Success by Presti, Thunder a win for NBA's little guys

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Success by Presti, Thunder a win for NBA's little guys

Postby rlee » Mon Mar 07, 2011 8:14 pm

Success by Presti, Thunder a win for NBA's little guys, too
by David Aldridge

The first thing you must know is that Sam Presti really, really doesn't want you to write this story. He would really appreciate it if you could keep the Oklahoma City Thunder, and him, off the front page. Which goes to show you that Presti is still made of the same stuff as the boys down in San Antonio, where he cut his NBA teeth before becoming general manager of the Sonics.
But you have to put the Thunder front and center, as they are going to save the NBA and all.
That is a bit of hyperbole, but the truth of the matter is that there are nervous owners throughout basketball, who see a league at risk, and worry that the NBA could rapidly devolve into Major League Baseball, with the Yankees, Red Sox and Phillies (and a few others) able to buy anyone they want -- while, at the other end of the economic spectrum sit the Pirates and Royals who have no chance to compete from minute one of the season. They know it, and the Yankees, Sox and Phils know it, and the fans in Pittsburgh and Kansas City know it.
If things work out in OKC, and Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook lead the Thunder deep into the playoffs this year and next, it will help stem the tide that has risen in the last year, when LeBron, Amar'e, Bosh and Carmelo all left smaller markets for bigger ones -- and created angst in their old cities, as well as others.
The reason the Jazz traded Deron Williams to New Jersey a year and a half before his contract expired is that smaller market teams -- many (though not all) of whom produce smaller revenues than their bigger-market counterparts -- are increasingly worried that they won't be able to hold onto their star players. They're concerned those stars, in the SuperFriends Era, will force more trades or walk when able to play alongside other stars in bigger cities.
Which is why Durant's Tweet on July 7 of last year may be the most important communique' this league has seen in the last decade.

"Exstension (sp) for 5 more years wit the #thunder," Durant wrote. "...God Is Great, me and my family came a long way...I love yall man forreal, this is a blessing!"
But, did James's hour-long Decision trump Durant's 140 characters? Who's winning the big market/small market argument?
"LeBron's decision was a big one," Minnesota's Kevin Love said Saturday night. "I think it influenced kind of everybody around the league, and that's kind of where everybody's headed. I think I saw Chris Mullin talking about it (Friday) night, that that's kind of the unconventional way right now. You see them recruit superstars, (and) in some ways having problems, rather than looking at the Lakers, where they have a couple (of superstars), or the San Antonio Spurs, where it's more of the conventional way of putting teams together."
The next stars that could potentially form supergroups come from the free agent class of 2012: Williams, Dwight Howard and Chris Paul (all of whom have opt-outs that summer), veterans Tim Duncan, Steve Nash and Chauncey Billups, along with other good players like Gerald Wallace (who also has an early termination option), Chris Kaman and Ray Felton -- and, potentially, Andrew Bynum. The Lakers hold a team option on him that season for $16.4 million, and while it wouldn't seem now like the Lakers wouldn't pick that up, who knows how a post-lockout/new collective bargaining agreement landscape might change things? Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen are also in that class, but it's hard to see them leaving Paul Pierce alone again in Boston. (Though you never know; the Cs might view that as the summer they move forward from The Big Three and start rebuilding around Rajon Rondo and Jeff Green.)
Love, who'll be a restricted free agent in '12 if he doesn't sign an extension with Minnesota (OKC's Westbrook is in a similar situation) got recruiting pitches from everyone during All-Star Weekend in Los Angeles.
"A lot of it was (about) OKC," Love said. "A lot of it was a few other teams that just need that one more guy. And a lot of it was circulating around the Lakers, 'cause we were out there as well. There was a lot of pressure and a lot of questions were circulating, and I almost felt like, 'Damn, I have to take a step back and, not assess the situation, but kind of look at things from a broad horizon.'
"As far as right now, I love the city of Minneapolis. I like Minnesota as a state. I love the people here. Our team is very young. We have a lot of stuff going for us when you look past the win column. I think I just have to look at that come contract time."
Every star player isn't bolting every small market.
Durant stayed put. Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker each would have had a half-dozen serious suitors had either opted to explore free agency, but each decided to remain in San Antonio with deals that will likely take them through the end of their careers. Of course, you say: they chose to stay to play with Tim Duncan. True.
But what about Rudy Gay, who had the Knicks and Nets hot on his trail when free agency began last summer, and had no superstar next to him in Memphis? He is the star. And yet Gay didn't put himself on the market, re-signing with the Grizzlies for $82 million, just as John Salmons ($39 million) stayed in Milwaukee. Danny Granger has never seriously looked into leaving Indiana; Cousin LaMarcus [Aldridge] inked a big deal 17 months ago to remain in Portland, following Brandon Roy's lead.
Which is why we, again, come to OKC, and its latest coup, acquiring Kendrick Perkins and Nate Robinson from Boston for Green and Nenad Krstic.
It is in keeping with how Presti has been able to make deals over the years, striking when opportunities arise.
He initially signed Krstic to an offer sheet in 2008 while Krstic was still playing overseas in Russia and was the property of the Nets. He got Daequan Cook from the Heat in late June, knowing Miami was desperate to clear as much cap room as possible to go after James. He got center Cole Aldrich and Mo Peterson from New Orleans knowing that the Hornets would be interested in rookies on rookie contracts -- and he happened to have two, Craig Brackins and Quincy Pondexter, then flipped Peterson and D.J. White at this deadline to Charlotte for Nazr Mohammad.
"I think we've been fortunate throughout our existence in Oklahoma City," Presti said Thursday. "Also, we have a lot of really good people who work well together. Clearly, it starts with the players, and the chemistry of the group, and we can bring in guys who fit in with the group."

Presti has been trying for years to acquire a big man, but it's been a long slog. He started by signing Krstic to a $15 million offer sheet early in the 2008-09 season, while Krstic, still the property of the Nets, was ending an unhappy run with a Russian team. New Jersey passed, and Krstic came back over to the NBA. But he wasn't the answer, and Presti wasn't able to land a true difference-maker in the paint, getting Etan Thomas and Byron Mullins in for looks.
Until a week and a half ago, when he again saw an opportunity.
Because Boston is so far over the salary cap this season, GM Danny Ainge and the Celtics were limited in what they could offer Perkins in a contract extension. Their offer could be based only on Perkins' salary at the time, $4.6 million. With annual raises, the most Boston could offer him was a four-year, $23 million extension. Which is what they offered him.
But Presti had another card to play, one that he had used earlier this season with one of his own players, Nick Collison. While Boston was way over the cap, OKC was way under going into the season, at just under $42 million. (Durant's extension begins next season). So the Thunder had significant cap room to use any way they saw fit. Instead of using it on a free agent, Presti opted to keep it in-house. Under cap rules, a team can restructure an existing contract of one of its players if it is under the cap. It cannot give the player a signing bonus, however.
Presti was thus able to renegotiate Collison's contract, which was set to expire after this season. He used $6.5 million of his existing room to bump Collison's salary up from its previous $6.75 million to $13.27 million. Technically, since the money is for salary and not a bonus, OKC was within the rules, but the effect was to pay Collison now rather than later. It gives him money now that he might not have been able to get after the new CBA comes in. And it gave the Thunder the ability to extend Collison for four years after this season -- but extend him downward, from $3.2 million in 2011 -12 to $2.9, $2.5 and $2.4 million in the last three years of the deal. The net-net was a ridiculously cap-friendly contract for OKC, but a deal that didn't alienate Collison in the process.
With all that as background, Presti looked into Perkins. He knew that Green, a restricted free agent himself this summer, would be looking for a big payday -- one that OKC probably would not be able to give him, as it was likely going to be limited to two near-max deals -- one for Durant, one for Westbrook, who's eligible for an extension this summer. And Ainge wouldn't be able to give Perkins what he wanted. It would be hard to trade Perkins, the glueist of glue guys, who had killed himself rehabbing his torn ACL and MCL suffered in Game 6 of the Finals last June. But the Celtics didn't have a lot of options, and in Green, they got a young, dynamic frontcourt player. Maybe not a "win-win," but a fair deal for both teams.
"In this case, Danny and I were able to accomplish that," Presti said. "They're getting two very high-level players that have great character and have left a positive impact on our organziation. We were able to get players who help fill a need with our core group."
With Perkins in the fold, OKC could make a similar offer to Perkins that it had with Collison, but it had to do so before last Tuesday; contracts cannot be renegotiated between March 1 and June 30 of any season.
The trade actually gave OKC another $2 million or so of additional cap room. Presti used most of it to bump Perkins's salary up from its existing $4.6 million to $6.446 million. Working off of that number, the Thunder could give Perkins a four-year extension for $34 million, along with additional potential bonuses.

And this is why OKC, like San Antonio before it, offers so much hope. Yes, it was lucky to get Durant, as selfless a star as there could possibly be -- a skinnier, younger Duncan. But by trading Ray Allen in the summer of 2007, the Thunder got Green, which it then used to get Perkins. By ignoring everyone who thought Westbrook couldn't play point guard, OKC got the perfect complimentary player for Durant -- the Cali Tony Parker. By being patient with Serge Ibaka and letting him play overseas for a year, OKC got a much more NBA-ready big man last season, one who exploded onto the scene and who will now move over to power forward for the next decade. With the 21-year-old Ibaka at four, the Thunder's starting lineup is -- get this -- the youngest in the NBA, and the overall roster is the third-youngest in the league.
And by holding its cap room sacred as it rebuilt the roster, OKC had the flexibility to extend Collison and Perkins. It is, Presti said, like putting a bigger down payment on a car, so you don't have out of control interest payments in three years. The Thunder will still be around $50 million in salaries next season, able to perhaps make one or two more moves before Durant's and Westbrook's extensions kick in.
"There's obviously built-in advantage for the player," Presti said. "It's not that we were able to do something he couldn't do in Boston. We were able to take advantage of an opportunity in a short period of time."
There is nothing wrong with this league that smart people can't solve. Draft well. Make good trades. Keep your core group together, but pay the right amount of money for the right people -- and don't be afraid to take chances on the right kind of veterans, guys like Perkins, so beloved by a group as ornery as the Celtics, or Mohammad.
The size of the market is not the determining factor.
Cleveland had seven years to make LeBron happy. Denver had seven years to make Carmelo happy. They didn't. But Miami kept Dwyane Wade happy by bringing in LeBron and Chris Bosh. Otherwise, he would have gone to Chicago. Simple as that. The Spurs have kept Duncan happy for 14 years. They didn't do it with magic tricks, fancy restaurants or showgirls; they did it by getting him teammates good enough to win championships with.
That is the challenge going forward, for every team, no matter the market size. That is what the Hornets will have to do with Paul, and what Minnesota will have to do with Love, and what the Kings will have to do with Tyreke Evans and DeMarcus Cousins. It is also what New Jersey will have to do with Williams, and what Washington will have to do with John Wall, and what the Clippers will have to do with Blake Griffin.
That is the battle, winning the hearts and minds of your stars. Oklahoma City has shown you the way.
"You know, going to a Big Three or helping another team like that ... I think I have to look at my circumstances," Love said. "My contract is still a ways away. I think you still have to look at whoever we're going to bring in, who we're going to draft, who we're going to sign, re-sign. There's a lot of stuff that goes into it.
"We have a ton of cap space, and a lot of room to sign (players), whether it's through the Draft or trades ... I just look at it like I want to start winning going into my fourth and fifth and sixth years. Going into, essentially, as I'm getting older and start heading into my prime, I want to start winning, 'cause for me, at this point, I'm not sure what my legacy is going to be. And what kind of legacy am I going to have going forward?"
It's an open-ended question. He will stay if there's reason to stay, or he will go if there isn't. He awaits Minnesota's answer.
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