• The Thunder haven’t been shy about spending. They were prepared to spend over $71 million on Russell Westbrook and Paul George, plus whatever else it would take to add pieces that would keep that core happy and successful. Oklahoma City was the first team to ever crack the $300 million threshold between salaries and tax payments, after all.

    When the Thunder got caught in the offseason’s crossfire, it was expected that they’d flip what they could at this year’s deadline to rebuild around Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and try to trim that tax bill down as fast as they could.

    The trades of George and Russell Westbrook seemed to indicate that a full teardown was on the horizon, and the deal that sent Jerami Grant to Denver for a first-rounder only added fuel to the fire. Between the Grant trade ($9.35 million outgoing), George’s $33 million heading to LA and the Thunder taking on about $27 million in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Danilo Gallinari, the Thunder sliced almost $40 million off their expenses between salary and tax spending.

    The summertime handiwork put OKC around $920,000 over the tax threshold, and given the presumed strength of the Western Conference and the obvious direction of the franchise, it seemed that big-money players like Gallinari, who is on an expiring contract, Dennis Schroder, Steven Adams and Chris Paul would all be on the block.

    It was a reasonable plan, except the Thunder have proven to be a fun and competitive basketball team.

    More than that, they’re essentially a playoff lock.

    The Thunder are no longer in a position to be shedding salary for the sake of simply ducking the tax. If they were in 10th or 11th, then moving Gallinari is a no-brainer. Now, the team should be able to stomach what modest tax payments they’ll have to make after dumping tons of salary in the offseason – after the acquisition of Isaiah Roby actually brought them down to $800,000 over the line, Oklahoma City’s tax bill should clock in around $2 million.

    They could very easily dip below that line at the trade deadline, but the current iteration of the team is good enough to warrant a postseason run. It’d be a great reward for a team that was stripped to its bare bones this summer, and to the fans who were expecting some lean years. Trading away any rotation player – unless it’s in a basketball move that brings back a player that can help this year – would send a terrible message.

    At this point in the pro sports landscape, you can never claim that ownership has already saved enough to be content with any extra expenditures, but the Thunder have sliced and diced their way to savings while still fielding a competitive roster. The on-the-fly rebuild is one of the hardest needles to thread, and so far it looks as though the Thunder are on their way to pulling it off.

    It would be a surprise if the team halted their positive momentum for the sake of a few million dollars at this point. Additionally, as other teams around the league take the hedge clippers to their own tax bills, the distribution of tax payments to non-tax teams is decreasing. Essentially, there’s less incentive to dip below the line because teams aren’t getting as much out of it as they have in years past.

    The Thunder have been one of the league’s more overlooked and pleasant surprises this season, but that should also not dissuade them from their long-term plan. There’s a certain degree of unpredictability about Oklahoma City’s deadline plans, as they have desirable players, a very good player on an expiring contract, a ton of draft picks to work with and really only one seemingly untradeable salary.

    If the Thunder get a great offer from a contender on someone like Gallinari, they could easily accept more futures to add to their deepening war chest of picks. They could just as plausibly find a deal that increases their financial commitment if it improves the team’s outlook going forward given what they’ve already trimmed off the bill. If the tax payment remains light this year, the Thunder can always look to shed salary in the offseason, when trades will be easier to make.

    No matter what, the Thunder have options. Which path they choose to take will depend on the calls they receive, but the team has done enough financial heavy lifting and shown well enough on the court to make ducking the luxury tax more of a choice than a mandate.

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