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Thunder Offseason Preview: What can OKC do if Paul George leaves?

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There’s no road map for replacing a player of Paul George’s talent, but with some cap gymnastics, OKC can at least build a better roster than they were left with in the wake of Kevin Durant’s departure.

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Houston Rockets Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Following the disappointing end to their playoff series against the jazz, OKC now faces another pivotal offseason. For the second time in three years, one of the NBA’s elite small forwards is about to hit free agency, and the Thunder’s future hangs on whether Paul George elects to return to OKC or not.

If George does leave, OKC cannot replace him, because players of his caliber don’t grow on trees. However, the Thunder are in a slightly better place than they were in 2016 when Kevin Durant bolted to the Golden State Warriors. If you recall, 2016 was the year of the massive salary cap spike that not only allowed Golden State to sign Durant, it also led to all sorts of insane contracts being doled out. Case in point, $70 million for Evan Turner! $64 million for Timofey Mozgov! With so much money up for grabs, it was almost impossible to sign players on good deals, and the weapon of teams over the cap, the Mid-Level Exception, was practically useless.

Two years later, that spending spree, in the wake of the real cap vs the projected one, has left a number of teams deep in the red. If Paul George leaves and Carmelo Anthony picks up his player option, a near certainty, Oklahoma City will be far, far over the cap. The Thunder already have $116,835,361 committed in salary. The projected salary cap is set at about $101 million, and the Luxury Tax line at $123,000,000. Due to the number of teams over the cap, the Thunder could attract a decent player with the Mid-Level exception ($8,568,000), but doing so triggers a hard cap of $129 Million.

While teams can exceed the regular salary cap to re-sign their own players and offer veteran minimum contracts, the hard cap, if activated, cannot be breached at all, not by a single penny. The Thunder could avoid triggering the Hard Cap by offering only the mini mid-level exception of $5,292,000, but that won’t attract nearly the same quality of player that $8.57M would.

Considering those constraints, the Thunder, realistically, have 3 options if George leaves:

  1. Use the mid-level exception of $8.568 million to sign a free agent
  2. Re-sign Jeramy Grant (the Thunder have his Bird rights, meaning they are able to go over the cap to resign him). Doing so would likely prevent them from also using the full mid-level, as the full mid-level exception combined with Grant’s new deal likely pushes them over $129 million. Instead, offer the mini mid-level to find a lower tier free agent.
  3. Trade someone, freeing up enough money to use the full mid-level and still re-sign Grant.

Obviously, the best route is option 3: retaining the cagey and defensively sound Grant, who’s still only 24, will keep the Thunder’s depth from falling off a cliff and give them future upside. The full Mid-level exception meanwhile could be used to sign an actual starter-level free agent. $8 million might not seem like a lot of money after the spending sprees teams engaged in during the last two off-seasons, but a huge number of teams are capped out. Lou Williams, who was in consideration for an all-star spot, ended up taking a 3-year extension for just $24 million, which is actually slightly less than the mid-level exception.

That’s reflective of the rough market a lot of free agents will be facing this summer. Top tier guys like Paul George and restricted free agents with high draft pedigrees like Aaron Gordon and Zach LaVine will still demand big money, but the second tier guys won’t be getting the contracts players like Mozgov or Bismack Biyombo did in 2016. That means OKC could nab a legitimate starter with the full MLE, but it is the full MLE or nothing. The smaller taxpayer MLE won’t attract a player that could make a real impact.

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Toronto Raptors John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

It’s possible, of course, that Presti elects to do nothing. The Thunder has never been a big player in the free agent market, for the most part, electing to build through the draft and trades. Some of that is because Oklahoma City isn’t a prime free agent destination and some of that is Presti’s “it’s hard to get truly valuable players in free agency” team-building strategy.

Either way, that should change this summer. OKC only has second-round picks in the upcoming draft and the odds of drafting anyone that could become a real contributor before Westbrook ages past his prime is very low. While you will never say never on trades after last summer, OKC has little to no assets to make a deal for a player who can actually help them win. Fortunately, considering most teams are capped out, ths summer offers OKC a rare opportunity to find a player of real value for the MLE. Thus, let’s assume (and hope) that the generally pragmatic Presti breaks his norm and makes a strong move on the free agency market. There’s no better time- if he bets wrong, these contracts are movable, unlike those terrible 2016 deals.

If George is gone and Carmelo Anthony is sent, scratching and clawing, to the bench (which needs to happen), OKC has a hole on the wing (Andre Roberson can play the 2 or the 3, so either wing spot will do), and at power forward. If Grant gets re-signed, he can start at the 4. He’s a bit undersized and can struggle on the glass, but he’s a versatile, “switchy” defender that finishes well and draws a ton of fouls inside. Additionally, he runs the floor well, a must playing alongside Russell Westbrook. Still, Grant struggles shooting the 3. He looked okay from distance in 2016, then dropped below 30% last season, and the Thunder need floor spacers.

If a true stretch 4 who doesn’t tank your defense (aka, not Melo) isn’t available, the player, in theory, to fill the void is Patrick Patterson. But 2Pat was disappointing in 2017-18 and his left knee is still a big question mark. None of the upcoming Power Forward free agents are overly enticing. Aaron Gordon, Julius Randle, and Derrick Favors are too expensive. Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and Ersan Ilyasova would be nice bench options, but OKC would be better off signing a true starting level wing with the MLE if possible. Failing that, Mbah a Moute, if he elects to leave Houston, would be an interesting addition at the smaller taxpayer MLE.

Currently, OKC has Alex Abrines, who shoots the 3 well and made strides as a defender, but if the team is able to find a wing who can shoot, is passable defensively and can handle some play-making responsibility, they’d happily insert them in the starting lineup and keep Abrines gunning from the bench or, if the newly signed wing can slide to the 3, start Abrines at the 2 and move Roberson to the 4.

What wings are available for the price OKC can pay? Will Barton, Kentavious Caldwell Pope, Avery Bradley, Tyreke Evans and J.J. Redick are all free agents this summe, and the Thunder would do well to check them out.

Barton, a super 6th man who proved himself a capable starter when injuries forced him into the 1st rotation, is probably the best option. He averaged 15.7 points per game on 45% shooting this season, including 37% from deep. Defense isn’t his primary focus, but he’s not a total sieve. If Barton plays alongside defenders like Roberson, Grant, and Adams, OKC can probably survive. He can be a secondary play-maker, run the second unit if necessary, and space the floor well. And at 26, he’s about to enter his prime.

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Minnesota Timberwolves Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Barton reportedly turned down a 4 year, $42 Million dollar extension from the Nuggets earlier this season, more than the Thunder could offer. Still, he wouldn’t be the first player to misjudge the market and end up taking less in free agency. His wish to start is on record and the Thunder could offer that. If he’s still looking for a big payday in the future, the Thunder could offer him a 1-year deal. If he shines, he can get his money, either from OKC or elsewhere. If he flounders, he’ll come off the books at the same time as Melo and Kyle Single, leaving the Thunder free to pursue another big-time player with a lot more money to offer.

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Redick and Caldwell-Pope are both coming off massive 1-year deals with the Sixers and Lakers, respectively. Both teams want to save cap space this summer and are interested in Paul George. Neither player is going to get the same money as their previous deals because there isn’t enough money available and the few teams with cap space are targeting better prizes than these two.

Caldwell-Pope has intriguing potential, and last year with LA was his best season. After posting career highs in 3-point percentage (38%- nice!) and overall field goal percentage (42.6%- not so nice), it’s somewhat titillating to imagine Detroit’s 2013 1st round pick running with a lead guard as good as Westbrook. (Reggie Jackson believes he’s better than Russ, but that is in his own mind- and that doesn’t count)

NBA: Los Angeles Lakers at Utah Jazz Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Alas, KCP might end up commanding more than the mid-level by a team with real cap space that strikes out on the big names.

Redick would bring one thing to the Thunder, 3-point shooting, and boy, he does it well. Spacing is a huge need for OKC but Redick is older and might be looking for a long-term deal. JJ and Russ are not an ideal defensive backcourt, but having Roberson and Adams to bail you out helps. Redick, a player in constant motion, is a crafty cutter and great at popping free off the ball. He’s someone Donovan could run multiple plays for if he implemented a more inventive offense than what we’ve seen thus far in his 3-year tenure.

NBA: Philadelphia 76ers at Atlanta Hawks Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

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Avery Bradley, once thought a lock to get a $20 million a year deal this summer, is another interesting fit with OKC. He’s a knockdown 3 point shooter who demands defensive respect as well as a lock-down defender in his own right. A curious analytics trend has followed Bradley through the last few seasons- despite his defensive credentials, his teams have allowed fewer points with him off the court than on. Kevin Pelton summed it up as follows:

The team numbers strongly suggest that Bradley’s elite individual defense hasn’t translated into better team defense. His attentiveness to shutting down his opposing number may prevent Bradley from making plays as a help defender, giving the offense the same benefit they get from an elite shooter with high gravity who keeps a defender close nearby... that makes Bradley something of a defensive luxury. He’s not capable of making a weak defensive team good all by himself, but can elevate one that already has strong team defense to compensate for his weakness.

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Detroit Pistons Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Oklahoma City fits that formula to a tee. When Roberson was playing last year, they had an elite defense. A defense featuring Bradley, Roberson, and Adams, if healthy, could be a league-leading unit. Health is a concern as Bradley has missed big chunks of both the last two seasons. He also struggles to create his own shot. OKC can survive that, given that Russ is comfortable being a sole facilitator, but a second creator is a nice thing to have. Still, a pure 3 and D player would help elevate the Thunder. OKC was reportedly interested in Bradley at the deadline and I’m guessing that interest still exists.

Tyreke Evans could play the role of secondary creator. In addition, he can play the 2 or the 3 and even the 1 in a pinch, giving needed flexibility to a Thunder roster that will be very short on depth. Tyreke is also a good 3 point shooter, and at least an average defender. He too will be looking for money after proving his worth on a minimum deal in Memphis last season and might be looking for a longer term deal.

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Memphis Grizzlies Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

The Thunder’s biggest issue luring one of these two players is the length of the contract. If OKC locks themselves long-term with either Bradley or Evans, even when Melo leaves next year, they won’t have much cap flexibility.

All of these players are entering free agency expecting more than a Mid-Level exception deal. Some of them will get it, but some will not- there just aren’t enough teams with money this summer (turns out giving terrible 4 years contracts still hurts you 2 years later. Who knew?). One or more of these guys will end up settling for the best deal they can get and then it becomes a question of deciding whether going to OKC and playing alongside the ball-dominant Russell Westbrook is their best remaining option.

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Creating the space to comfortably re-sign Grant and add a player with the MLE is tricky. If Sam Presti is somehow able to Jedi-mind-trick Melo into declining his player option, the Thunder would have about $12-13M in cap space. Not enough to entice a star, but enough to lure a second-tier player. They could also re-sign Grant and still use the full MLE on another player.

That’s an enticing possibility, but it can’t happen if Melo opts in and he is going to. After that, trading Melo is almost impossible.

He has a no-trade clause, which he waived last season to get sent to a team he viewed as a contender (and to escape the daily venom of the New York media scrum) and after last season, no contender wants him. A bad team with cap space might take him if you threw in first round picks, but the Thunder have almost none of those to offer. Besides, “Who me” would just laugh at such a trade, and thus, the Thunder are stuck with him.

Presti could also try to convince Melo to decline the player option in exchange for an extension, less money per year, but more guaranteed money in the long-term. For Melo to even consider it you’re probably looking at something like 3 years, $14 million per season at least. Even knocking Melo down to $14 million leaves the team over the cap, though far enough away from the luxury tax that they could use the full MLE. This move isn’t likely unless Presti has orders from the ownership to avoid the luxury tax at all costs. Not only does it cramp future flexibility but also locks the team into another 3 years of Melo.

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The new deal wouldn’t have Melo’s current no-trade clause, but even at that lower price, moving Melo would probably be impossible until the last year of the deal, and OKC would have to give up an asset to do so.

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Trading Russ is obviously out of the question. You don’t bother bringing in any of those vets if you’re pursuing a full rebuild, you go for the tank. Further, if you’re dealing Russ, you’re locking into a long and painful rebuild, and after last season, I honestly wonder how high the return for Westbrook would be. What team could offer a bounty of young players and picks for Russ and feel confident that they could contend with him and whoever remains after the trade?

If Presti had any ideas of moving Westbrook he would have done so when Durant bailed out. Trading him now would only result in a disappointing return and trigger a long period of mediocrity with few future assets to build upon. Not to mention, 82 more games with Carmelo Anthony as the team’s primary scoring option and his peculiar “ole” defensive stylings.

Oh man, I think I just threw up in my mouth...
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Trading Steven Adams makes no sense if you’re keeping Russ; his contract is high but he’s the perfect center for Russ and has improved every year he’s been in the league, and you won’t get a player in return. Even if you can recoup some picks for Adams, those players aren’t on the same timeline as Russ. You are worse next year and by the time those players are ready to contend, Russ is out of his prime. If Russ stays, Adams stays.

That leaves Andre Roberson, Kyle Singler, Patrick Patterson, Alex Abrines and Dakari Johnson as players under contract for next year.

Roberson’s defensive versatility has been the key to OKC’s identity. If Presti decides to trade Robes to free up cap space, it must be for an upgrade and the likelihood is very high that, barring the season-ending knee injury, Roberson would have a finalist for Defensive Player of the Year this season. Not easy, and remember, the most likely targets for OKC are shooting guards and power forwards. If you send Andre out, who’s starting at the 3? Melo? An aging 4 at this point and better suited coming off the bench. Grant could slide up to the 3, but he is more valuable as a 4. If you pick up Evans you could start him at the 3 and Abrines at the 2, but you’re sacrificing a lot of defense in exchange for floor spacing. Moving Andre would mean a cultural shift.

NBA: Indiana Pacers at Oklahoma City Thunder Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Maybe that’s okay. OKC’s identity for the last two seasons has been defense first and counting on elite offensive players to bail them out even with cramped spacing in the other direction. The result has been two first-round exits. Swap Roberson out for shooting, and you open up so much more room for Westbrook to drive to the rim with Steven Adams setting monster screens for him. Look how much space James Harden gets from the simplest play in basketball at 1:20 in this video, just because the floor is so well spaced:

Russ has NEVER had a floor spaced that well in his career. Durant or no, OKC has always had at least one bad shooter on the floor.

If OKC wants to go in that direction, then moving on from Roberson would be the move. However, finding a trade partner is tricky. Robes has two years and $20M+ left on his contract and is coming off major knee surgery. Additionally, it’s unclear if the rest of the league values him the same way the Thunder do.

The idea of Russ with more shooting around him sounds tempting now, but if come January Abrines’ defensive improvements look like a mirage and whichever new wing OKC adds isn’t defending well, OKC could find all its offensive improvement offset by a porous defense. Adams, Patterson, and Grant as backline defenders help, but by how much? And again, if you go in this direction, the wing you pick up has to play small forward as well. Evans fits the bill, as does Trevor Ariza, and if you’re going to try to replicate the Rockets, why not grab their top 3-and-d wing? Then again, Houston is in the conference finals and OKC just went home in the first round. That may be a tough sell.

As enticing as the idea of unleashing Russ with a spread floor is, Roberson’s value to the team is enormous. When Roberson played OKC posted a net rating of +8.4 per 100 possessions, not too far from Houston’s lead leading mark of +9.0. After Robes went down, the Thunder dropped to +3.2. Roberson more than makes up any offensive liability he presents with his defensive prowess. The better option is moving someone else and experimenting with better shooting lineups when Roberson sits. The best spread pick and roll lineup the Thunder put on the floor last year consisted of Westbrook, Abrines, George, Anthony, Adams. Those five were an impressive +5.4 last year, even with possessions lost with bad Melo post-ups and Westbrook iso’s. Imagine the numbers that line-up might produce had they run the Westbrook to Adams pick and roll every dang time.

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Memphis Grizzlies
A rare photo of Singler actually playing for OKC
Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Losing Kyle Singler would be an easy pill to swallow because he never plays- as R.K. says, he’s nothing more than a $5M a year Armini model. Unfortunately, in order to move him, the Thunder will have to give something else up for another franchise to take him on. Is there a team out there willing to take him along with a second round pick? Is OKC even willing to give up a second round pick?

If not, the Thunder could waive him and stretch his salary, which would free up $3.33M this year. That leaves OKC at $113.5 million in salary. Give the full mid-level exception of $8,568,000 to someone and they’re left with a little under $7 million to offer Grant before becoming completely hard capped. Maybe that’s enough to get Grant to stay, or maybe they offer a little less than the full MLE to sign your choice of free agent. But once they’re hard capped, they can offer nothing, not even minimum contracts, and your roster stands at just 10 players. That’s not feasible, so OKC would need to offer only the Taxpayer mid-level, or shed more salary.

Getting Patrick Patterson or Alex Abrines’ $5.4M off the books in addition to stretching Singler, and OKC has enough breathing room to offer the full MLE, retain Grant, and polish off the roster with a couple minimum contracts with either the guys they draft in the second round this year or promoting PJ Dozier or Daniel Hamilton to the full roster. Abrines has flashed enough potential that some team would probably gladly take him into cap space, and maybe even hand OKC a second round pick for its trouble, but you’re giving up a very promising young player (not to mention stealing J.A. Sherman’s reason for living). Patterson, after an up and down, injury-riddled campaign, might be a bit harder to move, but he’s on a good contract and can still be a rotation player.

Stretch Singler, successfully move Patterson, extend Grant and convince one of those wings to join at the MLE, and the roster looks something like this:

Starters:

Russell Westbrook

Bradley/Barton/KCP/Evans/Reddick

Andre Roberson

Jerami Grant

Steven Adams

Bench:

Ray Felton (if he elects to return on another minimum contract)

Alex Abrines

Terrance Ferguson

Carmelo Anthony

Dakari Johnson

PJ Dozier/Daniel Hamilton

(insert minimum salary players here)

That’s a thin roster, and light on shooting, but it isn’t all that different from the 2016-17 roster, except now, the Thunder would have better creators in Felton and Melo. Further, Adams and Abrines are better than they were 2 years ago, and Grant is better than Sabonis was then and probably a better fit alongside Russ than Taj Gibson was. If OKC lacks confidence in Dakari, they can probably find a big man willing to accept the veteran minimum to sop up minutes behind Adams.

Choose the “move Roberson direction and stretch Singler option” and we’re looking at:

Starters:

Russ

Abrines

Evans/Ariza

Grant

Adams

Bench:

Felton

Ferguson

Melo

Patterson

Johnson

Dozier/ Hamilton

(Insert minimum salary players here)

That’s still not a deep bench, with a far weaker defense, but there is a lot more shooting around that Russ-Adams pick and roll. Either way, these rosters are less talented than last season, but that is unavoidable without PG.

It’s even possible these rosters end next season with a better record than the current roster because Russ can be Russ right from the jump without having to appease George or Melo, and a better bench rotation that shouldn’t squander double-digit leads like the 2016/17 bench mob.

Still, these don’t look like championship winning rosters, and that’s the point.

Trading for Paul George and Melo to convince Westbrook to sign his extension was a major risk and after failing to advance out of the first round, OKC must face the consequences for taking such a gamble. The most optimistic view, at this point, is seeing Adams take a big leap into a true second option and Russ embracing a more systematic approach.

If those things happen, OKC could reach 50 wins and even make some playoff noise, either through suffocating defense if they keep Roberson or via a top 5 offense if they opt for the spread pick and roll route. Unfortunately, it’s just as likely that 2018-19 will end with another first round exit.

If Paul George leaves, Presti can still piece together a decent team. Even a better one than the team after losing Kevin Durant, but a championship is out of the question, at least for next season. Minus PG, fifty wins and a vast improvement from Adams, Grant, and Abrines resulting in a run to the second round would constitute success. And then, unburdened by that albatross aka Melo’s contract, Presti can take one more shot at adding the piece that will win Westbrook his championship before he ages out of his prime.

That’s nice, but when it is all said and done, I hope Paul George really likes paintball.