It has been a turbulent season for the Oklahoma City Thunder, one filled with injuries to stars and playoff uncertainty. Inside the organization, however, it's been business as usual.
On Tuesday, with the Thunder 24-24 and three games back in the race for the West's No. 8 seed, the team announced a contract extension with veteran big man Nick Collison, five months before he was scheduled to reach free agency. The deal is for two years and $7.5 million, sources told ESPN.com.
It's not the biggest transaction in the grand scheme of the NBA, especially considering the veteran, now in his 11th season, is averaging career lows in points (3.8), rebounds (3.4) and minutes (16) per game. If anything, how the deal was structured might be of most interest to the league at large; the Thunder front office used an obscure and never-before-used provision from the collective bargaining agreement to give Collison a raise -- from his $2.5 million salary this season to $3.75 million next year -- based on his 10-plus seasons of service with one team.
This is the eighth time in the past six years a Thunder player has signed a contract extension and bypassed a chance at free agency. Those eight instances include high-profile players Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins.
Although some might question the attractiveness of the Oklahoma City market, the Thunder have largely been successful in keeping their top players when they've offered significant money.
“This organization shows a commitment to players, and it’s an everyday thing,” Collison told ESPN after he signed his deal. “That is something the guys have valued, how we’ve been treated over the years. Guys appreciate it, and we’ve wanted to be here. It’s a two-way street.”
It's clearly important to Collison, who has now signed three contract extensions with the franchise. But it also aligns with what Durant has said about his free agency in 2016.
Because of the rising salary cap, Durant could sign the largest contract in NBA history if he accepts a full maximum contract extension from the Thunder in two years. Some speculate such a deal could approach $200 million, if Durant wanted to take a full, five-year offer.
With Durant's free agency looming, the Thunder have begun to loosen their purse strings. They are currently projected to pay the luxury tax for the first time, and the Collison deal might have been slightly more than his market value would have been next summer (it was more than the $3.3 million a contending and luxury tax-paying team could have offered).
What Durant says, does or wears between now and July 2016 has limited meaning. Nothing is binding until he uses his signature to agree with a team more than a year from now. But when he addressed the topic two weeks ago, he echoed some of the same things Collision pointed to after re-upping in OKC.
“I love playing for Oklahoma City, man. There’s a certain level of pride that I have when I play with that Oklahoma City on my chest,” Durant, a Washington, D.C., native said before his team's game against the Wizards on Jan. 21 in Washington. “So that’s the only thing I focus on. Everybody knows that I represent where I come from and where I play at, no matter what arena. I just focus on playing with Oklahoma City. It feels like home to me now.”
Green and Harden were traded before they ever hit free agency. Jackson, a restricted free agent this summer, has been in trade talks for several weeks. Since he took over as general manager in 2007, Sam Presti has never allowed one of his core players to reach free agency. This year's trade deadline is now three weeks away.
“This organization has always shown an interest in getting something done [before free agency],” Collision said. “When both sides feel good about the deal, then things get done.”
Obviously Harden, who was offered less than a max contract by the Thunder before he signed one with the Houston Rockets, Green and Jackson didn’t have the same good feeling about their extension offers.
The Thunder’s trade to acquire Dion Waiters last month was, in part, an attempt to provide some options with Jackson. Waiters doesn't play the same position, but the former Cavalier's role as a bench scorer certainly gives the Thunder some insurance if Jackson is traded this month or leaves via free agency over the summer.
They used a similar approach in the past, when they were at the top of the standings. Little has changed now, even with the team struggling to break into the postseason field.
“I’ve got a lot of faith in this organization,” Collison said. “I have a lot of faith in our players, and we all know how good we can still be.”