Top 12 in ’12 – No. 12 Michigan Wolverines

By Kolby Paxton

Quarterback Denard Robinson – who, incredibly, is still just a junior – looks sort of similar to how I’d imagine Lil’ Wayne might appear in a Wolverines uniform; dreads flowing from beneath his winged maize and blue shell, his diminutive stature accentuated by the stereotypical enormity of the Michigan offensive line – particularly when under center. The ball seems over-inflated in his hands, like a child that would just as soon opt for an innocuous two-handed chest pass.

Then Robinson, as he so often does, shifts into a gear that so few athletes on planet Earth possess; and, as is often the case with this gear and these athletes, it happens almost without warning. One moment, “Shoelace” is retreating amid a crowd of defenders, Adidases surely on the verge of abandoning his feet. The next, he’s eluding would-be tacklers, erasing angles, and stretching that overgrown pigskin across the goalline with an admirable level of grandiloquence.

Passing accuracy be damned, Michigan’s Rastafarian-esque signal caller is among the most dynamic athletes in college football. Robinson has started all 23 games for Big Blue since 2010, amassing a jaw-dropping 7,621 yards of total offense and 68 touchdowns. In what may have been last season’s most riveting contest, Robinson rang up 446 total yards and five touchdowns, including a 16-yard scoring strike to Roy Roundtree with two seconds remaining to vault the Wolverines past Notre Dame. In the hotly contested finale versus rival Ohio State, he incited a triumphant round of Hail to the Victor for the first time in eight years, leading his team to the winner’s circle on the strength of 337 total yards and five scores. The interceptions don’t help the cause, but No. 16’s unconventional good far outweighs his drive-your-grandfather-crazy bad.

Freshman Blake Countess is the new starter in the UM secondary.

As if Robinson, alone, wasn’t torturous enough for opposing defensive coordinators, Michigan head coach Brady Hoke handed the sidecar duties to then-freshman Fitzgerald Toussaint prior to the Wolverines’ October meeting with Purdue. All Toussaint did was rip off 170 yards and two scores – a performance that was trumped just two weeks later, when he dominated Illinois to the tune of 192 yards on 27 carries. All told, Toussaint cleared 1,000 yards rushing in 2011, despite starting just six games. Together, the duo forms one of the nation’s most lethal ground attacks.

Defensively, no longer is UM the laughingstock of the college football world. Under the tutelage of defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, the unit finished 2011 as the nation’s sixth best scoring defense – a dramatic improvement for a group that ranked 104th in 2010. Mattison returns seven starters in 2012. The secondary is particularly loaded, with three returning starters and impact newcomer Blake Countess in the fold to replace Troy Woolfolk at the field corner spot.

Unfortunately for Big Blue, the defense underwhelmed during the spring game – always a red flag, as the defense is typically ahead of the offense in April – prompting Hoke to question the strength of the unit up the middle. The defensive line lost three of four starters, and the linebacking corps is chock full of question marks. There is no guarantee that the group’s lone veteran, Kenny Demens, is even capable of holding off freshman Joe Bolden – a development that would likely leave the Wolverines with three freshman starters at the position.

Prediction: 9-3 (7-1)

In a down Big Ten, there’s a lot to like about Michigan in 2012. Still, the schedule could prove devastating, with road trips to South Bend, Lincoln, and Columbus, to accompany a brutal season opener versus Alabama in Jerry’s World. If all goes according to plan, the Wolverines should be favored in 11 out of 12 games. But with visits to three of the country’s toughest venus on tap, that plan is more than a little capricious.

Resist Finals overreaction – OKC is growing up

Several months ago, my brother’s dog, Bella – a female – and my parent’s dog, Roscoe – a male – did what dogs of opposing genders do when they are left alone without supervision.

Some time after, Bella gave birth to nine puppies in an apartment in Oklahoma City, a single mother of nonuplets. Fortunately for Roscoe, Bella’s humans sold eight of the nine, thus letting him off the hook for child support – which is good news for an overweight senior citizen that is currently “in between jobs,” living in an Igloo, and bumming left over table scraps.

My parents bought Roscoe when I was a sophomore in high school. I picked him out and named him.

Perhaps now you’re wondering, “Why Roscoe?” Well, if you must know, I was sort of feeling this new rapper called Young Roscoe. Young Roscoe had a song on his only good album ever – Young Roscoe Philaphornia – called “5 Seconds.” In it, for some reason, voices can be heard in the background calling Roscoe like he’s a dog – “Get ‘em boy. Get ‘em Roscoe.”

I’m pretty sure the listener was meant to draw a metaphorical parallel between the rapper and a pit bull. Unfortunately for Young Roscoe, I heard it and decided that his name would be a cool name for a beagle – a miniature hound, known for its gentle, amiable temperament.

Anyway, I just thought that was a back-story worth sharing. In retrospect, perhaps not.

So, Roscoe, Bella, puppies, I bought one. A few months ago, Griffey – named for the greatest ballplayer since Mays (A better namesake than a nobody rapper with three tolerable songs, no?) – moved into a new, shiny, carefully selected kennel, in the corner across from by bed.

Frankly, it also bears mentioning that Griffey was the absolute pick of the litter. His coloring is nearly perfect, his physical development has dwarfed that of his siblings, and he appears to be far more cognitively advanced, as well.

Of course, I picked him out when he was the size of a gerbil, so I had no way of knowing any of this. I wanted a boy. Griffey had two brothers. The 33.3 percent odds fell in his favor thanks to a pronounced white stripe down the center of his head that no longer exists.

As time passed and the puppies grew, I wrestled with what began to feel like an unnecessarily rushed decision. Griff’s brother, Harvey, was the sweetest dog I have ever seen. The other boy, Sam, was everyone’s favorite if only because he was so ugly that he was adorable. He looked like something out of a puppy calendar.

Truthfully, the only reason that remained loyal to Griffey, was that I had this weird – admittedly irrational – feeling that he knew he was my dog. I couldn’t stomach the thought of his first emotional experience being that of abandonment.

Finally, once he was here, and it was too late to back out, there was an overwhelming feeling of, “Oh, crap” – for both of us, I’m sure. In my mind, I had this laundry list of things to teach him, but no idea how effective my methods of tutelage would be.

One of our first lessons was Jogging 101. Incredibly, he picked it up almost immediately, if only because he was terrified that I was going to run away from him. I didn’t care. I was ecstatic. To celebrate, I rushed upstairs, filled up his water bowl, and offered him a treat.

I barely escaped with my fingers, he chugged the entire bowl of water, and then puked in the center of my living room.

From that experience, we learned to place an emphasis on manners related to treat retrieval, as well as the inadvisability of drowning your dog with a bottomless bowl of water three minutes after he runs a mile. Check and check.

Of course, there were also the issues of housebreaking, begging for food, jumping, stealing socks, chewing up headphones, housebreaking, sleeping past 6 a.m., riding in a car, barking indoors, playing nice with other dogs, housebreaking, and a weird affinity for sandals.

We’re no more finishing one triumphant victory dance over the preservation of carpet, when I turn to find my perfect puppy masquerading as a mischievous mutt with a shoe in his mouth.

It’s a constant roller coaster of emotions, full of highlights and half-eaten underwear.

One day, though, my puppy will be a grown dog; seasoned and obedient. I’ll look back and laugh at his adolescent bouts with misguided treachery. One day, long after that, my grown dog will become an old dog. When that day comes, and our time together is entering its twilight, I will long for these firsts, these triumphs and failures, these puppy breath licks of redemption.
The same could be said for Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, and the young Thunder of Oklahoma City.

In Durant’s rookie season, the franchise’s last in Seattle, the then-Sonics went 20-62, playing in a half-empty Key Arena that must’ve echoed like the Grand Canyon.

When the team arrived in Bricktown a year later, we had zero expectations of them. Chew up a baseball mitt, treat the rug like a urinal, we didn’t care. They were ours, and everything they did was lovable. Sure, P.J. Carlesimo and the boys dropped their first three contests, but we beat Minnesota! So what if they followed that inaugural victory with 10 straight L’s? Fire the coach. Give the job to Opie Taylor. We’d still sell out the Ford Center.

As a city and as a fanbase, we had a point to prove. We belonged. If we were important enough to have an NBA team, it validated our status as a real city. Games were less a competition and more an event, a sort of showcase of our fandom. Besides, our two best players weren’t even of legal drinking age. At the very least, we owed them a seemingly limitless amount of patience. At most, we were indebted to the organization as a whole for putting professional athletes in jerseys with “Oklahoma City” sprawled across the front – even if it was nearly impossible to stuff 12 letters on the chest plate of a tank top; and even if they couldn’t decide on a color, so they chose seven; and even if, what appears to have been a 12-year old with Photoshop, designed the worst logo in professional sports.

Those were our letters, those were our colors, and that was our stupid looking crest. And, anyway, Thunder up.

A year later, things began to change. Durant, as it happened, was really good; Westbrook was, too. There was a 28-point blowout victory over the defending Eastern Conference champion Orlando Magic, and a 16-point shellacking of the reigning NBA champion Lakers. There were road victories in San Antonio, Salt Lake and Miami. Then, from Jan. 29 to March 14, the Thunder reeled off a stretch of 17 wins in 20 contests, including conquests in Boston and Dallas, and suddenly the post-season was a realistic possibility. One month later it was a reality.

Of course, we never expected to win a series versus the mighty Lakers. That wasn’t the point. Our boys won 50 games, earned their first playoff victory, and then their second. Civic pride overflowed, even as the eventual champions dispatched our young guns in six games. Westbrook committed eight turnovers in Game 5. Durant shot 5-of-23 in Game 6. No one cared. Our puppies were sitting on command and doing their business outside. In other words, enjoy that dress sock. We were too enamored with their progress to care.

The funny thing about success, though, is that it breeds the expectation for greater success. Fifty-five wins and a trip to the Western Conference Finals was enough improvement to outweigh the disappointment associated with the team’s inability to close out games last season. Forty-nine wins (the strike shortened equivalent of 60 wins in an 82-game season) and a dominant run to the NBA Finals should have accomplished the same degree of pacification this season – only suddenly, after four straight losses to James and the Miami Heat, it hasn’t.

Never mind the fact that each loss was a one possession game with less than a minute to play. Never mind the fact that LeBron James turned in one of the all-time great Finals performances in the history of the Association. Never mind the run that preceded the shortfall: the sweep of the defending champion Mavericks, the bookend beating of the Lakers, the four straight victories versus the previously invincible Spurs. In the glare of the championship round, past triumphs have given way to recent inadequacies.

We ought to know better. We’ve watched with admiration, patience and understanding, as this group has grown up. We’ve fallen for Kid Clutch, embraced The Beard, and learned to love the most electric – if occasionally erratic – floor general in the world. With a collective understanding that we’ve been playing with house money for nearly a month, the sentiment of every rational Thunder fan began with, “If we can just get back to the conference finals, I’ll be satisfied,” which evolved into, “If we can just get to the Finals, the season is a success,” but then became, “We are too close to let it slip away.”

The latter disposition induced mass panic as the losses mounted, and the blinding lights of the grand stage threatened to destroy the carefully constructed make-up of the NBA’s most promising team.

Outsiders looking for a story-line proposed the idea of starting James Harden, as if Scott Brooks and his staff hadn’t thought of that before. Talking heads accosted Russell Westbrook’s game as if he was Mike Bibby. The very same people that praised Kevin Durant for his willingness to facilitate early and take over late, disparaged his selflessness, wondering aloud why he wasn’t more demonstrative. Meanwhile, we sat on our sofas in our “Team is Family” T-shirts, nodding along as if they knew something about our guys that we didn’t.

In my brief time as a dog owner, there is one thing that I have noticed above all else: Griffey does not handle new environments very well. He understands the rules and the key points of my apartment. He sort of understands the expected decorum at my girlfriend’s house. But take him somewhere he’s never been before and he will demonstrate overwhelming bewilderment, and an inability to locate the appropriate lavatory. After a couple of days, though, he starts to figure it out.

Oklahoma City is just figuring things out.

Two years ago, the opening round of the playoffs was confounding. Last season, the conference finals – in particular, Dirk Nowitzki’s refusal to quit – proved to be an insurmountable riddle. This season, we couldn’t keep from chewing up the baby’s toys in Miami. The atmosphere felt similar to what we faced in San Antonio, but it wasn’t. It was altogether different.

Now we know.

In the NBA, you have to fail before you can succeed. Michael lost to Isiah. Shaq lost to Hakeem. Dirk lost to Wade. Lebron lost to Duncan – and Dirk. Dr. J had to lose once to Bird and twice to Magic before a loaded Sixers team finally broke through in 1982-’83 – a struggle that OKC assistant Maurice Cheeks is all too aware of.

Because this group seemed to do everything ahead of schedule, because Durant didn’t care who’s time it was, because we won when everyone else said we wouldn’t, we assumed that we would win when those very same defeatists did an about-face. It was fair to feel that way – count me among those guilty as charged. But we were wrong.

Right now, it’s LeBron’s turn. Just know that the dogs in Oklahoma City got next.

My dad just keeps getting smarter

No person on earth has been right as many different times as he has. It’s annoying.

What’s even more annoying is the fact that I swear he used to always be wrong. Somehow, the older I get, the smarter he gets, and he’s cooking with gas.

I’m not exactly sure when it happened. I just know that the quality of his advice has improved steadily over the years. Even his dumb ideas from a few years back have become good ideas retrospectively. It’s uncanny.

Of course, I’m speaking of dear ‘ole dad.

When I was 11 years old, my parents bought me my first expensive baseball glove – a 12.5-inch Rawlings Trap-Eze, Ken Griffey Jr. Edition. It was incredible.

It also weighed approximately 43 pounds.

Previous to this acquisition, I always elected to wear my dad’s old mitt – a tired, weathered hunk of leather that was much lighter than my own – when I pitched. I didn’t have a great reason for it. I just felt more balanced and more secure that way.

But from the moment that I pulled the wrapping paper away from that superlative Greek statue of a glove, insignificant details like balance and security went out the window.

“Don’t wear it in a game until it’s broken in,” dad said. “You need to get comfortable with it.”

Did I listen? Of course not.

Two weeks later, my team was leading by one run heading into the final inning. I slipped on the Trap-Eze – which boasted the flexibility of a flower pot at the time – and took the mound.

To this day, I’m really not sure if the weight of the glove was truly an issue, or if I just didn’t have it on that particular day. Whatever the case, a few moments later I was bouncing a pitch off of the dirt and past the catcher, racing a base runner to home plate, and watching helplessly as my teammates return fire skipped off of my shiny new mitt. The run scored, we lost, and it was all the fault of that stupid glove. I expressed my disdain – and deflected the blame – with a Rob Gronkowski-sized spike of said piece of equipment.

Suffice it to say that my father was slightly less than thrilled with my behavior. But, rather than simply chastising my actions and doling out static punishment, he used the moment to teach a lesson.

Prior preparation prevents poor performance.

Years later, when I turned 16, my dad conducted a thorough, exhausting search for the perfect first vehicle.

I wanted something cool. He wanted something reliable. I wanted something fast. He wanted something safe.

What I got was an ’89 Jeep Comanche.

I didn’t like the pinstripe along the side of it. He removed it. I thought it sat too low to the ground. He installed a lift kit. I thought the tires were too small. He bought brand new wheels and tires for it.

Finally, I copped out by claiming to be overwhelmed by the vehicle’s manual transmission, and he relented and bought me something else.

Nearly a decade later, he still owns the Comanche, and I would love to have it.

Only now, in a poetically just twist of irony, he won’t even sell it to me.

Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.

By February of my senior year of high school, it was evident that I would have the opportunity to play football in college. I visited several smaller schools and junior colleges, but when the University of Oklahoma called, I was sold.

“If you’re going to do this, you need to get your diet right,” dad told me. “You need to put in the work, so that when you get there in July, you don’t look like a walk-on.”

Anything worth doing is worth doing right.

I was feeling pretty good about myself at this point, though. OU wouldn’t be talking to me if I didn’t belong, right? Right. I scoffed at the notion of changing my diet, only choking down a protein drink when forced.

That’ll put some hair on your chest.

I mostly ignored the weight room, too. Instead opting to sleep in, lie by the pool, and hang out with my friends.

When I got to Norman, I was floored. I was good enough on raw ability to keep from getting cut, but that was about it. I was outclassed and unprepared and, if injected with truth serum (and reminded of my name) I’m sure that coach Brent Venables would tell you that I was the least talented linebacker on the team. Within a year, I was temporarily out of football.

You reap what you sew.

Fortunately, as time passes, I seem to be committing fewer of these egregious errors in judgment, which is nice. I must begrudgingly admit, however, that the credit for my improved decision-making is not something that I necessarily deserve (though, if voluntarily lauded for it, I’d be obligated to exercise my Fifth Amendment, because it’s better to let people think you’re a fool, than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.)

No, the truth is, as I grow in age and maturity, I use these nuggets that my dad has instilled in me – dadisms, if you will – as navigational beacons. I only wish that it hadn’t taken him so long to get smart. Who knows where I might be?

Of course, if your aunt had… well, you get the idea.

Happy Fathers Day to every dad that has worked, without reward, to shape the minds and morals of their sons and daughters – especially my dad, Steve Paxton.

I love you, dad.

The irrational behavior of a sports fan

Last Monday night, in the minutes leading up to Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals, I was getting hungry, but I could find nothing to eat.

I was out of charcoal, so I couldn’t grill. Leaving my apartment in pursuit of even the fastest of fast food was obviously out of the question. Pizza is always an inviting option, but pizza was lunch on this particular day, so that, too, was out. Ultimately, my cuisine conundrum came down to Chinese versus a sandwich. I opted for the sandwich; turkey with pepper jack cheese, and a side salad.

Typically, I eat a sandwich for lunch, so to have one for dinner is a bland, unimaginative, and altogether out of the ordinary choice. Yet, there I was Wednesday night, preparing my second turkey sandwich supper in three nights. Why? Because somehow, some way, the visiting Thunder ripped off a 108-103 victory in San Antonio on the heels of that initial gobbler on a bun. No way was I tempting fate by changing up the menu.

Unfortunately, the super sarnie didn’t seem to be working (My condiment calculations must have been off) as the good guys fell behind by as many as 18 in the first half. I looked at my brother, Jeremy, knowingly.

“You might want to sit this one out,” I told him. “This isn’t looking good.”

A few moments later, Kevin Durant buried a long 3-pointer to set the halftime margin at 15. Jeremy didn’t see it; he was in his bedroom. He didn’t see the 11-2 OKC run to open the second half. He didn’t see Durant put the Thunder in front late in the third quarter, either. He missed back-to-back 3’s by Derek Fisher and James Harden – his two favorite players – to extend the lead to six with just over three minutes to play, and he was absent for Mama Durant’s bear hug with 14.6 seconds remaining and the outcome determined.

It wasn’t until the streamers fell from the rafters that he re-emerged dutifully from his bedroom. The game was rewound to a more perilous time and played again, as if it were live, but without the risk of a jinx. He watched everything he’d missed, I narrated and foreshadowed when I deemed it necessary, and eventually the streamers still dropped and the Thunder still won.

You see, my brother believes that by watching his team play, he is concurrently hindering their performance. During the regular season, we developed this theory after repeatedly utilizing intermittent truancies to induce runs. Circumstantial as the evidence might be, it’s there. And if a butterfly in Beijing is causing tornadoes in Kansas, I mean, who’s to say we’re crazy?

Even if we are crazy, we’re far from alone. According to an Associated Press-Ipsos poll released in 2007, one in five sports fans do things in an attempt to bring good luck to their favorite team or avoid jinxing them.

A nurse from Eldridge, Ala., blamed herself for using a red toothbrush when Auburn University dropped two straight football games. A Cleveland Indians fan in Huntington, W. Va., refuses to watch especially important Indians games on television. A Yankees fan in Sacramento, Calif., clutches a lucky bat for all nine innings. Even our very own Ben Johnson has unique techniques for influencing the final score of games involving his beloved St. Louis Cardinals.

“If I’m drinking a beverage and I run out, I think my team has run out of juice,” he said. “I never let the cup empty.”

What if the game heads into extra innings, and Ben runs out of his beverage of choice?

“I’d leave the cup with a splash of liquid in it, and go without drinking anything.”

Whether it be a lucky sandwich, an unlucky toothbrush, or a thirsty Cardinals fan, there is no denying the fact that the bond between a team and its fans often leads to indefensibly quirky behavior. But what’s the psychology behind it all?

The term “superstition” is most commonly referred to as a set of irrational beliefs or practices thought to influence the outcome of a course of events. Causal determinists, those who assume that outcomes are the result of a previous event(s), are particularly predisposed to superstitious behavior.

In a New Scientist article titled, “Born Believers,” author Michael Brooks explains that individuals are also susceptible to engage in superstitious behavior when they feel as if they lack what they deem to be necessary control over their own lives. As an example, Brooks uses the inhabitants of high-risk areas in the Middle East who carry a lucky charm in an effort to re-establish structure and alleviate internal chaos to some degree.

Further, a 1996 study, conducted by Michelle Magyar and Melissa Chase, established a correlation between superstition and anxiety. The pair conducted qualitative research on a group of female gymnasts that feared injury. The study revealed that one of the most popular strategies used to offset the otherwise overwhelmingly anxious disposition associated with performing in their sport was superstition. As for the leading cause of anxiety in general? You guessed it: a lack of control.

In most cases, we have never so much as made eye contact with a single player on the roster. In all cases, fans are unable to catch the ball, kick the field goal, or make any other in-game contributions. Still, the final score seems to mean as much to the fan as it does the athletes, themselves.

We care so much about our teams that it feels as if their championship runs are our own life events, yet we have minimal influence over the outcome. Our inability to control the game leads to anxiety, which leads to superstitious behavior, which ultimately results in Ben standing nervously in front of a television with a teaspoon of Pepsi in the bottom of his cup.

See? All of that senseless behavior makes sense after all.

Thunder shouldn’t shave ‘The Beard’

I am a card holding member of the CAGMWJ — the Committee Against Grown Men Wearing Jerseys, obviously.

It’s nothing against the garment, itself. Few moments are more meaningful for an athlete than seeing his or her jersey hanging in a locker with their name sewn on the back. And if the glorified wads of mesh weren’t awesome, there wouldn’t be approximately 6,940 episodes of MTV Cribs during which viewers were given virtual tours of rooms covered in framed uniforms.

It is also worth noting that the committee of which I speak is solely against grown men adorning these articles of memorabilia. Women wearing jerseys is, well, fantastic — and by all means encouraged. Children wearing jerseys is charming and altogether appropriate. But there is just something about an allegedly self-respecting adult male in a size 52 parachute with “ROETHLISBERGER” printed on the back that looks completely ridiculous.

The last time I put on a jersey other than my own, I was 10 years old and proudly sporting the No. 21 of Dallas Cowboys cornerback Deion Sanders. My closet never featured a Dennis Rodman jersey. I never randomly coerced my parents into purchasing a He Hate Me sark. In order, I owned the uniform of Emmitt Smith, Steve Young, Michael Jordan, Ken Griffey Jr., Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway and Primetime. That’s it. Five Hall-of-Famers and Little Penny’s sidekick; an unblemished jersey record that came to an end prior to middle school.

Fifteen years later, however, my uni-free streak is in serious jeopardy. I really want a James Harden jersey.

Harden transcends CAGMWJ policies by epitomizing cool with a unique, fresh level of LA-meets-mountain man. The modest, quiet uncomfortability with which he approaches post game interviews is refreshing and endearing. The beard and the brash swagger that accompanies his presence on the basketball floor is that of a natural showman; a trash-talking, alpha dog gunner. The mere sight of the lefty bomber arching a three-pointer into the rafters of Chesapeake Energy Arena draws a Pavlovian rise from the blue-clad masses; his post-bucket snear is profusely infectious.

My wardrobe is still devoid of that No. 13 tank top, however. Why? Because I really don’t want to own a $105 jersey of a guy that used to play for my favorite team.

It’s no secret that Harden and Serge Ibaka both become restricted free agents next summer. It’s also no secret that each has earned himself a considerable pay day since the start of this season — even if some of the luster may be wearing off of Ibaka during these playoffs. Harden, in particular, is playing his way into a maximum contract. In the process, Oklahoma City’s potential 2013-’14 payroll is growing dangerously close to luxury tax territory.

Assuming that Sam Presti picks up team options on Cole Aldrich, Reggie Jackson and Lazar Hayward, the Thunder are on the hook for $56.03 million. Assuming, further, that the team is forced to match an offer for Eric Maynor — another restricted free agent — that cap number moves to $60 million.

In an effort to keep your head from exploding, simply make the assumption that Harden gets Russell Westbrook money ($14.51 million) and Ibaka gets Joakim Noah money ($10 million). That’s a team salary of $84.51 million, for 11 players, based on four assumptions — and you know what they say about those things.

The luxury tax level for the 2011-’12 NBA season is $70.3 million. Assuming (there we go with that again) that the tax threshold remains basically the same, Oklahoma City would be responsible for paying David Stern and friends a $20 million annual luxury tax in order to keep the core of its roster intact — and that’s before the team signs draft picks and/or free agents to fill out the bench, likely running that cap number near $88 million.

This accountant’s nightmare of an epiphany hit me a few weeks ago, and since then I’ve been working to come to terms with the impending departure of the Thunder’s half-court offense — er, I mean, our lovable, bearded sixth man. That rationale has gone something like this:

Westbrook and Kevin Durant are as good a scoring duo as there is in the Association — and they’re 23 years old. They’ll only get better; perhaps even good enough to carry the fourth quarter offensive load, consistently, without the methodical assistance of Harden. With money saved by letting him walk, Presti & Co. could afford to pursue front court scoring options.

(Did anyone else hear that little DJ in my brain stop the record?)

A $19 million front court is the reason that OKC cannot afford to bring Harden back. That same front court duo’s offensive ineptitude around the basket is the Thunder’s most glaring, most inauspicious weakness. On what planet, then, does it make sense to send your only semblence of half-court efficiency packing, when the team would still likely need to address the very same position(s) that you essentially chose to value instead?

Kendrick Perkins is due to make $9 million in 2013-’14. Under their current contracts, $9 million would buy an NBA team Brook Lopez, Kenneth Faried, Boris Diaw and Roy Hibbert. Not one of them. All of them. At once.

Understanding that big men carry premium price tags in the NBA, Perkins is still considerably overpaid. He does a nice job of defending in the low post, but that’s it. That is his only skill. He can’t jump, therefore he is a weak rebounder. Not only can he not score, but ESPN Insider’s John Hollinger explained in a March column that, statistically, the Thunder would be in better shape if Perk punted the basketball into the stands after catching it in the post. Why? Because at least then the Thunder could set their defense following the inevitable turnover.

He is so bad at defending in space — in particular, defending against the pick and roll — that Grantland’s Bill Simmons took to calling him the Perkins Hologram. Presti makes almost zero mistakes, but Perkins’ contract is one. OKC needs to use the amnesty clause on the Hologram.

I’m no longer sold that the Thunder need to re-sign Ibaka, either.

Earlier in the week I compared Ibaka to Chicago White Sox outfielder Adam Dunn. Dunn, as you may or may not know, is a former All-Star with 381 homeruns in 1,621 career games. He has eclipsed 30 homers eight different times, and from 2004-’08 he reeled off five consecutive 40-plus homerun seasons.

Dunn has also never played for a pennant winner and he will never be elected to the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame. How is that possible? The free swinging lefty has also struck out an astonishing 1,891 times. That’s how.

Like Dunn, Ibaka’s inflated reputation is based on a highlight reel-worthy statistic: blocks. Ibaka swatted 241 shots this season, leading the league, and landing on the All-NBA First Team Defense in the process. While having that sort of presence around the rim is beneficial, and the rejections are crowd pleasers, Ibaka’s ineptitude as a play-side defender is glaring.

He has developed a nice 15-footer, particularly from the wing, but he struggles to finish around the basket when he’s in traffic. Even the blocks, themselves, have led to a nasty trend of late: During the first few games of the Western Conference Finals, Ibaka has seemed so eager to come up with rejections from the weak side, that he’s fallen into a habit of leaving his man all alone for a wide-open dunk.

I’m not being critical because I don’t appreciate what either of these guys brings to the table; quite the contrary, actually. I love having a guy (i.e., Perkins) that can abuse Andrew Bynum. I love having a guy that redirects nearly four shots per game (i.e., Ibaka) and alters an uncounted number of clean attempts by virtue of mere intimidation. I just don’t think that their unique, albeit limited, skill sets — particularly in the case of Perk — are worth nearly $20 million per season, and the loss of one of the game’s up and coming superstars.

Last season, when Sam Presti was working to acquire Perkins from Boston, he refused to give up Harden. That should remain the priority now, just as it was then. Otherwise, what was the point?