Bernucca: Clay Bennett’s skimping may cost him Kevin Durant, too

Jerry WestKevin Durant is a great player. He deserves a great owner.

Durant may not know it yet, but he is becoming this generation’s Jerry West: a fantastic talent and class act whose career was marked by finishing second.

In 14 seasons, West twice finished second in scoring (also winning once). He never won an MVP award, finishing third once and second a record four times. And he lost the NBA Finals seven times before finally winning in his 13th season.

In six seasons, Durant has finished second in scoring once (last season, ending his three-year reign). He has never won an MVP award, finishing second three times already. And he lost in the NBA Finals in 2012, his only trip thus far.

In an era when owners held all the power, West played his entire career with the Los Angeles Lakers. In an era where superstars call the shots, Durant has played his entire career with the Oklahoma City Thunder.

And Durant figures to be in Oklahoma City a while. For one, he has three years and $57 million left on his contract. For another, he said so himself, just last week.

Speaking to fans during a Nike Tour in France, Durant was asked whether a different team was in his future.

“I like where I’m at right now,” he said. “I enjoy playing for OKC. As of today, I love it there, man. I want to be there. I love the fans, I love my team, I love everything about the city. I don’t have any plans to move.”

This is why Durant is a class act. He gave a fair answer to an unfair question. Not knowing what the future may hold, can anyone – let alone a superstar basketball player with a limited earnings window – really say they are sure they will be in the same city working for the same company three years from now? Note his use of the words “right now.”

Clay Bennett ThunderOne of the variables that could influence Durant is how much Thunder owner Clay Bennett is interested in not finishing second. And over the last couple of offseasons, that interest hasn’t exactly been prevalent.

Bennett’s net worth is $400 million. Since he bought the Thunder (as the SuperSonics) in 2006, he has not paid one dollar of luxury tax.

The Thunder certainly are not alone in that regard. In those same eight seasons, a dozen other teams also have paid no luxury tax. Those 12 teams have combined for just 36 playoff appearances in 96 opportunities, or 37.5 percent. And none of those postseason trips have resulted in a trip to the NBA Finals.

The Thunder bucked those odds when they reached the 2012 NBA Finals as a precocious group with loads of young talent and a very bright future. Perhaps too bright, because it seems to have obscured Bennett’s long-term vision.

Since reaching the NBA Finals, Bennett has maintained his red line stance on the luxury tax with diminishing returns. To wit:

  • Last summer, the Thunder could have created more flexibility beneath the tax threshold and increased their chances of retaining James Harden – clearly a top-10 player masquerading as a sixth man – by using the amnesty clause on center Kendrick Perkins, whose lack of usefulness was on full display in the NBA Finals. They chose not to, even though Perkins’ remaining contract would not count toward James Harden cropthe tax.
  • With extension decisions looming on both Harden and Serge Ibaka, the Thunder first signed Ibaka, whose ascent to top-10 status is highly unlikely and years away. Nevertheless, they overpaid him at $49 million over four years, more money than All-Star big men Al Horford and Joakim Noah received from their clubs.
  • Those decisions and Bennett’s refusal to pay tax forced the Thunder into one of the worst trades in NBA history when they sent Harden and spare parts to Houston for Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb, a pair of first-round picks and a second-round pick. No one who watched the playoffs last season would say Martin was an adequate replacement for Harden. And Ibaka didn’t pick up the slack, either.
  • This summer, the Thunder again had the opportunity to use the amnesty provision on Perkins, whose contract got one year shorter as his play got even worse. But Bennett’s red line continued to include Kendrick Perkins“dead money” even if it did not count toward the tax.
  • Martin was a free agent and certainly wasn’t going to command the $11 million he made last season, given his advancing age and role reduction. Bennett’s unwillingness to use the amnesty provision and stance on the tax severely limited what the Thunder could give Martin, who signed for $28 million over four years with Minnesota — but said he would have taken less to stay in Oklahoma City. So ask yourself if you would rather have Martin at $6 million or Perkins at $8.3 million.
  • To save some face, the Thunder engineered a sign-and-trade with the Timberwolves and Milwaukee Bucks that netted neither a player nor draft pick but the rights to Szymon Szewczyk and a $7 million trade exception. That means the Thunder’s net in the Harden trade is now Lamb, rookie center Steven Adams (who probably isn’t going to play much because Perkins is still around), a first-round pick, a second-round pick, a Eurostash who probably will never play in the NBA and a trade exception that expires in less than a year and can only be used to take back a player who makes real money that counts toward the tax. Shrewd? Not.
  • Martin’s departure also means that in the last year, the role of first wing off the Thunder’s bench has gone from a top-10 player to Lamb, who has played 147 career minutes, including none that have ever mattered.
  • After signing No. 12 pick Adams to the standard 120 percent of the rookie salary scale, the Thunder offered No. 27 pick Andre Roberson just 80 percent of the rookie salary scale, the lowest amount allowed. Faced with becoming a free agent in a closing market, Roberson felt he had no choice but to take the offer.


  1. Bill Johnson says

    What you’re missing, is a new function of the new CBA called a repeater tax. I’ve forgotten exact specifics, but basically it provides stiff penalties for teams that are repeat tax payers. The tax rate increases along with other penalties that restrict the ability to add role players around a core.

    And the Thunder will be taxpayers next year, season 2014/15, and probably for the foreseeable future. Its unavoidable. Trading Harden wasn’t about paying a luxury tax last season, it was about the tax bill two and three season ahead. This is why it was important for the Thunder to not be taxpayers in this current season, so they can delay one more year, becoming repeat taxpayers.

    Its not about just a willingness to pay tax, its about being able to pay the tax in the next two to four years. I really doubt if Bennett or any owner, has drawn any profits out of the Thunder, so that money is still there to be used to pay the extreme tax bill that lies ahead.

    You are thinking about right now and playing checkers, Sam Presti and Bennett are playing chess.

  2. REAL TALK says

    and negotiating a sign and trade and rcving a 7 million trade exception rather than NOTHING is ‘saving face’? I mean, what did Clay pee in your Cheerios?

  3. REAL TALK says

    BAD article. Don’t know how good Lamb is yet, Adams could turn out to be excellent Center and completely fail to mention that Harden was demanding max money and most likely would have been gone after the season, regardless. You can do better than this guys.

    • Chris says

      I know how good Lamb is – not as good as Martin and unqualified to be Harden’s ballboy. Harden is a top-10 player and will be top-5 before his current deal expires. And as long as you are banking on that trade exception, tell me the last time ANY team acquired a player of consequence with a trade exception. I love Durant. I love Westbrook. But Bennett is a cheapskate. Thanks for reading.

  4. Cameron says

    Durant has not played his entire career with the Oklahoma City “thunder”.
    He was in fact drafted by the Seattle SuperSonics, and he played his first couple of years (very happily) of his career in the NBA there.
    He in fact, is still caught wearing Sonics caps during warmups.
    Kevin Durant is a great guy, but Clay Bennett is not.
    Bennett stole the Sonics away in a very deceitful and dishonest deal, and now he seems to be screwing OKC and Durant as well.
    As long as he’s an owner, I hope that his team never wins.
    Here’s to bringing the Sonics back next year, and having Durant come back there where he belongs to win his first well deserved championship.

    • Sam says

      Seasons? Wasnt it just one season? Stretching the truth. Owner who lives somewhere else buys team from starbucks ceo, who would of thought he would move it to where he resides? Be mad at city of seattle for not going to games & not renovating key arena or building a new one. Seattle prioritized qwest(nfl) and safeco(mlb) stadiums over nba facility. I hope the team wins now just due to fact of all sour sonics fans who havent let it go. Keep showing up to playoff games, please. Heres to NBA in OKC. Its a beautiful thing.

      • The_Truth says

        > Seattle prioritized qwest(nfl) and safeco(mlb) stadiums over nba facility.

        Wrong. The renovation that turned the Coliseum into KeyArena took place prior to Safeco and Quest.

        • REAL TALK says

          renovation isn’t the same as building a new arena smart guy, but you knew that right? Sonics fans kill me. Go cheer for the lacrosse team. haha

    • says

      Knew that, AJ, but thanks. Skipped over that last one because it came after he finally one. Still the only guy to win Finals MVP for the losing team, something I really can’t see happening ever again. Thanks for reading.

  5. Terence says

    Great piece. It has always boggled my mind why millionaire owners want teams yet are so frugal when it comes to luxury taxes.

    OKC has gotten lucky with drafting (especially “falling” to 2nd place to get KD), but it seems they feel it’s enough in today’s NBA. It’s not.

  6. Bernucca hiooo says

    Jackson will most likely be first “wing” off bench. Come on now, hopefully you are not getting paid for this. I know this and have $0 involved.

    • Chris says

      All the more reason why the notion that Lamb is ready to fill a role Harden held less than a year ago is an absurdity. I like what Jackson showed in the postseason, and he can allow Westbrook to slide to the 2. But at some point, Westbrook has to rest. Thanks for reading.


  1. […] Chris Bernucca of Sheridan Hoops with an all-time terrible column: “But you have to wonder if Durant will feel the same way about Oklahoma City three years from now if Bennett continues to ask players to make financial sacrifices and rake in revenue without raising payroll, depriving the Thunder and their loyal fan base of a championship. Because that’s not “all for one and one for all.” That’s “all for me.” When his current contract expires, Durant will be 27, still in his prime with nine years under his belt, represented by a new agent, Jay-Z. That’s nine years of virtually unmatched excellence on and off the court. Nine years of finishing second — or worse, depending on what is to come. Nine years of trying to fill the only void in his Hall of Fame resume. There’s probably a great owner out there who would love to help him. Time, and money, will tell.” […]

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