Just past the halfway point of the season, The Oklahoma City Thunder sit at 28-20, holding the fifth seed in the West, only 2 games behind the Timberwolves and 3 behind the Spurs. Catching the Spurs should be the team’s goal for the remainder of the season: it would position them against the Rockets rather than the Warriors in the second round, giving them a much better chance at reaching the conference finals. That should be the minimum expectation in this pivotal season: while a title would be even sweeter, reaching the conference finals and at least being competitive against the Warriors will go a long way to getting Paul George to stay in Oklahoma City when his contract expires this offseason. PG sounds very happy now and has made comments that Thunder fans should be encouraged by (curious, as just a month ago we were hearing about how Russell Westbrook was a horrible teammate no one in their right mind would want to play with), but a first or second round exit might make him change his tune.
With the trade deadline just around the corner, the onus is on Sam Presti to make a move that will help the Thunder vault up the standings, win their early playoff series, and maybe, just maybe, give Golden State a run for their money. That won’t be easy; most of the Thunder’s money is tied up in the Fab Four of Westbrook, PG, Carmelo Anthony, and Steven Adams, and the Thunder will not be trading any of those players. The Thunder must match salary with any player they acquire, limiting the size of the contract they can acquire. Further, they have very few assets to trade; they are barred from trading a first round pick until 2022 under the Stepien Rule, which bars teams from trading their first round picks in consecutive years (OKC already owes it’s 2018 and 2020 first round picks).
Given that, the Thunder essentially have five assets that other teams might actually want:
This is not exactly the treasure chest that will have other GM’s salivating. Luckily, the Thunder do not need to acquire a star player. In fact, they do not even need a starter. The Thunder’s starting five has been nothing short of excellent: When Westbrook, Andre Roberson, Paul George, Carmelo Anthony, and Steven Adams share the court, the Thunder out score their opponents by 13.3 points per 100 possessions (per https://cleaningtheglass.com/, the best stats website out there) one of the best marks in the league. In general, when Russ is on the court, the Thunder are excellent, with a +6.4 net rating whenever the reigning MVP is on the court.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: When Russ sits, the Thunder are dreadful. Despite the addition of another bona fide superstar in Paul George, as well as gaining a still dangerous Carmelo Anthony, The Thunder have a pitiful -4.6 net rating when Russ if off the court. For all the offseason improvements, the Thunder remain a team that cannot perform without Russell Westbrook and Russ simply cannot play all 48 minutes.
(A brief aside: there is something the Thunder can do even without making a trade to win those minutes. When Russ sits, the Thunder are bad, but when they sit Russ and play Paul George, they go from bad to bottom of the league. With PG on the court and Russ off the court, the Thunder’s net rating is -16.7, a number that makes me want to gouge my eyes out. When they play Carmelo without Russ, however, the Thunder not only survive but flourish: they have a net rating of +15.8; higher than the starting line-up! And yet, the Thunder have played 556 Paul George without Russ possessions to only 264 Melo without Russ possessions this season. Re-jiggering the line-ups so that Melo is always on the court when Russ is off would go a long way in helping the team survive those perilous minutes that Westbrook rests.)
What the Thunder need then is not a star or starter but a player who can carry the offensive load in those minutes Russ isn’t on the court, and if they can also share be an effective off-ball player who can spend some time with Russ, all the better. What they need is a true sixth man.
The player who immediately comes to mind for me is Tyreke Evans. The man who once beat out Stephen Curry for rookie of the year honors has had an up and down career, but he’s having a renaissance in Memphis this year. He’s scoring 19.4 points per game on 45% shooting (nearly 39% from deep), along with 5 assists and 5 rebounds. The advanced stats love his game this year too: he averages career highs in PER (21.6) and True Shooting percentage (56%), per basketball reference, all while leading the team in usage this season.
Unfortunately for the Grizzlies, Tyreke’s surge has not translated to winning. With Mike Conley hurt, David Fizdale gone and Marc Gasol struggling, the Grizzlies are 17-30, 7 games out of the playoffs, and headed for the lottery. At this point, Tyreke’s play only hurts their chance of falling deeper in the lottery and getting better draft picks. He also doesn’t look like part of their long-term future; he is on a cheap one year contract this year and his play this season will necessitate a raise, but the Grizz are already over the cap for next season. Trading Tyreke for any assets now, however small, would be in the team’s best interest.
On the Thunder, Tyreke can slot in as the sixth man, leading the bench unit with his scoring and passing; he can facilitate when Russ sits, and serve as a spot up shooter and secondary playmaker when playing alongside him. His high usage rate would have to come down, but on a second unit like, say, Felton-Evans-Melo-Patterson-Grant, you’re more than happy to see him with the second highest usage rate (behind Melo). If the Thunder find themselves in a late game situation where they need offense more than defense, he can play alongside the starters in Roberson’s place.
If all goes according to plan, Tyreke would be a one season rental; if Paul George does return, the Thunder will be in an even worse cap situation than the Grizzlies (though with much better talent to show for it), and unable to resign Evans. In the event PG and Melo both leave, the Thunder could look to re-sign Tyreke to the starter (but not star) level contract he’s owed. He’d be a decent fit on a redux of the 2016-17 team centered around Russ. Not ideal, but in the doomsday scenario without PG, the Thunder will take what they can get.
So best-case, Tyreke is a half-season + playoffs rental that hopefully gets the Thunder into the Conference finals and helps retain PG. What are you willing to give up for such a player? I’d look at a deal centered around either Abrines or Ferguson (I'd rather give up Abrines) and either a future second round pick or the 2022 first-rounder with heavy protection (lottery protected, eventually turns into two second round picks). Not a hefty return, but again, Evans is not part of the Grizzlies long-term plans, and keeping him only hurts their shot at a great draft pick. Turning a player who was signed for near the minimum into a decent prospect and a second round pick is still a win. Second round picks don’t usually amount to much, but every so often you stumble upon a Nikola Jokic or an Isaiah Thomas. The Grizzlies should be looking to take as many shots at drafting as star as they can to avoid a protracted rebuild as Conley and Gasol age out of their primes.
From the Thunder’s perspective, you lose a pick, as well as either Abrines or Ferguson. Abrines at this point is a good spot up shooter and little else; Ferguson is a very athletic prospect who has played sparingly and has shown little outside of one good game. Both have potential but probably top out as rotation players, i.e. the kind of player Evans is now. The thing is, the Thunder have few young prospects, and owe several first round picks already- players they draft going forward will likely not turn into real contributors until Westbrook and George are past their primes. Is 4 months of Evans worth giving up a prospect who might become a starter someday and a future pick?
I think so. This is the most pivotal year in OKC’s history, besides maybe 2016. Convince PG top stay, and you’re looking at 3-4 years of a 50+ win team around the core of Russ-PG-Adams that could, with the right supporting talent and some breaks, contend for a title. If PG walks, short of another Presti trade miracle (not out of the question entirely), the franchise is doomed to reruns of 2016-17; multiple seasons of Russ doing everything he can in a noble but ultimately futile effort. No one, not Jordan, not LeBron, and not Russ, can win without superstar help in this league. The Thunder went all in to keep Russ by getting PG and Melo; now they need to go all in to convince PG to stay.
Getting Tyreke probably doesn’t get the Thunder a championship this year, or even into the finals. But it improves their odds ever so slightly, and sends a signal to George: if you’re here, we think we’re contenders. And if we think we’re contenders, we’ll do whatever it takes to build the best roster possible.
It’s possible the Thunder do all this and Paul George leaves anyways. It’s a risk. But title windows don’t last long in the NBA; when Durant left, it looked like the Thunder’s window had been slammed shut, possibly for all of Westbrook’s career. An incredible offseason, bold trades, and more than a bit of good luck have opened the window back up. It’s on Presti to do everything in his power to make this second chance at a championship turn out different than the first.