After a disappointing first-round exit from the playoffs, the Oklahoma City Thunder face another pivotal summer in which a big-name free agent could potentially leave the franchise in a lurch. Paul George, acquired just one year ago from Indiana, will almost certainly opt out of $20.7 million for next season and take meetings across the league to choose his next destination. Rumors have swirled around George all year and he’s done next to nothing to quell them; one week he loves the Lakers, the next he could see himself in Oklahoma City long-term. One thing is for sure: he talks a lot and seems to want everybody to like him. Whatever his decision this summer, multiple teams are going to be left unhappy, and the Thunder hope that it’ll be the Lakers, 76ers, and others who are left wondering what they might have been able to say to George in their meetings to secure his signature.
Oklahoma City has the normal incumbent advantages to re-sign George: they can offer an extra season and 8 percent raises, which would amount to about an extra $45 million for George over the life of the contract, though that amount does not include what a 32-year-old George could make in that fifth year on a new contract. Whatever he could command in free agency in 2022, it wouldn’t be $45 million, which is exactly the reason the Collective Bargaining Agreement is set up in this way; they want to give incumbent teams a strong advantage to re-signing their guys.
Should George choose to return to Oklahoma City, ownership would be on the hook for an absolutely exorbitant luxury tax bill. 2018-19 will likely be the fourth season in the past five for the Thunder in the luxury tax, with 2016-17 being the sole non-tax year since 2014-15. Repeater tax penalties are enormous: it begins at $2.50 for every dollar over the tax and goes up in $5 million increments from there. It wouldn’t be pretty for the Thunder, who would be looking at $148 million in team salary with George back in the fold and a staggering $85.2 million luxury tax bill…and that’s with only ten guys on the roster! Ownership is on board with going deep into the tax to field a competitive team, but even an Oklahoman oil well has to hit bottom at some point.
Additional players to fill out the roster would only stand to increase that luxury tax bill. Jerami Grant will also be a free agent after finishing his four-year Hinkie Special and played a pivotal role for the Thunder in 2017-18, but how far will ownership go to bring him back? If George re-signs, any salary they give Grant will be taxed at roughly $4.75 for every dollar—is an $8 million salary for Grant worth an extra $43 million in luxury tax penalties? Purely from a team-building perspective, Grant is a big part of the team and fills an important role as the third big man, but how much cash is ownership willing to part with to keep him around? During playoff time, Grant is probably the team’s fifth-best player: Westbrook-George-Roberson-Grant-Adams is arguably Oklahoma City’s best closing lineup considering how much Westbrook is going to dominate the ball and the need for defensive versatility late in games.
Filling out the rest of the roster, the Thunder will need to either re-sign or replace Raymond Felton at backup point guard, likely for the minimum, as well as chase one or more wings with their mini mid-level exception. There are a handful of combo guards and wings who are either coming off minimum contracts or saw their value tank this past season, from Charlotte’s Treveon Graham to Cleveland’s Rodney Hood. The $5.3 million taxpayer mid-level exception usually doesn’t net you a high-quality player, but the Thunder have a history of finding good values—they used the same exception to bring in Patrick Patterson last summer.
If George doesn’t return, then things only get slightly cheaper for Oklahoma City, unless they don’t even attempt to replace him. Bringing back Grant at about $8 million for next season would already put them into the tax and give them the same team-building options as before: minimum contracts, their two late second-round picks, and the $5.3 million taxpayer mid-level. Sure, they might not hit $300 million in combined salary, but the roster would obviously be significantly worse and still incredibly expensive for what could likely be a team that struggles to make the playoffs.
Just like it did in 2016, everything for the Thunder orbits a single player who may or may not love the city and may or may not enjoy playing with Russell Westbrook. Paul George has given every indication that he wants to stay in Oklahoma City and every indication that he wants to leave for Los Angeles, Philadelphia, or another team. All the interviews and talk will have to come to a head in early July and George’s final decision will likely shape the Thunder’s direction as a franchise for the next several years.