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.

PBT Podcast: Breaking down the MVP race, other NBA mid-season awards

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Patience is not the NBA community’s strong suit — we were talking MVP race the first week of the season.

Now, however, it’s time. Teams are more than halfway through the season and we have seen enough games, we have enough data to start discussing who is the frontrunners for all of the league’s end-of-season awards.

Is it James Harden or Giannis Antetokounmpo for MVP?

Can anyone challenge Luka Doncic for Rookie of the Year?

It’s a deep field for Coach of the Year, but is Mike Budenholzer the front-runner and can Doc Rivers, Dave Joerger or someone else catch him?

Kurt Helin and Dan Feldman of NBC Sports talk about their picks at this point of the season and who is in the running long term.

As always, you can check out the podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google play, or check out the NBC Sports Podcast homepage and archive at Art19.

We want your questions for future podcasts, and your comments, so please email us at PBTpodcast@gmail.com.

Thunder coach Billy Donovan: Andre Roberson ‘not anywhere near playing’

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When Andre Roberson – who ruptured his patellar tendon last January then suffered a setback in October – suffered another setback in November, the Thunder said he’d miss at least six weeks.

That was more than six weeks ago.

Maddie Lee of The Oklahoman:

What a disappointing year for Roberson. He just can’t get healthy.

Even already possessing the NBA’s best defense, Roberson would help the Thunder. He’s a lockdown perimeter defender. Paul George has stepped up defensively, but a George-Roberson wing pairing would scare the daylights out of opposing offenses.

That said, Roberson is a tricky fit due to his dismal shooting. He’d disrupt Oklahoma City’s offensive spacing. The Thunder would need time to adjust, and if Roberson isn’t close to returning, there might not be time to establish chemistry before the playoffs.

George, Terrance Ferguson, Alex Abrines and Hamidou Diallo have been fine on the wing in Roberson’s absence. Continuing to rely on that group sans Roberson doesn’t maximize Oklahoma City’s production, but at least it’s a simple and workable solution.

Rumor: Grizzlies could trade Marc Gasol before he opts out and leaves next summer

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The Grizzlies have been unwavering in their desire to keep Marc Gasol. Likewise, Gasol has consistently pledged loyalty to Memphis.

But with the Grizzlies (19-24) slipping to 14th in the West and Gasol holding a $25,595,700 player option for next season, maybe both sides are approaching a breaking point.

Marc Stein of The New York Times:

I doubt Gasol, who’ll turn 34 this month, would draw a higher salary in free agency than his $25,595,700 player option. But maybe he could get a multi-year deal that provides more overall compensation than he’d get opting in then testing free agency at age 35.

He also might value getting to a better team.

Gasol has sometimes sounded impatient with Memphis getting younger. He was clearly proud of the team’s veteran core.

The Grizzlies appeared intent on winning as much as possible with Gasol and Mike Conley rather than rebuilding. So, there seemed to be enough overlap in vision between the organization and Gasol.

But Memphis also just hit on its 2018 lottery pick, drafting Jaren Jackson Jr. No. 4. Jackson could be the Grizzlies’ next franchise player and convince them to shift gears. A core led by Jackson and whatever assets are acquired for Gasol could have a nice future. Ditto if Memphis also trades Conley, who’d make less sense on the team sans Gasol.

Remaining competitive with Gasol and Conley isn’t the worst place to be. The Grizzlies already have a major future building block in Jackson. They can groom him while winning enough to keep fans entertained. But that plan would fall apart if Gasol opts out and leaves.

So, being proactive could make sense.

The first step should be assessing Gasol’s commitment to Memphis. If he already knows he wants to leave next summer, I doubt he’d mind getting traded elsewhere now. An honest conversation about the future could serve everyone well.

Jusuf Nurkic on Iman Shumpert, who tried to confront Trail Blazers center postgame: ‘I’m not worried about a guy who’s going into retirement soon’

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Kings guard Iman Shumpert had plenty to say during Sacramento’s win over the Trail Blazers last night.

He apparently had even more to get off his chest afterward.

Shumpert looked unhappy with Jusuf Nurkic‘s hard screen early in the game:

Then, Shumpert got into it with Portland coach Terry Stotts:

Shumpert even found beef wit the Trail Blazers’ security staff.

Jamie Hudson of NBC Sports Northwest:

Shumpert admitted he fed off of Portland’s team security, which had spoken with the Kings guard as the game became tense.

“He was a little passionate and you become part of the game… I’ll take whatever energy you give me. I was having a tough time shooting the ball and you know, he talked to me enough I made the next three. That’s what we needed at the moment… After that we rolled,” Shumpert said.

After the game, Shumpert went toward – but not into – the Trail Blazers’ locker room.

James Ham of NBC Sports California:

According to Shumpert, he wasn’t looking for a fight, just a discussion with Portland’s center about a few plays that took place during the game.

“Some stuff just needs to be between me and him,” Shumpert said. “A conversation between two men. At the end of the day, this league is a bunch of men. A bunch of great men off the court. Some stuff happened that we needed to have a conversation about.”

Hudson:

Outside of the locker room after the game, the Blazers team security told Shumpert that Nurkic was still showering and he would not be able to come out of the locker room and speak to him at that moment.

Nurkic, via Ham:

“I just said what I said. I’m not worried about him,” Nurkic said of the 28-year-old Shumpert. “I’m not worried about a guy who’s going into retirement soon.”

Shumpert is too young to be hearing about retirement. That is soooo disrespectful by Nurkic.

Though I believe Shumpert was genuinely trying to end the tension (by putting his foot down, of course), Nurkic only escalated it. Good thing they didn’t meet face-to-face after the game.

But they’ll cross paths again. Maybe Shumpert was heated just last night. Like all of us, NBA players go through moods. Or maybe this will be a lasting grudge.

We might next learn more April 10, when the Kings and Trail Blazers meet in their season finales.