The trading deadline in the NBA may be February 20th, 2014, but the date that gets a lot of the movement started is December 15th, 2013. That is the date when most free agents who signed in the offseason become eligible to be traded. As that date approaches, the inevitable trade chatter starts to ramp up. If you are a team that holds many desirable assets such as good, young players on rookie pay scales, multiple first round picks, and expiring contracts, then your name is bound to show up in a lot of the trade talk.
And that is where the Oklahoma City Thunder currently find themselves. With young bench players on rookie scale contracts that are performing surprisingly well and a couple of semi-attractive expiring contracts (namely Kendrick Perkins and Thabo Sefolosha), that trade chatter has already started to rev up about the Thunder. Sam Amico of Fox Sports Ohio had the following quip on his NBA Notes from December 9th:
Multiple league sources have said the Oklahoma City Thunder are willing to deal second-year guard Jeremy Lamb if they can find a more experienced (and consistent) player to come off the bench. Lamb has already been traded once – from the Rockets as part of the James Harden deal before last season.
Then Bill Simmons on NBA Countdown suggested that the Thunder should trade Lamb, Perkins, and 2 first round picks to the Orlando Magic for Arron Afflalo. Now this would usually be seen as conjecture on the part of a media pundit, but a lot of fans around the country see Simmons as something of an NBA savant who is the end all/be all when it comes to NBA information/predictions.
Adding fuel to the trade talk fire, Reggie Jackson, who has been performing almost at ‘Harden as a 6th man’-like levels throughout the season, recently signed with powerhouse sports agency CAA. This is the same agency that represents Dwayne Wade, Tony Parker, Chris Paul, and Carmelo Anthony to name a few, and also partners with Roc-Nation, who represents Jackson’s teammate Kevin Durant. Did I mention that Jackson has a possible extension looming this offseason? Scary thought, especially when we all remember what happened the last time a great Thunder bench player was up for an extension.
Whenever these trade talks start to ratchet up in December, it’s always important to remember the previous 3 months when there were hardly any trade talks. That period from September through November is usually reserved for roster building and evaluation. Yes, big trades do happen during that time frame, as we saw with the Harden trade last season, but those types of transactions are usually reserved for February, June, and July. When the trade talk is quietest amongst media members is actually when the trade talk is loudest amongst GMs. It is during this roster building and evaluation period that GMs try to gauge the interest of the “tradeable” assets on their rosters. It is when the posturing and positioning of “GM chess” occurs.
When you hear phrases like “multiple league sources” or “an Eastern/Western Conference GM said”, just know that the news coming from that report may not be current. Take for example Jeremy Lamb, who was a very attractive asset heading into this season. The Thunder probably did their due diligence in June during the NBA draft to see if there was anything of value that they could get for Lamb. Also, during the preseason, when Lamb was struggling with his shot, there was probably some probing by Thunder GM Sam Presti to see if anyone would bite in return for an experienced bench player. But that was when Lamb was an unknown commodity, not only on the court, but also to other teams. But now, after averaging 10.5 points and 2.5 rebounds on 53% FG shooting and 39% 3pt FG shooting over the past 12 games while playing good defense, Lamb is not only a known commodity, but also a key component for a championship contending team. While the rumors of the Thunder shopping Lamb may be true, they may also be 3-6 months old.
If you follow the Thunder and are familiar with their salary cap structure, then you would know that they value production at a low cost. The ability to take one player and flip him into 2 or 3 players of great value while preserving their cap space was one of the main reasons the Thunder traded James Harden. Could history repeat itself with Reggie Jackson? That will be the most pressing issue for the Thunder moving forward. But, while there are similarities between the Harden/Jackson comparisons, there are also differences. The Thunder are a lot better equipped to handle a contract extension for Jackson now, than they were when it was time for Harden to be extended. By the time Jackson’s extension kicks in, Sefolosha, Perkins, and, (God forbid) Nick Collison’s contracts will all be expired. That’s almost $15 million in available salary to play with. The good thing is, Jackson won’t command a max or near max contract. When I think of Jackson, I don’t think of a top 5 player at his position. Two years ago, you could argue that Harden was the 3rd best shooting guard in the league, even if he was coming off the bench. You can’t say the same about Jackson at this point in his career. Also of note is that Harden was traded in the offseason, not in the middle of the season. The Thunder wouldn’t dare trade Jackson during the season when he is arguably their 4th best player. If anything, they’ll Harden-ize him during the offseason.
Which brings me back to Lamb. This is why it is completely asinine to think that the Thunder would want to trade Lamb. His most important asset to the Thunder at this moment is as an insurance policy. If the Thunder decide to either trade Sefolosha before the deadline or allow him to walk in the offseason, they can feel comfortable in the fact that they have a player in Lamb capable of starting for them either after the deadline or into next season. If the Thunder decide to trade Jackson in the offseason, they know that they have a player that can provide offense off the bench and can play with the starters during crunch time. In the grand scheme of things, Lamb may be the piece that makes other moves possible.