Thabo Sefolosha's contract status: "I like what we're building here"

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Thabo Sefolosha is in a contract year. What will happen when the year runs out?

Thabo Sefolosha is in the final year of a contract that will pay him $3.9 million for the 2013-14 season. His future with the team will be up in the air as Sefolosha has worked himself into a valuable place both with the Thunder as well as with the league. Sefolosha, 29, is a premier wing defender, often charged with stopping the likes of players ranging from Tony Parker to LeBron James. He has also steadily increased his value as a perimeter shooter, hitting a career-high 48% of his 3-point shots in the 2012-13 season. As a "3 and D" player who brings 2 easily identifiable qualities, his value has never been higher.

Darnell Mayberry of The Oklahoman writes a great piece today covering the Sefolosha contract situation, coupled with a post containing quotes. There is only so much I can clip, so I encourage you to read both.

To help establish the likely salary range, Mayberry raises the right comparison - Tony Allen. Allen recently signed a 4 year, $20 million deal that pays him $5 million each year. Given what Allen means for the Grizzlies, this amount seems like it is a good number for both parties.

Is Sefolosha worth that much? He is not at the same elite level as Allen, who is widely regarded as the best wing defender in the game. However, Sefolosha's offensive game is materially superior to Allen's, even though TA averaged more per game last season. Now I'm going to blatantly rip off one of our own writers, who writes it out perfectly:

Per 36 minutes, TA did average 12.0 points to Sefolosha’s 9.9 last season. But to contextualize that, I’m going to compare their usage rate. TA’s USG% was 17.8%, significantly higher than Sefolosha’s 11.4% alongside Durant and Westbrook. This probably isn’t perfect methodology, but if you extrapolate their points per 36 minutes to a usage percentage that is the same figure (which would assume that both players are capable of carrying a similar amount of the offense, probably a safe assumption in this case), you’ll notice Sefolosha scores noticeably more. If we extrapolate to a usage percentage of 15%, Sefolosha comes out with 13.026 points per 36 minutes while TA scores 10.1 points per 36.

On top of that, Sefolosha comes with the added bonus of being able to space the floor and shoot the three, which TA can’t do and allows the defense to exploit him. Per 36 minutes, Sefolosha hit 1.7 triples which is a totally acceptable figure even if it’s not leading any leaderboards. - KevinHFY

At the bottom threshold, Mayberry also compares Thabo to Quincy Pondexter, who the Grizz also signed to a 4 year deal worth $13 million, or about $3.3 million per. Pondexter isn't the defender that Allen or Sefolosha is, but he is a more effective shooter.

If we couch Sefolosha somewhere between those two numbers, he'd likely get from the Thunder something slightly higher than he's making now. A 20% bump would put him at around $4.7 million, below Allen's threshold but still a material increase.

Mayberry writes:

He's bought in.

But there's no guarantee he'll be back next season.

Sefolosha is in a contract year. The team has until June 30 to re-sign him. If no agreement is reached, he will become an unrestricted free agent on July 1.

Which makes him an interesting case study.

Oklahoma City has never allowed a player like Sefolosha, a five-year fixture in the rotation, to get to free agency. The reason is because bidding wars ensue on the open market, and retaining players at that point traditionally calls for blowing past the budget.

The question though is whether Sefolosha is worth more on the open market and if so, where else he might fit in. On a contending team, Sefolosha makes a ton of sense, but he's less likely to get a higher number because teams like Miami and San Antonio would be hunting for bargains, not budget busters. On a lottery team, Sefolosha's talents would go largely unnoticed because he is not a game changer. Because of this, OKC makes the most sense for him, if the two parties can find the right number.

Sefolosha has not gotten out to the kind of start he was likely hoping for this year, shooting only 37% from the floor and making less than one 3-pointer per game. The numbers are surprising, especially since during the pre-season we saw Thabo making a concerted effort to expand his repertoire to help account for the loss of Russell Westbrook. For the most part, it looked like it was working, as he scored in double digits in 3 out of the 6 games.  To Mayberry's eye and mine, Thabo looked like he was pressing, and as a result was missing a number of open looks, including shots at the rim. Scott Brooks however disagreed:

"I don’t see it the way you see it...He shot nine times (against Detroit), and six of them were 3s . To me, expanding his game would be to play a bunch of pick and rolls and post ups and all that. But he’s still doing what we need him to do, which is shoot 3s. He’s just missing them right now. He has not shot the ball well. He’s not shot the ball well in games, but he’s shooting the ball well in practice and that will all even itself out as the season goes."

If the two players cannot find a number and Thabo's production doesn't warrant the number he is looking for, then if he doesn't hit free agency, the Thunder may seek a trade. This is what they did with James Harden, and Thabo's contract number and performance could be attractive in a trade scenario. While he wouldn't be a key piece in any trade, if the Thunder went hunting for a major acquisition, Thabo could be part of it. However, Sefolosha is invested in what he has helped build in OKC, almost from day one:

"I think what I’ve done during the time I had with this contract, I don’t know if anything is going to be that much different. If I go out and do anything extra. I think I’ve been proving to be a good defender, one of the top in the league probably in my mind. That’s what I rely on, and that’s what the team expects from me. So I just want to go out there and have fun."

[..]

I like what we’re building here. And I’ve been part of it since almost Day One. So it feels great to be here and hopefully I’ll be able to stay."

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