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Why OKC Thunder players are owed big bonus check due to NBA salary cap oddity

Joe Mussatto
Oklahoman

When Kenrich Williams was asked in his exit interview about the Thunder’s uncommon salary cap situation, the all-hustle forward cracked a smile. 

A million-dollar smile, you might say. 

Because the Thunder’s team payroll this season was below the league minimum, players like Williams, who spent at least half of the season with the team, will collect bonus checks upwards of $1 million each on top of their regular salaries. 

“We're thankful for that,” said Williams, still smiling. “That's pretty much all I can say about that.” 

It’s a big deal for someone like Williams, whose standard salary was $2 million. The extra check gives him a 50% bump. 

The salary cap for the 2021-22 NBA season was set at $112.4 million. According to the league’s collective bargaining agreement, the minimum salary a team can pay is 90% of the cap, so about $101.2 million. 

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Oklahoma City's Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (2), Darius Bazley (7), Luguentz Dort (5) and Kenrich Williams (34) celebrate in front of Sacramento's Richaun Holmes (22) on Nov. 12.

The Thunder’s salary was about $79 million — roughly $22 million below the salary floor. 

According to the CBA, that $22 million shortfall is to be distributed among the players. The National Basketball Players Association votes on how the money is divided, but it’s expected that players who were on the roster for 41 or more games will receive full shares, and players who had shorter stints will receive half and quarter shares. 

Exactly how those shares are broken down is not made public. 

"We lay a lot out on the floor and we work hard all year,” Thunder guard Luguentz Dort said, “and we've got to thank the organization for doing that for us, just all the players.”

Twenty-six players suited up for the Thunder this season, from Darius Bazley who played a team-high 69 games, to journeyman Scotty Hopson who played one game

Back in February, former NBA forward and current ESPN analyst Richard Jefferson said Thunder players were the “biggest winners” of the trade deadline. Jefferson did a comical two-minute segment explaining how OKC’s players would benefit from the team’s lack of spending. 

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“If I was any of those players, I’d be like, ‘Hey, Sam (Presti), we don’t need any help,’” Jefferson said. “We can lose all by ourselves.’” 

Jefferson’s ESPN colleague, Zach Lowe, stepped in and reminded Jefferson that the Thunder could still add salary by signing somebody. 

“If I’m Ty Jerome or Darius Bazley,” Lowe said, “and I see Sam Presti on the phone at shootaround, I am running full speed across that court, tackling him, ripping the phone out of his ear … ‘Who are you calling? Some European free agent? No! We’re not interested. That’s my money!’” 

The Thunder could have, and was even expected to take on unwanted contracts at the trade deadline in exchange for more draft picks. OKC certainly had the space, but it stood pat. 

“When we were sitting there at the deadline, we just didn't like anything that was being thrown at us to use that space compared to the opportunity to roll it over to the draft,” Presti said. 

“Now, it doesn't roll over to July 1, but we will have that room at the draft. I would put the odds of using that room pretty low. But I'd still rather have those odds than the things that were being presented to us (at the trade deadline).”

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Thunder general manager Sam Presti speaks about the team's future on April 18. The Thunder’s salary for the 2021-22 season was about $79 million — roughly $22 million below the salary floor.

Even after the deadline, Presti didn’t make an obscure free agent signing, a la Gabriel Deck from a season before, that would’ve brought the Thunder closer to the salary floor. OKC didn’t do much of anything aside from cycling through a few 10-day contract players at the end of the season. 

The Thunder’s contentment with staying millions of dollars under the salary floor was twofold. 

One, unless all the Thunder was offering were non-guaranteed contracts, there was no reason to tie up future cap space just to satisfy the salary floor. The Thunder is trying to maintain financial flexibility leading up to a new CBA in the summer of 2023. 

And two, that $22 million shortfall had to be spent one way or another, so why not reward the players that stuck through a 24-58 rebuilding season? 

“Our players are able to get the benefit of that decision,” Presti said. 

Thunder players won’t be getting another bonus check next season. The Thunder already has north of $105 million tied up in salaries for 2022-23. 

It will be the first season of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s max extension, which will bump his salary from $5.5 million to $29.8 million. 

“I don’t know that it will ever happen again in the NBA,” Presti said, “just to be that low, to be that far under.”