George's return, considered a huge long shot when the Thunder acquired him from the Indiana Pacers this time a year ago, creates what can safely be categorized as good problems for Oklahoma City. Maxing out George and re-signing key reserve Jerami Grant will push the Thunder far over the luxury-tax line. Worse yet, Oklahoma City would be paying the tax for the fourth time in five years, meaning it would join the more punitive category of repeat taxpayers.
So while bringing back George and Grant ensures the Thunder keep their core intact, it likely means more moves are coming to mitigate what could be a historic luxury-tax bill.
Oklahoma City's massive payroll
Including George but not yet Grant, the Thunder have nearly $150 million committed to 10 players under contract for 2018-19, already enough to put Oklahoma City far above the $123.7 million tax line.
Assuming Grant's three-year, $27 million deal will include standard eight percent raises and filling out the roster with minimum-salary contracts for the Thunder's three 2018 second-round picks (who will help save money if signed to NBA contracts), that would push the team salary to more than $158 million. Oklahoma City would then pay a luxury-tax bill of more than $142 million -- easily surpassing the previous record of $90-plus million for the 2013-14 Brooklyn Nets and bringing total payroll beyond $300 million.
There are few easy options for the Thunder to cut payroll. The one exception would be waiving Kyle Singler and stretching the remaining $5 million guaranteed on his contract over the next five seasons, reducing his cap hit to a little less than $1 million. Doing so and filling Singler's roster spot with a player signed for the veteran's minimum would shave nearly $15 million off the Oklahoma City tax bill and save the team about $17 million overall.
Beyond that, the Thunder would likely have to trade rotation players to save money next season. Alex Abrines ($5.5 million in the final season of his contract) and Patrick Patterson ($5.5 million, with a $5.7 million player option for 2019-20) could be replaced more cheaply in free agency, but both played regular minutes last season and Patterson in particular may be difficult to trade without giving up draft-pick compensation.
Then there's Carmelo Anthony, who chose to make $27.9 million in the final season of his contract rather than test free agency. Oklahoma City could save money in 2018-19 by dealing Anthony for a player (or players) with smaller but longer contracts, giving the other team more flexibility for the summer of 2019 while delaying the worst of the Thunder's tax problems another year.
It's unclear whether another team would be interested in such a deal, but for example Oklahoma City could deal Anthony to the Milwaukee Bucks for Matthew Dellavedova, John Henson and Tyler Zeller (whose 2018-19 salary would have to be guaranteed for the salaries to match). That deal would save the Thunder more than $30 million in salary and taxes this season, but add about $20 million in 2019-20 salary.
The more dramatic option would be a buyout for Anthony, who might be willing to give up some money to sign with another team if it becomes clear his role in Oklahoma City will diminish next season. Even merely waiving Anthony and stretching his 2018-19 salary would (along with a Singler waiver) trim the Thunder's luxury-tax bill to a more manageable $40 million or so.
Are the Thunder contenders with George?
Looming over all of these decisions is a crucial question: Just how good does Oklahoma City project to be in 2018-19 after re-signing George? Certainly, the Thunder are better-positioned now than had George left via free agency, in which case Oklahoma City would still have been in the luxury tax with few options to improve an average roster.
The success of the Thunder's starting five last season has been a point in favor of Anthony's value to the team. Oklahoma City outscored opponents by 14.2 points per 100 possessions last season with its starters on the court, the second-best net rating among the 10 lineups that logged at least 500 minutes in 2017-18 according to NBA Advanced Stats.
Certainly, the Thunder were better with shooting guard Andre Roberson on the court before he went down with a ruptured patellar tendon not long before the All-Star break. At the time of Roberson's injury, Oklahoma City's plus-4.2 point differential was good for third in the Western Conference behind the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets. And yet, of course, there was an enormous gap between those two teams (with point differentials of plus-8.8 and plus-7.6, respectively) and the Thunder.
It's unclear exactly how Oklahoma City will bridge that gap. After all, the team's luxury-tax situation means adding via free agency is likely a nonstarter. So the Thunder will be counting on internal development -- most notably from second-year shooting guard Terrance Ferguson, who could emerge as a more well-rounded alternative to Roberson -- and better chemistry in Year 2 of the Anthony-George era. Oklahoma City is also depending on Roberson to return at full strength and Anthony to avoid further decline at age 34, neither of which is close to a sure thing.
In the larger context of where the Thunder could be two years after losing Kevin Durant in free agency, the team remains well positioned to win a playoff series for the first time in that span. Re-signing George was a best-case scenario for Oklahoma City when this deal was consummated, and helps make up for the way the players the team gave up (Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis) beat expectations with the Indiana Pacers.
In a crowded West second tier, the Thunder won't automatically leap to the front of the line with George's return. Still, Oklahoma City managed to convince him -- the most important person -- that the team's potential made it worth sticking around.