Armed with a $10.8 million dollar trade exception, several player assets, two empty roster spots, and a competitive team, it appeared like the perfect storm for Oklahoma City Thunder general manager Sam Presti to make a move to improve the team. But as the dust settled on the league’s transactions at the 3 p.m. trade deadline, the Thunder were no where to be found on the league’s trade approval docket. Having made a small trade several days earlier when they moved guard Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot to Chicago for a heavily protected 2nd round pick, the Thunder seemed poise to make a move.
Rumors were abound that the Thunder were interested in several wings around the league, such as Orlando’s Terrance Ross or Atlanta’s Taurean Prince. In the end though, the Thunder team that went into Thursday morning was the same team that took the floor against the Memphis Grizzlies, Thursday evening. Here are three reasons why the Thunder likely stood pat during this trade deadline.
1. Robust Buy-Out Market
With so many players signing one year deals this past off-season, it was no secret that the buy-out market would likely be larger than usual this season. And it is. Veterans on bad teams want the opportunity to play for playoff teams. And some one-year signees have already worn their welcomes on their new teams. With that, the market will likey feature 10-15 players who could make an impact on a playoff contending team.
As for the Thunder, there are several players in the buy-out market that could help solidify their areas of weakness. Wayne Ellington is someone who could help the Thunder immensely on the perimeter. Unfortunately for the Thunder, he has agreed to sign with the Detroit Pistons for the rest of the season. The Cleveland Cavaliers could possibly buy J.R. Smith out. He would likely illicit a lot of interest from contending teams as a floor spacer.
Markieff Morris, who was bought out after being traded to the New Orleans Pelicans, could also provide some shooting from the power forward position. While Patrick Patterson has performed well of late (17/35 on 3’s since Jan. 2), he is known to have month-long slumps that can make him almost unplayable during those times.
Adding depth to the center position is also something the team could use. They already have two of the best defensive centers in the league in Steven Adams and Nerlens Noel. Carrying a third center could strengthen that position for the Thunder. Old friend Enes Kanter is available after the New York Knicks bought him out. He may be defensively unplayable against most of the league, but there are only a handful of players who can match Kanter’s offensive production in the post. Robin Lopez, who was cut by the Chicago Bulls, is someone that could likely fit in seamlessly into the Thunder’s defensive first approach. But Lopez, like Kanter, will probably be looking for teams that will give him playing time and the Thunder can’t provide that promise at the moment.
Also, don’t forget about the Thunder’s “buy-out acquisitions” who are already on their roster. Andre Roberson could resume basketball activities sometimes within the next month. If he gets back to playable health, he could be a great weapon come playoff time. Alex Abrines has also been out of the lineup for the past month and a half dealing with illness and personal issues. If he is able to get back in playing shape and fix whatever personal issues he is dealing with, the Thunder could have another sharpshooter on the floor by the first round.
2. Building For The Near Future
The biggest chip the Thunder had heading into the trade deadline was the $10.8 million dollar Traded Player Exception they acquired during the Carmelo Anthony for Dennis Schroder trade. A traded player exception (TPE) is like having cash in hand to acquire any player as long as said player doesn’t make more than the exception. For example, the team could have used the TPE on Terrance Ross, who is making $10.5 million this season. The caveat with TPEs is that they have a time limit: one year to the day of the transaction. For the Anthony TPE, the Thunder have until July 25th 2019 before that exception expires.
This is where the near future comes into play. Teams will be jockeying for cap space this off-season in anticipation of many high profile free agents coming available. Names like Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving, Jimmy Butler, Kevin Durant, and Kemba Walker could all be available this summer. Any team wanting to throw their hat into the free agency battle royale may need some last minute tinkering to their roster to make money available. This is where OKC and their TPE comes into play. They could leverage the TPE into getting a player of worth and also a future asset (a draft pick). With no cap space and not many tradeable assets, this may be the only real way the Thunder can improve their team next season.
It’s no secret the Thunder have one of the highest payrolls in the league. In addition, they are also in the repeater tax, which means they have to pay a higher percentage for every dollar they are over the luxury tax. Over the course of this season, they’ve trimmed their total salary bill (player salaries + tax amount) from over $300 million to about $206 million. Bringing on a high salaried player via the TPE would’ve bumped that total salary bill back near the $300 million amount from earlier this season.
It may not be my money or your money, but it is somebody’s money. And 50-100 million dollars is not something to easily disregard, no matter what tax bracket you are in. For nearly a decade, the Thunder did a great job of spending their money wisely. Over the last couple season, they’ve shown that willingness to spend. But they still have to be smart about it. They have the permission to spend lavishly, but must do it with a frugal mindset. Remember, scared money don’t make none, but stupid money will have you looking like the Brooklyn Nets of the past five seasons previous to this one.
This team, as currently constructed, has been a success thus far this season. They have a much stronger identity than they did last season, and are sticking to those principles to help them win games. In addition, no one in the West did anything to significantly make themselves better. Houston made a ton of moves, but they could all be seen as lateral moves by the end of the season. While it would have been good to shore up an area of need through a trade, the Thunder didn’t negatively impact themselves by standing pat.