “You can't push pause on a team. You can't freeze a team in its history. After about three years, four years, most teams may have two players remaining in today's NBA. We've been able to kind of avoid that, and I think that's been a big part of our success.”
Presti isn’t wrong.
Much of the Thunder’s undeveloped ability will start to form more clearly as players mature. But he also may be readying the public for an offseason that doesn't adjust the organization's core for reasons beyond basketball, even if the team has serious and obvious needs.
The Thunder won’t have cap room with which to operate when free agency kicks off July 1 at 12:01 a.m.
Already over the salary cap, they are rapidly approaching the luxury tax line. They’ll be even closer to it once they pick up forward Jerami Grant’s $1.5 million team option, which is likely, and sign this year’s first-round pick, Terrance Ferguson, deals which could bring them about $14 million over the projected cap and within $6 million of the tax line.
Their financial position will limit the ability to add to the roster. They can use some tools to do it. It will just have to be on the margins — and it could be costly, depending on how far into the tax they’re willing to go.
That’s why, beyond the usual issues that come with being a small-market team, bringing in a major free agent, such as Oklahoma City-native Blake Griffin, is unlikely at best. The Thunder would need to burrow far under the salary cap to offer someone like Griffin his max contract. And it may not be possible for them to do that. In fact, if OKC were magically able to wipe every player except Russell Westbrook, Steven Adams and Victor Oladipo off its books, it still would not have enough room to give Griffin his max, worth 30 percent of the cap.
Unloading salary isn’t as easy as it seems, either. Even if the Thunder are willing to pay a player to leave, cutting someone would still leave money on the team’s salary cap. The Thunder would have to find a trade partner willing to take some of their big salaries into its cap space. Or they would have to deal those same bloated salaries for non-guaranteed contracts and then cut the players they receive. Either way, it’s not an easy process.
It’s why Enes Kanter has stuck around in Oklahoma for longer than many expected, even though he's on a big deal. And that doesn’t even account for the fact that the market for offense-first centers is down. Just take a look at the Philadelphia 76ers and Jahlil Okafor or the Orlando Magic and Nikola Vucevic to learn that. There are more examples, too.
The route for adding a max player isn’t simple. And while a sign-and-trade is always possible, it’s not always feasible. Not only would OKC need to convince a major star, like Griffin, to go to a market that’s never signed another team's free agent to a deal larger than $15 million, but it would also have to convince the Clippers to go along with a trade.
L.A. could always say, no. It’s why sign-and-trades are rare.
So, the most realistic route for the Thunder this offseason could just be retaining most of what they have and adding marginal pieces (a backup point guard, a shooter or two) with exceptions that allow teams over the cap to sign players for more than the minimum. They could make a move to unload some salary, too, before entering next year with a similar core to the one it ran with this season.
That is, after all, the formula for continuity.
“We will look at every opportunity, because that's what we've done over the course of time,” Presti said. “But unless somebody is willing to give us exactly what we want for limited return or for return that we feel comfortable with, we have no alternative other than to continue to be head down, sleeves up, working to get better with this group of players.”