Sam Presti and the Oklahoma City Thunder elected to stand pat at the trade deadline, making no moves. It likely wasn’t from lack of trying, but a result of circumstances. To begin with, the Thunder had few trade assets to offer, as I wrote in my trade deadline preview. In addition, other teams valued their assets in ways the Thunder probably wouldn’t match even with more to offer.
Best Laid Plans
Take Tyreke Evans. The Grizzlies demanded a first round pick for Evans, which the Thunder couldn’t have offered even if they wanted to, as they’ve already traded their 2018 and 2020 first round picks. If Presti offered the Thunder’s 2022 pick, which is unlikely, the Grizz weren’t interested. Apparently the Grizzlies asking price was too steep as Boston, Philadelphia, and Denver, teams rumored to have an interest in acquiring Evans and a pick to offer, passed on the eight year veteran. Rather than accepting lower offers when it became clear that no other team thought Evans was worth a first, the Grizzlies elected to take their ball(player) and go home.
Keeping Evans makes no sense whatsoever (and I’m not the only one that feels this way, ask their fans). Yes, Evans makes the Grizz better now, but the hard truth in Memphis is that this a year they should tank. Evan’s contract is up after this year and the Grizzlies do not have his bird rights, so they will not have any advantage in re-signing him. The Grizzlies were so locked on getting a first round pick that they passed on good offers (Denver reportedly offered them two second round picks or a second round pick and Emmanuel Mudiay), and will probably get nothing for Evans.
This is the frustrating reality of the trade market; if your potential trade partner over values their asset, even if they are dead wrong and are hurting themselves long-term, no deal can happen.
Luckily, in the buyout market, where Presti will focus next, no such constraint exists. Every year, teams trying to tank, or simply give minutes to their younger players, place veteran players on waivers. If the player clears the 48 hour waiting period, he is free to sign with any team he wishes. The Thunder, as a contender with an open roster spot after AndreRoberson ruptured his patellar tendon, a need for a wing player and two trade exceptions, will be a major player in the market. Fellow contenders Boston (Greg Monroe) and Houston (Brandon Wright) have already bolstered their roster this way, and teams like Cleveland and Golden State will be looking for a way to do so as well. Here are some names to watch, and how they could help OKC down the stretch.
Possible Thunder Targets
Tony Allen, a WTLC favorite, is seemingly the perfect fit for an OKC roster still reeling from Andre Roberson’s injury. Allen in his prime was the precursor to Roberson. A lockdown perimeter player and smart help defender who constantly elevated his teams on defense. Unfortunately, Allen is, shall we say, a less than stellar offensive player and the concerns about his age are real. At 36 years old, Tony missed part of this season with injuries in New Orleans, and he’s somehow worse on offense than Roberson. Allen shoots a little better on 3’s than Roberson (on a negligible amount of attempts) but worse on 2’s, to the point where Roberson posted an effective field goal percentage of 56% this year, to Allen’s 50.5%. Though not great at the free throw line, Allen does shoot them well enough to make opposing coaches hesitate before employing a hacking strategy to get him off the floor.
All that is true, but Allen is well worth the risk. As I wrote in an earlier post advocating Allen, there’s strong evidence that even at 36 years young he can still play solid team defense. The Pelicans, an average defensive team, were elite (94.6 DRtg) when Allen shared the court with Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins sat. Pair Allen with great defenders like Paul George and Steven Adams and I believe he can help the Thunder return to their elite defensive ways.
The Thunder’s defense has gone from (103.1 points allowed per 100 possessions, 5th best mark in the league) to average (107.2 points allowed per 100, 18th in the league, per NBA.com ) since Roberson’s injury. If the Thunder want to make a deep playoff run, average won’t cut it. To get back to playing championship level defense, the Thunder need some “Grit and Grind”, they need Tony Allen.
Allen was officially waived by the Bulls on February 9th, and the Thunder have 48 hours to claim him off the waiver wire. To claim a player on waivers, the claiming team must pay the remainder of the players contract, in Allen’s case, about $675K. If multiple teams make a claim during the waiting period, the team with the worst record wins the claim. If the Thunder opt to wait out the 48 hour clock, they could sign Allen as a free agent. The amount could be less, as low as league minimum, or it could be higher if multiple teams make offers. Per sources, both the Thunder and Rockets are looking at Allen. The safe play would be signing Allen during the waiting period and the clock runs out at 5 P.M. est on Sunday.
(Update: Belinelli has signed with the 76ers)
Curiously, the Thunder’s offense is also down since Roberson’s injury, falling from a mark of 106.9 points per 100 possessions, 10th best in the league, to 104.1, 21st in the league, per NBA.com. Maybe that’s just a blip, but a feedback loop does exist between Offense and Defense in basketball; more stops leads to more transition opportunities which leads to easier buckets. The reverse is also true; when you score, you reduce opponent’s fast break opportunities. Presti may feel that improving the offense could have carryover effects that improve the defense, or the team will figure out the defense without Roberson and adding more offense to his bench is more important.
If either is the case, Marco Belinelli seems like a natural target for OKC. Before the Hawks waived him on Friday, Marco shot 37% on nearly 5 three-point attempts per game this season. The trouble is, he does little else. Overall, Belinelli is shooting just 41%, he doesn’t get to the free throw line much, and he only throws a couple assists per game. As a result of a limited ability to create his own shot off the bounce, his offensive role is limited to spot up’s and cuts. He’s never been known as a defender, and the Hawks have been putrid with him on the floor this season. The Hawks have a fitting -4.0 net rating as a lottery team, but that falls to a ghastly -10.1 when Belinelli plays.
In short, Belinelli can space the floor and little else. The Thunder already have that player in Alex Abrines. What Belinelli would bring is a veteran savvy and playoff experience. If the Thunder don’t think Abrines is ready for the playoffs and want a veteran fulfilling a similar role of sharpshooting off the bench without much defense, Belinelli is an option. But as Abrines’ shot begins to fall more and more and the young Spaniard actually showing signs of a defensive pulse, I’d stay away.
ISO Joe, who can create his own shot and is a far more versatile defender than Bellinelli, is already headed to the Rockets, and thus unavailable for OKC. That’s unfortunate, as he could have been a better fit for the roster than Bellinelli.
The former MVP was in the conversation for worst Point Guard in the NBA this season, with his only competition being his Cavaliers teammate Isaiah Thomas. The Cavs traded him to Utah, where he will be quickly released. The Timberwolvesare reportedly interested in D-Rose as part of Tom Thibodeau’s unending quest to turn the Wolves into the 2011 Bulls. If OKC ends up facing the Wolves in the playoffs, any minutes Rose plays are a win for the Thunder. In his short time with the Cavs this season Rose shot a meager 43% from the field, averaged only 3 assists per 36 minutes, and waged a fierce battle with Thomas for who could get blown by most often on defense. The most telling stat: When Rose shared the court with LeBron James, the best player in the world, the Cavs got outscored by nearly 5 points per 100 possessions. He’s all yours Tom.
This would be nice. The Lakers are in a youth movement and Lopez is distinctly not a youth. In addition, his contract is up this year. Reports indicate that Lopez is happy to stay in LA for the rest of his contract, but if he does seek a buyout, he’d be the backup big the Thunder have needed all season who can take the minutes Adams rests, step in if Adams has foul trouble. Additionally, Lopez has enough 3 point range to be a credible floor spacer beside Adams. It’s not likely to come about, but a good fit if it does.
Fire up the Espresso maker baby! Fresh off a stint in France, the Borista is ready to return to the NBA with a playoff team. His stats have never jumped off the page, but Diaw can do a bit of everything - he can shoot the 3, he can pass, he can defend, he’s smart, and has a ton of playoff experience, including a championship with the Spurs. If the Thunder choose to go big and Lopez isn’t available, Diaw might be the best option.
How Presti approaches the buyout market will offer an interesting view into his thinking. Does he try to shore up the offense or the defense? Does he view help on the wing or another big man as more important? The Thunder have an open roster spot, so expect someone to fill it in the coming days. Whoever Presti decides to bring in, with just one win in the last six games, the Thunder clearly need a spark as they prepare for the stretch run.
Despite an inspiring victory over the Warriors, the Thunder are 2-5 since Roberson’s injury, and dropped to a precarious 6th spot in the West. While only 4 games behind the Spurs for 3rd place, the Thunder also sit only two game ahead of the 9th place Pelicans. Barring a total collapse, it is unrealistic to think a team with this much talent would miss the playoffs, but if the Thunder don’t get their act together soon, they could face a very unfavorable first round match-up and possible early vacation just as Paul George enters free agency.
Which buyout player should OKC pursue?
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