The Oklahoma City Thunder officially matched the Portland Trail Blazers' four-year, $70 million offer late Sunday. They had three days to file the paperwork and took right up the end of all three, presumably just because they could.
The Thunder have been pretty direct in saying they always intended to match any offer sheet Kanter received.
The contract itself is a bit jarring, seeing as Kanter was a significant defensive liability the past season (he was last among centers in defensive real plus/minus), but the deal isn't entirely what it seems, especially when held against the Thunder's future.
Here are three things to know about the deal:
1. Signing Kanter doesn't really impact the Thunder's long-term financial outlook: Kanter is going to cost the Thunder a lot of money this season. On top of the $16.4 million they'll pay him, signing him sends OKC well into the luxury tax.
Here's how the numbers shape up:
• The Thunder's 2015-16 total salary is now $97,897,877 with a full, 15-man roster.
•The Thunder are currently $27,897,877 over the salary cap.
•The Thunder are currently $13,157,877 over the luxury tax threshold.
• If nothing else changes, the Thunder will have a luxury tax payment of $24,144,691 at the end of next season. That's in addition to paying almost $98 million in salary. The Thunder owners would be on the hook for a total of $122,042,568.
• If the Thunder trade Steve Novak and Perry Jones (as I expect), that will trim $5,788,207 in salary, which would reduce their cap number to $92,109,670. That means they would be $7,349,670 over the tax threshold and would get out of the third tax tier altogether, so their tax payment would be $11,611,922. That's $12,532,769 in tax savings. You don't want Perry Jones and Steve Novak costing you a combined $18,320,976 next season.
That is next season's financial impact. There's no question paying Kanter this amount is going to run the Thunder a hefty bar tab. But it's for one year because with the salary cap projected to be around $90 million for the 2016-17 season (which would have the luxury tax threshold around $104.5 million), the Thunder will actually be under the tax, even after potentially re-signing Kevin Durant to a max deal worth 30 percent of their cap.
If you want to see the numbers, they go something like this (assuming the Thunder trade Jones and pick up Anthony Morrow's option) before re-signing Durant:
• With 10 players under contract, the Thunder have $67,895,733 on the books.
• If they sign Durant for the 30 percent max, they're at (roughly) $94 million. That's still more than $10 million under the projected tax threshold.
• The Thunder would then need to sign two more players to meet minimum roster requirements. After Durant, they have only two remaining free agents on whom they could use that $10 million: D.J. Augustin (unrestricted) and Dion Waiters (restricted). They could also use the mid-level exception to sign a free agent.
• The Thunder could look to sign guard Alex Abrines, the 32nd pick in the 2013 draft. The organization is very high on him, and he might be cheaper than Waiters. They could also sign Josh Huestis, the 29th overall pick from last year's draft, who might be added to this season's roster on his rookie scale deal.
The takeaway here: The scary thing you've been hearing about is the "repeater" tax, which is activated when a team is over the tax threshold three out of four seasons. After signing Kanter, the Thunder will have been over the tax threshold in two consecutive years after the 2015-16 season. There's a good chance they won't be over it for 2016-17. With the cap set to hop to potentially $110 million the year after that, there's a strong chance they avoid it again when/if they re-sign Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka to presumptive maxes. This might require some maneuvering because they'd potentially be paying around $90 million to three players, but it could certainly be done. The Thunder could use the "stretch provision" or trade other salary.
One more thing: The current Collective Bargaining Agreement can be opted out of by either the players or the owners in July 2017 (most expect this to happen). That would mean a re-negotiated CBA for the 2017-18 season. That might mean different negotiations for Westbrook and Ibaka's maxes and would likely include another amnesty provision. If Kanter is a huge liability burdening the cap, the Thunder might be able to wash their hands of him then.
As you should assume, the Thunder have been strategically planning for all this, and this is an explanation for some of their past choices.
2. Kanter's "max" contract isn't exactly a max: In terms of the 2015-16 salary cap, it's a max, a big, ugly, head-scratching max. It'll start at $16.4 million next season and escalate to the $70 million he is owed, assuming he exercises a four-year player option.
But again, within the evolving landscape of the NBA's soaring cap, $16.4 million looks more like $13.580 million on the books. With each year the cap jumps, Kanter's yearly salary "lowers" in a backward way, at least when propped against the Thunder's cap number.
That's why you've seen so many eyebrow-raising deals this summer. Players are getting long-term deals because teams are willing to lock in at what will prove to be a discounted rate. In a way, Kanter likely will be making "less" each season into his deal, while his physical salary actually increases, if that makes sense.
There's no question about it: Kanter is well paid -- overpaid, probably. But the Thunder are taking their turn at gaming the system, using ballooning league revenue to re-sign a player they otherwise would've had to let walk.
This is the only way the Thunder can make additions to their roster outside of the draft. With Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka capping them out almost on their own, the Thunder's only real option is to grab restricted free agents they can re-sign via Bird rights. Although Kanter is costing them a pretty penny now, the Thunder aren't sweating it because of previous years of planning.
3. Kanter is actually pretty good: Contrary to what the Internet might have been telling you the past few days, Enes Kanter is a solid basketball player. Again, there is no denying his defensive limitations, which in today's NBA can be a liability that work a player off the floor, especially in the heat of the postseason. He might be unplayable in crunch time of a crucial game. He also could be an X-factor in winning one.
Kanter is a 23-year-old double-double workhorse who gave the Thunder 18.7 points and 11.0 rebounds in 26 games the previous season. He provides the Thunder something they've never had to complement Westbrook and Durant: a low block monster who can be effective inside and out. Before Kanter arrived at the February trade deadline, no Thunder center in the Oklahoma City era had ever produced a 20-point, 10-rebound game. Kanter had 11 in 26 games. (For a little more perspective, DeAndre Jordan had seven total the past season. Dwight Howard had 11. Al Horford had seven. Blake Griffin had nine. Marc Gasol had eight. No, Kanter isn't better than them, but he does produce.)
Although he is going to be paid exceptionally well, the Thunder view Kanter not as a franchise piece but as a luxury. He'll likely come off the bench to provide offensive firepower in the Thunder's second unit. The Thunder are interested in trying to stagger Durant and Westbrook's minutes more in the future, and with the chemistry Kanter had with Westbrook in the pick-and-roll, a lineup anchored by the duo could be a strong counter while Durant rests.
Plus, what has been the Thunder's biggest issue in the past (besides unlucky injuries)? Getting stale and predictable offensively in the postseason. Kanter is a whole new weapon and one that might alleviate some of the your-turn-my-turn isolations the Thunder bog down into with Westbrook and Durant.
It'll be up to new coach Billy Donovan to utilize Kanter's skill set, but with plenty of depth in the frontcourt (Steven Adams, Serge Ibaka, Nick Collison and Mitch McGary), he'll have options, which is a necessity, as showcased in the latest playoffs. The more lineup versatility you have, the better. One series, you might be playing big against the Grizzlies. The next, you might be small against the Warriors. To navigate the NBA postseason, especially in the West, you have to be prepared for everything.