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Three non-Paul George questions for OKC in Free Agency

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Paul George is the biggest question mark, but far from the only one as OKC prepares for the 2018 season.

NBA: Playoffs-Utah Jazz at Oklahoma City Thunder Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Free Agency officially begins tonight at Midnight. The thunder’s offseason hinges almost entirely on the question of Paul George- if he re-signs, they remain a playoff team with high upside (and a huuuuuuge luxury tax bill), and if he goes they become a big question mark. But enough ink has been spilled on that topic, and there’s really nothing left to analyze- either George wants to stay with OKC, or he doesn’t.

Here, instead, are three other things for Thunder fans to watch as free agency unfolds. While PG is the biggest question, the team has plenty of other holes to fill on the roster.

How much does Jerami Grant get?

While all the attention has deservedly gone to Paul George, OKC has another free agent forward to worry about. Jerami Grant is an unrestricted free agent, and he’s just the kind of player a lot of teams would like to take a chance on. He’s athletic and has the versatility to defend positions 1-5, able to function as a small forward, power forward or even an undersized center. He’s improved as a finisher at the rim and draws a ton of fouls. The biggest thing missing is a 3 point shot- he’s a career 31% shooter- but he has enough other skills to be valuable without that shot. He’s exactly kind of wing teams want in their rotation against the Warriors, the team everyone is still chasing.

If Paul George re-signs, Oklahoma City will be in luxury tax hell unless they can get off of other money- a lot of other money. The Thunder face the especially punitive repeater tax since they’ve paid the tax in previous seasons. Even a reasonable deal for Grant- say $8 million- at the level of salary the Thunder will be at with George signed to a max deal would result in a luxury tax hit of $34 Million on top of the $8 million that actually goes to Grant. If George stays, the Thunder’s ownership, for all their talk of being willing to pay the luxury tax, is probably not willing to cough up that much for the sixth best player on the team.

If PG is gone, OKC will still be over the salary cap, but should be able to re-sign Grant without a problem. OKC has his bird rights, meaning they can go over the cap to re-sign him; meanwhile, with money around the league so tight the most Grant is likely to get from any other team is around the Mid-Level exception of about $8.5 Million. OKC could beat that if they have to, but that would limit their flexibility elsewhere. Watch the years on a potential deal for Grant as well- he’s still young and OKC would love to lock him up on a long-term deal at a low rate, but Grant might be interested in re-entering the free agent market in another year or two when there’s more money around the league.

How does OKC try to get off Money?

With PG, OKC will be historically expensive. Sam Presti says ownership is willing to foot the bill- we shall see. OKC could try to either buy out or stretch Carmelo Anthony- that would open up money to re-sign Grant, who should be starting over Melo at this point. Stretching Melo would save the team $18 million next year, but require them to pay that money out over the next two seasons, meaning OKC would still be paying Anthony $9.3 million in 2020-21, hurting their future flexibility. A buyout would save them some money this year and still get his salary off the book at the end of 2018-19, but it depends how much Melo is willing to give up- not much, I would bet. If Ownership gives Presti the choice of stretching Melo and signing Grant or keeping Melo and letting Grant walk, he ought to bite the bullet and stretch Melo. If ownership is willing to pay for both, despite the massive luxury tax bill, that’s great. But it feels like they’ll draw the line at some point.

If PG leaves, OKC will still want to get off of money in order to have the space to comfortably re-sign Grant and use the Mid-Level Exception on another wing player. Stretching Kyle Singler feels pretty likely for the team regardless of PG staying or going; he’s due $5 million next year which the Thunder can turn into just $1 million a year over the next few seasons. That will give them an extra $4 million if PG is gone to round out the roster, or save them $10 million plus in luxury tax payments should PG stay. This summer should be the end of the Singler era.

If PG is gone the Thunder probably should just ride the year out with Melo- he brings scoring punch, even in his current state of decline, and the team will want to preserve future cap space to try and find a new third partner for Westbrook and Adams in 2019.

Who Rounds out the Roster?

The Thunder currently have 9 players under contract for next season. At least one of George or Grant figures to be back, brining the roster to 10. A full NBA roster features 15 players,plus two guys on two-way deals with the G-league. OKC’s had two players on two way contracts last season- PJ Dozier and Daniel Hamilton, and drafted 3 guys in the second round this year- Hamidou Diallo, Devin Hall, and Kevin Hervey. Some of those guys will end up on 2 way deals again, some will get full contracts and be on the opening night roster, and 1 or more might not find themselves with the organization anymore after training camp. Even the ones who make the full roster figured to be used sparingly. OKC will have 2 or 3 roster spots and be looking for players who can actually contribute to winning basketball.

The biggest needs are a backup point guard and a backup center. Ray Felton fulfilled the role of backup point admirably last season, and the Thunder would surely love to have him back if he takes another minimum contract. If not Felton, they could take a look at Shane Larkin, Ty Lawson, or Devin Harris- all guys who did well leading second units last season.

At Center, OKC needs a true 5 for the minutes Steven Adams rests- they relied on Patrick Patterson and Jerami Grant to fulfill that role last season, but both are more natural as 4’s. If OKC thinks Dakari Johnson is ready for that, they should roll with him- if not, with the market for big men looking very depressed, OKC should try and find a guy like Ed Davis or Kyle O’Quinn on the cheap.

There’s also help on the wing to consider. If PG leaves, OKC can try to use the Mid-Level exception to sign a wing, as I wrote here. With the lack of cap space around the league, some pretty solid players can be had for that price- Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Avery Bradley,and Trevor Ariza all figure to be somewhere in that price range. If George stays, OKC’s luxury tax status will prevent them from using the full MLE, and have to settle for the smaller Mini Mid-Level Exception of $5.4 million. They could use that money to take on a weaker veteran, or they could go for a riskier prospect, like Mario Hezonja. Hezonja flamed out pretty spectacularly in his time with the Orlando Magic, but improved somewhat in 2017-18.He’s a former lottery pick who oozed potential when he first came over from Europe. He hasn’t done anything to realize that potential yet, but the Magic aren’t exactly the best situation for a young player to develop in. If Presti still believes in his potential, taking a gamble on Hezonja would be the kind of low risk, high reward move that OKC will need to find extra talent around their roster. But of course, they’ll probably need to clear salary elsewhere for ownership to sign off on dipping into the luxury tax for a reclamation project.