Could this be Thabo Sefolosha's final year with the Oklahoma City Thunder?

Is this man's life in blue living on borrowed time? - Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

With his contract set to expire at the end of the year, Thabo Sefolosha could find himself replaced with a cheaper option.

Now, I know what you're thinking. Thabo has been a mainstay on this team since year one, so it's hard to imagine anyone else starting at shooting guard. And it's been a joy to watch his game grow beyond constantly bricking corner threes, so it would really smart to see him leave. But when you look at the reality of the Thunder's financial situation, you realize that there's no way he could return next year without making some serious salary concessions.

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Money Problems

For those unfamiliar, here's a basic breakdown of the Thunder's situation next year. Only three salaries are guaranteed to be coming off of the books; the salaries are those of Sefolosha, Fisher, and Gomes. That frees up about 6 million in salary space. Hasheem Thabeet is a team option at 1.25 million, but considering that he's no longer entering games, I'd say that it's a safe bet the Thunder let him go. With the salary increases of other players, that leaves the Thunder's total salary level at $67,978,680, or about 4 million below the 2013-2014 hard cap level of $71.7 million.

But that doesn't give the Thunder 4 million to spend on Sefolosha's salary. They have a draft pick coming in next year, and assuming the pick lands somewhere in the 25-30 range, the Thunder will be dishing that player just under a million dollars. So that leaves 3 million to spend, and 11 players on the roster. The Thunder need 13 players to satisfy the NBA minimum, so two more players must be signed.

But before you think the Thunder can just sign their second rounder and dish 2 million to Sefolosha, you also have to consider that the Thunder own a protected Mavs first round pick. This is the final piece of the James Harden trade. If the Mavs have one of the best 11 records in the NBA (which is entirely possible considering how well they're playing and how bad the East is), the Thunder get their pick, and have to dish 1.2-0.9 million to whomever they pick. Assuming this happens, this leaves the Thunder just over the absolute minimum amount of money required to re-sign Thabo Sefolosha. And even if it doesn't happen, there's always the chance the Thunder take a flier on Derek Fisher or some other veteran, eating up the money.

Obviously, there are ways that the Thunder could give Thabo more money. First of all, they could break the Luxury Tax threshold. But they have no real incentive to do so at this juncture. Thabo, on his own, is hardly worth the repeater tax that they might have to deal with a few seasons down the line, and I really doubt that there's some big name free agent that the Thunder have their eyes on. If there was a time to break the threshold, it was last season when Harden wanted an extension. And if there will be a time to do so in the future, it will be two seasons from now when Reggie Jackson is up for renewal.

The other way the Thunder could afford to sign Sefolosha is by amestying Perk's contract....but I'm not walking down that road again. The logic of not doing that for Harden but doing it for Sefolosha is just silly, plus the fact that it would leave the Thunder with only Adams at center.

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Would he stay another year at a minimum salary level?

I'm not going to claim to know what's going on in Sefolosha's brain, or anything about his motivations for staying or leaving. So I'll leave that up to your imagination. What I will say is that there's a team out there willing to pay this man.

When you think of apt comparisons for Sefolosha, the word, "Three and D" crosses your mind. With the popularity of floor spacers growing in the NBA, it only makes sense to think of Sefolosha in that category. He takes a good amount of threes and plays great defense, right?

In terms of basketball, not really. Sefolosha is actually a bit different than your standard three and D player. For one, he's been given a lot more offensive responsibility than those players are. He runs plays here and there, and is trusted to move with the ball. For two, he's a really good rebounder. His rebounding rate is the best among guards on the Thunder, and he's very nearly rebounding more efficiently than Kendrick Perkins. Simply put, that's where hustle gets you.

Now those things might not mean a lot to the average Joe, but to an NBA executive looking to add an ounce of oompf to his team, those things can mean a lot. You could make the argument that Thabo isn't as reliable from three as his other three and D counterparts, and that is very much true. But Thabo has been part of a very successful team. And if there's one universal truth in the NBA, it's that playing with good players can earn you a living for a long time. (See Fisher, Derek.)

So it's reasonable to assume that the money is coming. Need evidence? Well, here's some of the contracts that other players of a similar caliber were able to nail down during last year's off-season.

Obviously, it's anybody's guess as to whether NBA GMs will value Sefolosha as much as they did the above players. All of the comparisons to Thabo above are rough, and all of them should be looked at on a case-by-case basis. But considering the above, it's more than reasonable to assume that the market value for Sefolosha is somewhere between 3-5 million dollars per year. So, under the absolute best case scenario, Thabo would be taking a million dollar pay cut to play in Oklahoma City. Most likely, he'd be taking a 2-4 million dollar pay cut, something that's no small factor when you're a role player looking to make his final major pay check.

Of course, the Thunder could, say, sign Sefolosha for a year at the minimum and then promise to pay him when they go over the tax in two years' time, but gentlemen's agreements never seem to work out that well in the NBA.

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Who replaces him on the court?

Andre Roberson. There's no question in my mind that he's being groomed as an immediate Thabo Sefolosha replacement, and we could see him as a regular starter next year. My reasoning comes from three main pieces of evidence:

1. The Thunder had to trade up to get him in the 2013 Draft.

One of the more under the table moves in the 2013 Draft was one by the Thunder, where they dished cash and the 29th pick to the Warriors, so they could move up to 26. The only reason that this would happen is the knowledge that other teams might want Roberson as a prospect. It makes sense, because he was the only polished prospect remaining of his caliber. The next four picks involved a freshman and European prospects, and the experienced players that went early in the second round have failed to make an impact so far in the NBA. If they were willing to give money and take on the extra salary that a higher pick entails, the Thunder (and other teams) must have had something in mind for Roberson.

2. When Thabo missed his first second game of the season against the Hawks yesterday, Roberson was called up from the D-League and thrown right into the starting lineup.*

This is the strangest and most condemning move of all. Roberson has, for all intents and purposes, been the last man at the end of the bench so far. Both Gomes and Thabeet suit up while he gets time in Tulsa, leading many to believe that he didn't pan out in training camp. But his immediate call up to replace Sefolosha has forced the Thunder's hand.

OKC's coaching staff knows that Roberson has no place with the bench. They don't have an offensive impact player like Harden, and they already have three players in Collison, Adams, and Fisher that are prone to 0 point games. So throwing in Roberson in place of the more offensively skilled Perry Jones III would be redundant, and limit the team's options. Thus, it makes sense to give him time in Tulsa, where he can develop his game. Then, when the Thunder want to keep the offensive impact of Jackson and Lamb with the second unit, they can call up Roberson to play spot defensive minutes. (This is similar to what they did with DeAndre Liggins last season. For one game.)

*Previously I said that Thabo had only missed one game, but he missed the game against the Bucks as well. Roberson started in his place on that night. I apologize for the error, as the Bucks game is the only one I haven't seen this season.

3. All reports are that Roberson's skillset is very similar to Thabo's.

Right now, Andre Roberson is basically where Thabo was at back in 2009 or 2010. In last night's game against the Hawks, he had virtually no plays where offensive responsibility was actively given to him. In fact, he passed up a wide open three and Korver left him open in the corner virtually the entire game. His only points came off of an epic-looking offensive rebound, which is where his main strength lies.

The scary part about Roberson is that his rebounding right now is unquestionably better than Sefolosha's, as his 5 boards in 12 minutes can attest. If he were to rebound close to that rate on a regular basis, he'd be the best rebounding guard in the NBA. Plus, his defense is on point. It's hard to say he would do great against a legitimate penetration threat, since Korver is primarily a marksman and blew by Roberson once. But he did a great job of keeping Korver away from legitimate three point attempts, using his length to bother every shot. Korver did nail a three while Roberson was on the floor, but only because Roberson ran out for a fast break. It was a really strange play where Perk blocked Teague at the rim, it looked like the Thunder were going to recover, but then Teague snatched the ball back and found an open Korver, keeping the streak alive. In other words, Roberson very nearly ended Korver's record-breaking streak, and that's nothing to sneeze at.

Is Roberson ready now? No, but he's close. As long as he continues to work on his lateral quickness and finds an offensive niche, he could very well be a consistently viable rotation player by next year's time. But if Sefolosha's slow offensive development tells you anything, it's that it will take Roberson a while to become a true asset on both ends of the floor.

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Conclusions

In my mind, there's no question that I'd rather have Sefolosha starting in a year's time, and possibly even two years time. Roberson is most likely a downgrade for the immediate future, and may very well not pan out to be the player that Thabo was. But the key here is that he's cheap, most likely won't lose you a lot of games, and has the potential to be a better player than Sefolosha three or four seasons down the road. And if the Thunder didn't have Roberson, they'd likely be looking at a Liggins or Weaver-esque player, with little to offer beyond defensive hustle.

As for Sefolosha, a lot of things can happen between now and next season. Trades, championships, Draft Day, and a black hole suddenly opening up downtown could severely affect his future. But unless something stirs the pot, I honestly just can't see him in a Thunder uniform next season.

But, honestly, I'm not worried about that right now. I mean, this is our first championship year, right?

Do you think the Thunder will keep Thabo next season? Let us know in the poll and comments!

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