Can you believe it? The Thunder might be looking to trade Thabo Sefolosha, one of their most dependable role players since they acquired him back in 2008-09. That was five and a half years ago, and in the 508 games he's played for the Thunder since then, Sefolosha has started all but one: the very first game he played in a Thunder uniform. Why would the Thunder, the best team in their conference right now, want to tamper with that chemistry by trading away one of their veteran leaders?
Well... it might make sense. I gave it a brief paragraph at the end of Monday's Thunder-Grizzlies recap (fitting enough given the context it was provided in), but looking deeper, it's very interesting to consider the implications of a Thabo Sefolosha trade. As Bleacher Report's Jared Zwerling tweeted, Sefolosha is one of a number of players "being mentioned in trade talks within league circles".
A. Afflalo, T. Ariza, C. Singleton, G. Davis, R. Evans, P. Gasol, T. Gibson, C. Landry, G. Monroe, A. Rivers, T. Sefolosha and G. Vasquez.— Jared Zwerling (@JaredZwerling) February 3, 2014
You don't often see teams with the best record in their conference tamper significantly with their roster (whether or not the Pacers signing Andrew Bynum counts as "significant" is TBD), and you see it even less with starters who have established themselves as key cogs of said team. As the Thunder worked their way into contender status, Sefolosha has been crucial in a 3-and-D role. Scott Brooks often used him to guard the opponent's best scorer or switched him on to a difficult assignment in place of Kevin Durant so that KD could use more energy to carry the team on offense.
Sefolosha's usefulness is starting to wane this season, however. After shooting above 40% from three in the past two seasons, his three-point percentage has plummeted to 31.9% this season. As a team, the Thunder lack three-point specialists to space the floor for Kevin Durant and, when healthy, Russell Westbrook. Sefolosha, Jeremy Lamb, Derek Fisher and Reggie Jackson have attempted to emulate a group of respectable three-point threats, but Fisher is the only one shooting above league average (35.7%) from three this season. He's barely eclipsed that number, with a 37.2% mark. Lamb was shooting above 40% earlier this season, but he's fallen off a bit and sits a scratch below league average now.
Now, Sefolosha was never a great three-point shooter. Last season was his first time averaging more than one make a game. Before shooting 40%+ in the last two seasons, he actually shot 27.5% from three in 2010-11. Some of his success in recent seasons is due to defenses needing more and more double-teams or strong-side packing to stop Durant or Westbrook, allowing easier looks for Sefolosha. His regression this season can probably be attributed at least in part to the team losing one of those two threats. Still, a 10.0% drop in three-point percentage is drastic and has serious consequences, especially for this Thunder team.
Sefolosha is still great defensively, but the need for a lockdown defender might have lessened some as the rest of team has rounded out over the years. In every season since 2010-11, the Thunder have improved their defensive rating from the season before. Durant doesn't need Sefolosha to take on the elite scorers now. Serge Ibaka has become one of the league's best defensive anchors. Westbrook, while occasionally inattentive away from the ball, can hound and pressure point guards well, and Jackson is of a similar quality. Kendrick Perkins still mixes it up in the post pretty well. Lamb, Perry Jones III and Steven Adams all show varying levels of potential on defense.
The point here is that the Thunder can accept losing a lockdown defender of Sefolosha's quality to make a gain in their perimeter shooting. The Thunder's scheme does value a player with the skill to recover as a weak-side defender when packing the strong-side, which Sefolosha is one of the league's best at. I pointed it out in my breakdown on the Thunder's defense from last October (as the third example), and more recently, Mike Prada did the same thing but much better at the SB Nation NBA page (the Sefolosha blurb is about halfway through).
It's unlikely that the Thunder would be able to trade Sefolosha for a player that can recover to the weak side as well as he does. Perhaps they can find a player who still does it well, but if Sefolosha is being discussed in trades, it would make sense that the Thunder are looking to address a weakness (spot-up three-point shooting) by trading away from their surplus (defense). Maybe three-point shooting seems like a weakness that might fix itself if Thabo Sefolosha and/or Jeremy Lamb bounce back, but at the same time, it's a very exploitable weakness and could be a death knell for the Thunder in the playoffs if those shooters can't "get right".
Before we delve into trade possibilities however, we have to consider the financial implications. The Thunder are not too far out from a potential repeat of the James Harden situation, though with Reggie Jackson instead. Jackson's rookie contract expires after next season, and while he's certainly no James Harden, he's played well enough to earn a significant raise.
Unfortunately, even with Kendrick Perkins' contract expiring at the same time, it's unlikely the Thunder can afford to pay Jackson a contract in the $7-9 million range (and he might command even more money if he continues to improve). With Russell Westbrook on board and locked up until 2016-17, there's no need to pay Jackson big bucks to stay on board. Like Harden was redundant as a scorer alongside Durant and Westbrook, Jackson is redundant alongside the latter of those two. Following "the Thunder model", Jackson might be dumped for future assets the same way Harden was, so that the Thunder can instead pay guys like Lamb and Adams.
How does Sefolosha fit in? Well, his $3.9 million contract expires after this season. If the Thunder intend for Jeremy Lamb to start one day and have Andre Roberson or another future draft pick step into a bench role, that's a timetable that would allow the Thunder to take on a contract perhaps two or even three years long. That player can start until Lamb's good to go, and hang around on the bench until Roberson or whoever is ready (no guarantees on that front, though).
There are teams that will want to free up cap space and will give up a usable player on a contract with a few years left on for Sefolosha's expiring contract. Not only that, but the Thunder are rich enough in assets that they would probably be willing to also give up a draft pick and/or a player like PJ3 (though I hope not!) in the right deal.
Potential targets? Jared Dudley, struggling mightily this season with the Clippers, could be a buy-low target if the Clips want to get out of his three-year contract while bringing in a fresh face that may perform better. Perhaps Chicago's Mike Dunleavy would be available, as the Bulls are clearly out of contention this year and may want to save money for free agency (that said, Dunleavy is already a bargain at his contract, so maybe not). Maybe the Nuggets, who have gone through a number of ups and downs this season, might choose to err on the side of flexibility and trade Randy Foye, a great spot-up shooter and solid tertiary playmaker. If the Thunder brain trust decide to pool their assets (Sefolosha, PJ3, picks) and make a splash, Arron Afflalo is a sexy best case scenario (or perhaps more realistically, Trevor Ariza).
It'll be a bit of a risk to tamper with such a successful group, no matter who the Thunder might get back. At the same time, however, a lack of three-point shooting has become apparent this season as games where Kevin Durant doesn't dominate from beyond the arc often correlate with games where the team shoots around 30% from three. KD has been the best three-point shooter for a team that should be surrounding him with three-point threats, and it hasn't even been close.
Hey, maybe Sefolosha doesn't get traded. Maybe the Thunder trust the guy who's been around in a very useful capacity for the past five and a half seasons to bounce back. But for now, while he's an active piece in trade discussions, it's an indicator that the Thunder see a way to improve this team. It's okay to be a little excited, even if you'd hate to see Sefolosha go (that'd be me).
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