Let me start with a disclaimer – I’m a die-hard Spurs fan. I am not one of those Miami haters that rooted against LeBron James from the day he made The Decision. As a matter of fact, I didn’t pick a side in last year’s finals. My San Antonio Spurs’ loss to the Thunder still hurt too much to root for them.

The Oklahoma City Thunder were fun to watch last season. They were damn good, too. Many people (including myself) believed they were the favorites against eventual champions Miami Heat. I’m pretty sure the majority of NBA fans believed that the Thunder again posed the biggest threat in front of the reigning champions for the 2012-2013 campaign.

The James Harden trade changed almost everybody’s perception of the Oklahoma City Thunder. Whether you love the trade or not (I don’t) you almost invariably have to acknowledge that the Thunder took at least a half-step back in their quest to the title.

(In a vacuum, it was a great trade – the Thunder took a very good player in Kevin Martin, a young player who could become a star or even the next James Harden in Jeremy Lamb, and draft picks. What I don’t like is that they traded him at all. You don’t break a championship-caliber team unless there is a Shaq-Kobe-scale feud going on.)

The Thunder traded Harden because they didn’t want to pay him max money. They didn’t want to pay him max money because of the luxury tax. I really doubt that they would have traded him if there was no luxury tax.

(Reports put the Thunder among teams who made a profit during the lockout-shortened season. Could they continue making a profit with three young marketable superstars even while being over the luxury tax is a different matter.)

The negotiations for a new CBA were supposedly all directed at keeping players from teaming up; at not allowing super teams to form or exist in the future. Some people argue that the revised luxury tax that gets even steeper for repeat offenders would actually accomplish the opposite – make it impossible for small-market teams to keep their stars. The Thunder’s unwillingness to pay James Harden his market price came as irrefutable evidence to that.

In reality, under the new CBA being in luxury-tax territory is expensive. Being unable to get under the cap for straight years makes it a nightmare. That’s what the Thunder were trying to avoid.

(Maybe the topic to a completely different discussion should be whether Kendrick Perkins is the single reason the Thunder didn’t extend and eventually traded Harden away.)

This is where I came up with an idea. I am fully aware that the salary cap issues and CBA regulations are strict guidelines that need to be as clear and straightforward as possible. Some issues are just impossible to solve in the confines of a max-salary soft-cap CBA. It appeared that the James Harden issue was one of those. Or is it?

My idea would allow teams like the Thunder who draft  exceptionally well to keep their superstars without being punished for drafting so well. It would alleviate the burden for them but not for teams like the Lakers, Heat, Nets, etc. who throw their money around to stack their roster with excellent players. At the same time, it is not a rule that discriminates large-market franchises. If the Lakers find themselves in a similar situation and draft their own superstars, they would be able to keep them and would reap the same benefits.

What I suggest:

First of all, the rule would apply ONLY to players who were drafted by the franchise. Any sort of trade involved makes them ineligible to benefit from this rule. Unlike a player’s Bird rights, those rights would not be traded with them.

(Draft-night trades would be somewhat tricky and would need to be discussed separately but a consensus could be reached on whether a player who was drafted by team A at number 4 and then flipped to team B for the number 5 pick could carry those rights to team B since they virtually drafted him, just not literally.)

Secondly, a player’s draft position would come into play.

Like we know, there is this thing called the rookie salary scale. For the 2012-2013 season, the player drafted at number 1 (Anthony Davis) would receive a base salary of 4,286,900. The number 2 pick (Michael Kidd-Gilchrist)’s base salary is 3,835,600. And so on, and so on until we get to the minimum salaries for undrafted rookies (which was 490,180 for the 2011-2012 season). We can easily calculate the difference between each player’s rookie salary and the max rookie salary (for the number 1 draft pick).

What I suggest is to use that difference when the players’ rookie contracts are up and they are signing an extension. If the player is still with the team that drafted him (the team holding his rights), and extends his contract with that team for a salary higher than the rookie salary, the new salary would count towards the team’s salary cap like a normal salary but its cap hit would be decreased by the difference between the player’s rookie salary and the max rookie salary for the season that player was drafted in. (In the case that a player is extended for a salary higher than his rookie salary but the difference is smaller than the difference between his rookie salary and the max rookie salary, the cap hit would be decreased only by that smaller amount.)

This is a great situation that does not stop the player’s ability to be traded to another team. The new team, however, would not be able to benefit from that same rule so it would assume the full cap hit (if it is above the salary cap) the player’s salary would bring.

What would that mean?

Let’s again look at the Thunder – the best-drafting team in recent years. They drafted no fewer than 2 superstars (Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook) and 2 stars (James Harden and Serge Ibaka). Their inability to pay all four could be perceived as a punishment for drafting THIS well. Had they drafted Tyreke Evans instead of James Harden, they would have been able to extend him for fewer than max money (even though Evans had a historic rookie campaign that put him in the same sentence as Oscar Robertson, Michael Jordan and LeBron James); had they not been able to pinpoint Serge Ibaka at the end of the 1st round of the 2008 draft and gone with an American player at the same position (Darrell Arthur, Joey Dorsey, DeAndre Jordan), they would pay less for that player as well and would probably have more money for Harden. This can go on endlessly. Russell Westbrook was perceived as a reach at number 4 in that same 2008 draft; in a re-draft, he goes no further than number 2. It is not even debatable that another franchise in the Thunder’s place wouldn’t have put those players together. There likely would have been more misses than hits. Because the Thunder were able to find excellent game-changing players who demand a lot of money well outside the lottery (Ibaka) and use their high lottery picks on superstars with almost 100% accuracy (Durant, Westbrook, Harden v. the only disappointment in Cole Aldrich), they put themselves with backs against the wall when it comes to the extensions those players demanded.

Almost everyone praised the Thunder for their scouting, drafting and player development. I’m pretty sure even fans of opposing teams would like for the Thunder to have been able to keep all of their stars. After all, those players didn’t force their way to OKC to play on a stacked team.

My idea would allow the Thunder to lessen the cap hit from almost all extensions – Durant was drafted at number 2 so he would be eligible for a small decrease; Russell Westbrook and James Harden went 4 and 3 so they would be eligible for comparable decreases. Serge Ibaka (if we assume that traded picks count towards the team that eventually got them) would be eligible for a large decrease, more than 3 million per year. That is a bonus for being able to draft and/or develop a star from a low draft pick.

(According to my idea, players drafted at number 1 are automatically ineligible for any decreases. While that might appear unfair at first sight, number 1 picks are almost universally game-changing players who are almost always expected to become superstars. With the notorious scrubs like Michael Olowokandi and Kwame Brown well behind us, we have seen the last five picks (not counting Greg Oden for obvious reasons) either already prove their superstar status or still expect them to do so (John Wall might disappoint but promises to be at least an all-star caliber point guard). I would say that the team that won the lottery has enough of a bonus and should not expect anything more for drafting the best player available and potential franchise player. The number 1 draft pick would universally be expected to be extended for a max contract.)

Furthermore, I think this bonus should stay with the said players as long as they are with the team that drafted them. If the Thunder continue drafting amazingly well, even outside the lottery, have them be able to extend all players by benefiting from the cap alleviations. This could become an alternative way towards stacking up your team a la the 1980s Celtics and Lakers.

For years NBA fans have been fearing their franchise’s star bolting for greener pastures, sunny beaches, and recently – amicable unions in large markets. There is simply no way to keep a person in one place if he truly wishes to leave. But this would be a way to allow the home team to surround the players it drafted with good role players without having to pay for drafting too well. Because that has been the Thunder’s only sin – drafting TOO well.

 


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