With a couple days left before the trading deadline, the Oklahoma City Thunder sit with the third best record in the NBA, and are 1 of 3 teams with at least 40 wins at the All-Star break. That would usually be great for most years. But this season, the two teams with better records than the Thunder are 1) in the same conference and 2) on historic win paces. Any move the Thunder make during the trade deadline will be with these two teams in mind.
As currently constructed, the Thunder are better equipped to deal with the San Antonio Spurs than the Golden State Warriors. They match up well position for position, and have the athleticism to give the Spurs problems. The Warriors on the other hand, present a different set of problems for the Thunder. Their penchant for scoring from the outside has baffled every team in the league. The Thunder have a habit of letting teams beat them from the outside, but for some reason, they have defended the Warriors reasonably well over the past two seasons.
When it comes to trades, its always about what a team needs and what a team is willing to offer. The Thunder were extremely busy before and during the trade deadline last season, acquiring Dion Waiters, Enes Kanter, Steve Novak, DJ Augustin, and Kyle Singler. All five players are still on the roster this season, with Kanter and Singler signing multiyear extensions in the offseason. In addition to the players the Thunder gave up to acquire that quintet, they also gave up two first round picks in the process. Those first rounders are lottery protected and likely will be honored within the next three years if the Thunder can keep their core together. With all that said, here’s a look at a couple of the assets the Thunder have in tow.
1. Serge Ibaka
Trading Ibaka this season is highly unlikely. He’s the third cog in the Thunder’s Big 3 and has been there from the beginning of the run. But while Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook have expanded their games to become two of the best players in the league, Ibaka, for all his tools, has never been able to consistently put it all together. Be it the low basketball IQ or the fact that Ibaka may not be as young as his counterparts, the time for Ibaka on the Thunder may be numbered. While he hasn’t necessarily been injury-prone throughout his career, he does appear to be slowing down. His rebound and block numbers are the lowest they’ve been since his rookie season. His overall FG% is under 50% for the 2nd straight season, after starting off his first 5 seasons above the median line.
In addition, three factors are working against Ibaka remaining in the current position he is in after this season. First, the style of play in the current NBA has negated the need for a shot blocker. Remember when the Lakers, Celtics, Magic, and Spurs were the class of the NBA in the late 2000’s and early 2010’s? It was all because of the big man position. Andrew Bynum, Pau Gasol, Dwight Howard, Kevin Garnett, and Tim Duncan were all extremely influential in their teams’ runs to the Finals during that period in time. The Thunder, trying to get to that position of power, decided to trade Jeff Green and Nenad Krstic to the Celtics for Kendrick Perkins. Not only did the trade give the Thunder a defensive post player, but it also opened the door for Ibaka to become the premier shot-blocker in the league. Well, those days are gone. The pace and space NBA has basically eliminated the need for a premier post defender. Elite wing defenders are where the money is now.
Secondly, in keeping with the fact that the NBA is changing, so too have positions changed. The traditional view of power forwards and centers no longer works in this new NBA. In its stead, successful teams are now starting to trot out bigger small forwards to play the power forward position. What a team may lose on the block, it may gain on the offensive end with more 3’s and transition buckets. Kevin Durant began his career as an oversized two guard, but eventually settled into his more natural position of small forward when Scott Brooks became the Thunder’s head coach. Through the years, the natural progression of an athlete’s body has allowed Durant to get a little bit thicker as he has aged. That increase in weight has allowed Durant to not only play in the post more as an offensive player, but also to better defend post players on the other end of the floor. Shifting Durant to PF permanently wouldn’t be that big of a jump for the Thunder. He’s already leading the team in rebounding and is second on the team in blocks per game at 1.2.
Thirdly, Steven Adams has become the prototypical post player for this new NBA. Someone who is athletic enough to patrol the entire paint, but also strong enough to play the enforcer role. He’s younger and more mobile than Ibaka, and he comes at a much cheaper price, for now. That’s where the decision will come into play after this season. Adams still has one more year left on his rookie deal after this season, but the Thunder have first dibs on an extension after this season. Adams will likely command a salary upwards of $12 million. Ibaka comes up for free agency the same year Westbrook does. If the Thunder are able to keep both Durant and Westbrook, they’ll be no way they can also keep Ibaka and Adams.
Again, I’m not saying it’ll happen this season. But Ibaka’s $12.25 million dollar salary may be useful if a jackpot deal pops up. And if that deals becomes availalbe, the team may think long and hard about trading Air Congo.
2. Expiring Contracts (DJ Augustin and Steve Novak)
The Thunder have a couple expiring contracts that may come into play during the trade deadline. DJ Augustin and Steve Novak are both on the final year of their deals, while Dion Waiters is on the final guaranteed year of his rookie contract. If Waiters is traded, the team he is traded to will have the right to match any offer Waiters is given in the offseason. But Waiters plays a big role on the Thunder as a multifaceted guard and will likely remain in that role throughout the season.
The Thunder are in a bit of a precarious situation with Augustin. His $3 million dollar salary may be useful in a trade, but the Thunder have to make sure they get a veteran point guard either via trade or as a buy-out signee. If the Thunder trade Augustin without getting another another veteran point guard, they risk heading into the postseason with rookie Cameron Payne as their only other option behind Russell Westbrook. While Payne has been good, the Warriors’ game showed that the postseason lights could a little too bright at this moment for the first year player out of little Murray State. The Thunder may just keep Augustin around as the veteran third string point guard.
Novak, on the other hand, is almost guaranteed to be moved by the deadline. His $3.75 million dollar contract is big enough to fetch a player of value for the Thunder. But also, the Thunder may just trade him to a team that needs salary in order to have an empty roster spot for a buy-out candidate, such as Joe Johnson or Kevin Martin.
3. Mitch McGary
The second year big man showed a lot of promise in the offseason and preseason. But a concussion in the preseason kept him out of the final week of practice heading into the season opener, and he has yet to find his footing in the rotation this season. McGary may be the Thunder’s most attractive asset as a young big on a cheap rookie scale contract. But that may also be the reason the Thunder keep him.
4. Multiple 2nd rounders and trade exceptions
This year, the Thunder have their own 2nd rounder and, likely, Charlotte’s 2nd rounder, which is protected for picks 56-60. In addition, the Thunder still have their 2nd round pick for 2017 and Memphis’ 2nd rounder for that year also (protected 31-35, unprotected in 2018). Second round picks are good filler for trades involving players that bring little to nothing to the table. For example, if the Thunder trade Steve Novak to the Trailblazers as a salary dump, then attaching a 2nd round pick will probably make it worth the Blazer’s while to take on Novak’s salary for the last 2 months of the season.
In addition to the 2nd round picks, the Thunder also have two trade exceptions. The Jeremy Lamb trade exception is worth $2.13 million and the Luke Ridnour trade exception is worth $2.85 million. While those amounts are relatively small, if a team is looking to unload one of their younger players without taking on salary, a trade exception may be the way to go.
5. Alex Abrines
The Thunder own the rights to the 22 year old Spanish guard who is currently averaging 8 points per game on 41% shooting from 3-point territory for one of the premier teams in Europe, FC Barcelona. He is signed through 2019, but has a buyout clause. He lacks the athleticism to be a regular rotation player in the NBA, but would be a good addition as a 3-point specialist (a la Anthony Morrow) for a team that may need perimeter scoring in the future.
For as good as the Thunder have been this season, they still have holes that can be filled to further contend with the top teams in the league. Here’s a look at some of the areas of the need the Thunder could possibly fill.
1. 3 and D player
In this new NBA, the premier role player is that of a 3 and D wing. The Thunder have about 4 players in their rotation that masquerade as 3-and-D wings. The only problem is that those that are good at 3-point shooting (Anthony Morrow) struggle on defense, and those that excel at defense (Andre Roberson and Kyle Singler) struggle at consistently hitting their perimeter shots. The only player on the roster that qualifies as a viable 3-and-D wing is Dion Waiters, and he is great at neither.
Keeping up with the Warriors and Spurs of the league necessitates a team to have players that can be effective on both ends of the floor. The two players most commonly associated with the Thunder for this position are PJ Tucker of the Phoenix Suns and Courtney Lee of the Memphis Grizzlies. Both players are in the $5.5 million dollar range and could be had for an expiring and either McGary or Josh Huestis.
Some other surprising candidates may be Mirza Teletovic of the Phoenix Suns ($5.5 million) and Ben McLemore ($3.16 million) of the Sacramento Kings. Thunder GM Sam Presti has a habit of running misdirection plays where everyone in the media thinks he’s going one way, but he ends up going an entirely different direction (think last year with the Brook Lopez/Enes Kanter trade deadline happenings). While Teletovic is a bit too big to be a wing, he does bring the “3” part of the equation with him. He would allow the Thunder to stay big, while going small (Teletovic at 3, KD at 4, and Serge/Adams/Kanter at 5). McLemore would fall in line as a Presti reclamation project. The third year guard has never lived up to his No. 7 draft selection and has seemingly fallen out of favor in Sacramento. He came into the league as a player that could possibly be a good 3-and-D wing. Unfortunately, he has been inconsistent on both ends of the floor. McLemore could be a good replacement for Waiters if he bolts for greener pastures in the offseason.
Another name to watch out for is Victor Oladipo of the Orlando Magic. This one would probably require Serge Ibaka to move the needle enough for Orlando to make that trade. This one is likely not to occur this season.
2. Veteran Back-up Point Guard
If the Thunder plan to use DJ Augustin’s expiring contract in any of their trades, they would also need to obtain a veteran back-up point guard to buffer any of the inexperience Cam Payne would bring to the playoffs. A couple options are Michael Carter-Williams of the Milwaukee Bucks and Darren Collison of the Sacramento Kings. Carter-Williams is a big point guard that is a triple-double threat every time he steps on the floor. But his inconsistent jumper and being turnover prone continue to affect his play on the court. In addition, there are rumors that MCW isn’t really the easiest guy to get along with in the locker room. These are probably all reasons why the former Rookie of the Year could possibly end up on his third team in three years.
Darren Collison has been one of the best back-up point guards in the league. If Sacramento is indeed having a fire sale and looking to build for next season, then Collison may be one of the players that could be had from them. Unfortunately for the Thunder, he has another year left on his contract after this one. The Thunder really like Payne and getting Collison could stunt his development into next season.
3. Empty Roster Spot/Lower Tax Bill
The Thunder may eschew taking on another player in favor of just trading one or both of their expiring contracts in a salary dump to open up roster spots. Empty roster spots can be very valuable during this time of year. The buy-out market begins once the trading deadline has passed. Players like Joe Johnson, Kevin Martin, and Andrea Bargnani are a few of the names mentioned that will likely be bought out after the trade deadline. While none of those players would likely be a regular rotation player for the Thunder, they could be great in a specialist role off the bench. In addition, the Thunder have a couple players on their D-League team that could have some value to the Thunder. JP Tokoto has been good as a wing for the Blue, averaging 12.4 points, 4.8 rebounds, and 2.2 assists per game. Tomislav Zubcic, who was a late addition to the Blue roster from his native Croatia, has been averaging 8 points on 42.6% shooting from deep this season.
In addition, the Thunder currently sit about $12.4 million dollars over the luxury tax line. It’s a given they will pay the tax for a second straight season. But being that much over would mean the Thunder would have to pay out about $22 million. If they can lower their bill, it would be that much less the Thunder has to pay out to the rest of the teams that aren’t over the luxury tax.
While the Thunder don’t seem to have the assets to do something big, if they feel this is the right time to pull the trigger on something, they may do it. Durant’s upcoming free agency and the fact that the Thunder are in the thick of things as far as contention goes, may sway them to do something outside the ordinary. As is the case usually with the trade deadline, all everyone is waiting for is for the first domino to fall.