The real question: How much tax is Oklahoma City willing to pay?

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Clay Bennett and the Oklahoma City ownership has said before they are willing to pay some luxury tax to keep the core of their team together.

Next year that will be put to the test.

They have Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook on max deals, and they just signed Serge Ibaka to a four-year, $48 million deal. Next up is James Harden. Next summer he will become a restricted free agent and unless the Thunder can convince him to take less he is going to get a max offer on the open market from someone. A number of teams will have the cap space (probably about 10, depends on moves between now and then) to make a max offer and Harden — Sixth Man of the Year, gold medalist, marketable — will get one.

The Thunder can match. But if they do they are paying the tax, and how much is the team in the NBA’s smallest market willing to pay? Zach Lowe breaks down the numbers at Sports Illustrated’s The Point Forward blog.

If Harden gets that max deal from Oklahoma City, the Thunder will be paying the tax for at least the 2013-14 and 2014-15 seasons. Assuming a max deal for Harden and that Oklahoma City gets the No. 30 pick in each of the next two drafts, the Thunder would be set to have about $75.5 million committed to 10 players in 2013-14 and $77 million committed to the same number of players in 2014-15. Fill out the rest of the roster on the cheap — forget the mid-level exception — and Oklahoma City will be looking at $80 million payrolls in those seasons….

The tax line is at $70.4 million now, and it will go up as league revenues rise. But most projections have the tax line somewhere around $75 million in the 2015-16, and very solid growth (about 3 percent) would have it jump only to $72.5 million in 2013-14 and $74.6 million in the following season. Note again: These are estimates.

Under the harsh new tax rates that kick in for the 2013-14 — just in time! — the Thunder would be paying a tax bill ranging from $7.5 million to $12.5 million or so, depending on the exact tax level and how much the team’s ownership is willing to spend on the back of the roster. Is Oklahoma City, the league’s second-smallest market, willing to spend something like $85 million or even $90 million to fill a team?

I bet the answer is yes. They can save money by doing things like using their amnesty on Kendrick Perkins. More importantly, so long as the Thunder are winning they will be able to sell the luxury boxes and sponsorships at a premium, and the regular seats sell out every game to a very loyal fan base. I think the losses (if any, how NBA owners keep the books is murky) would be minimal.

The Thunder can’t afford to go Los Angeles Lakers with their payroll — Los Angeles with taxes and revenue sharing could be paying $230 million in a couple years to field a team at their current payroll levels — but they can afford some tax. They can afford to chase the ring.

The Thunder will be what the Heat and Lakers are, what future contenders will look like — a handful of highly-paid stars surrounded by the best they can get on inexpensive contracts. It is the wave of the future.

Report: Spurs hearing out Kawhi Leonard trade offers, including from Lakers

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The Spurs shot down Kawhi Leonard trade offers before the trade deadline. They brushed off Leonard trade offers earlier this offseason.

Then, the already strained situation got even worse.

Leonard put out word he wanted to leave San Antonio, ideally for the Lakers. He met with Gregg Popovich this week in San Diego, reportedly directly telling the president-coach he wants out.

What are the Spurs doing now?

Chris Mannix of Yahoo Sports:

The Lakers are in that mix.

The Spurs can try to mend their relationship with Leonard. They could even use a super-max contract – projected to be worth $219 million over five years – to aid that process. They don’t have to trade him.

But the clock is ticking toward tonight’s draft, teams using their cap space in other ways and Leonard’s 2019 free agency.

San Antonio has no choice but to get more aggressive in handling Leonard’s future. This is a small step in that direction.

Report: Nets to buy out Dwight Howard

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The Magic, Lakers, Rockets, Hawks and Hornets all grew tired of Dwight Howard.

The Nets did it in record time.

After acquiring Howard in a trade from Charlotte yesterday, Brooklyn is moving toward shedding him.

Shams Charania of Yahoo Sports:

In the trade, the Nets dumped Timofey Mozgov‘s $16.72 million salary for 2019-20. Now, they could get a reduction on Howard’s $23,819,725 expiring contract. Brooklyn is doing a great job of unloading bad money.

Next year, the Nets will have their own first-round pick for the first time in six years. Though he has declined considerably from his Hall of Fame peak, Howard can still play some. Brooklyn didn’t need him interfering with its tanking and culture.

Instead, the Nets can focus on developing Jarrett Allen and losing enough to secure the best draft position possible.

It’ll be interesting to see how much Howard surrenders and where he goes. Again, he can still play. But the league is moving away from traditional centers, and he’s high maintenance.

Report: Cavaliers not planning to trade Kevin Love, no matter what LeBron James does

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The Cavaliers spent considerable time bemoaning a Kevin Love trade last summer falling through.

Will they deal him this offseason?

The No. 8 pick and Love are Cleveland’s best assets for upgrading their roster around LeBron James. If LeBron leaves, moving Love could jumpstart a rebuild.

But apparently the Cavs are now projecting attachment to Love, either way.

Dave McMenamin of ESPN:

The Cavaliers are not actively shopping All-Star forward Kevin Love heading into Thursday’s NBA draft, multiple sources told ESPN on Wednesday. Furthermore, regardless of what decision LeBron James makes about his future in Cleveland, the Cavs have interest in keeping Love next season, sources said.

File this under what else are they supposed to say? Even if the Cavaliers want to trade Love, insisting they won’t maximizes his trade value, forcing other teams to offer enough to pry him away.

But I also believe this accurately reflects the Cavs’ plans.

They just seem so determined to compete if LeBron leaves, and Love is their only other star. Love proved himself worthy of being the best player on a good team with the Timberwolves. (They were playoff quality when he played. They just completely fell apart whenever he sat.) In Cleveland, Love has fluctuated in his ability to bend his game around LeBron. If LeBron leaves, that’d no longer be a problem.

But Love will turn 30 before the season. He has declined out of his athletic peak, and I’d bet against him ever nearing his Minnesota levels again. And the other Cavs stink. It’s hard to see a LeBron-less Cavaliers team, even with Love, competing for the playoffs.

If LeBron stays, keeping Love makes some sense. With his $24,119,025 salary for next season and $25,595,700 player option for the following year, he probably doesn’t hold elite trade value. He doesn’t match up well with the Warriors, but good players who do come at a major cost.

Report: Lakers call meeting to warn employees about tampering

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Magic Johnson got the Lakers fined for tampering while still holding a ceremonial title. Once he actually took over the front office, he really got to work tampering. He got warned for blinking at Paul George on national television. Then – due to general manager Rob Pelinka’s communication with George’s agent and Johnson’s previous warning – the Lakers received one of the largest fines in NBA history. Johnson himself got the Lakers fined for praising Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo. The league investigated and cleared assistant coach Brian Shaw for tampering with George.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver has said the Lakers’ previous transgressions have put them under tighter scrutiny.

The Lakers just want this to end.

Ramona Shelburne of ESPN:

Lakers co-owner and governor Jeanie Buss called the meeting, which was led by president of basketball operations Magic Johnson.

Sources said Johnson and Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka spoke to a large group of team employees, warning them about tampering.

Other employees received written notices on the matter that referenced possible termination as punishment for anyone who does not adhere to NBA rules.

Tampering often takes much more benign forms than a president or general manager recruiting a star player before free agency. It could be an offhand comment by a coach, an overzealous ticket pitch or a speculative article on the team website.

If Johnson’s and Pelinka’s tampering increases the Lakers’ odds of landing a star, that’s just the cost of doing business. If a lower-level staffer tampers, that’s an avoidable mistake.

Really, it’s comical this meeting is even newsworthy, and that’s a product of the Lakers’ previous violations.

But, as they pursue stars, they don’t want to chance the league imposing any additional restrictions.

So, the Lakers, in some ways are right back where they started.