The NBA’s Western Conference hasn’t felt this wide open in years.
It’s not an unexpected development, though it isn’t unfolding quite as many expected.
The juggernaut Golden State Warriors will be without Kevin Durant next season, one way or another. Even if he remains in The Bay and rehabs his torn Achilles tendon on the Warriors’ dime, he may not return to the floor until late in the season. And in an unknown condition.
Paired with an unfortunate ACL tear suffered by Klay Thompson, the two injuries make the NBA feel a lot less inevitable. Further payroll and luxury tax complications could further force Golden State to reinvent itself over the next few seasons. A rough low-end estimate by ESPN’s Bobby Marks projects a potential total cost of over $1.6 billion to keep the team intact for another four years.
It’s enough to force other Western teams into action, scrambling to take advantage of a window of opportunity. The Lakers are first on the board, forking over treasure chest full of assets to acquire Pelicans star Anthony Davis – on a date to be determined. The Utah Jazz followed suit, engineering a trade for guard Mike Conley.
Will the Thunder get in on the action as well? How the team looks by this time next month will be revealing.
Thursday night’s NBA Draft is always a prime time for player movement. Historically, this has been an active time for Sam Presti. His first NBA Draft – as GM of the then-Seattle Supersonics – kicked off Phase 1 of the Thunder era, including a trade of star guard Ray Allen for the pick that became Jeff Green. Years later, a major trade sent Serge Ibaka to Orlando for a package that may have saved the franchise from sinking after Durant’s departure from OKC.
Not all of his draft day trades have been major renovations. Minor swaps have moved picks around, or have forced him to move up a few spots to get his preferred target.
While nobody outside the air-tight confines of Thunder HQ knows exactly what the next step is, it feels like movement could happen soon. Maybe not as significant as a blockbuster, but perhaps something more than sliding up or down a few spots.
It’s been reported that OKC may try to package the pick to unload salary. If true, there are ways to do this and improve the team in the same move. For example, Presti once traded the $8.4 million salary of Ersan Ilyasova and a conditional first round pick for Jerami Grant and his sub-$1 million contract. Just last summer, the $28 million salary of Carmelo Anthony was packaged with a future pick in order to acquire Dennis Schroder and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, a savings that created a trade exception of $10.8 million.
Keeping the pick is an option as well. After all, there is great value in getting production from players on rookie scale contracts. This is doubly more important for teams paying luxury tax money, as the Thunder are on track to do again next season. But if the Thunder are indeed in “win now” mode, as ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski stated in a recent show, how likely is it to find a player in this draft than can contribute now?
Given the desire of others teams to shake up rosters, perhaps Oklahoma City can find a deal that both improves the team and tidies up the books.
When July 1 arrives, the Thunder will gain a mid-level exception worth approximately $5.7 million. It’s the same exception that landed Patrick Patterson two summers ago. The exception was used last summer to sign Hamidou Diallo and, eventually, Deonte Burton to 3-year contracts.
This summer, it may be needed to snag another veteran.
The free agent market is wild and unpredictable. In 2017, the Thunder famously courted Rudy Gay with its mid-level money. Gay eventually landed a better deal with the Spurs – the non-taxpayer mid-level exception which the Thunder could not offer – and OKC shifted to Patterson. Last summer the Thunder reportedly targeted Tyreke Evans, now banned from the NBA, before he too landed a richer deal that Oklahoma City couldn’t match.
There will be no shortage of players on OKC’s wishlist this summer. Getting a player signed using the available tools is another challenge altogether. One might reason that $5.7 million is a good deal for Wes Matthews, for example, but it only takes one team with a better salary cap tool to upend that idea. Matthews was on the Thunder’s radar after he was waived by the Knicks last season.
Still, if the Thunder can loosen up the books, that might open up the possibility of bolstering the roster with a veteran using that salary cap exception.
The Trade Exception
As a result of trading Anthony to the Hawks, the Thunder created a trade exception worth just over $10.8 million. The exception cannot be combined with a player as part of a larger trade. But it can be used to absorb the salary of a player without a need to send out matching or near-matching salary.
The exception expires on July 25. Historically among every team, a majority of trade exceptions go unused. It’s a handy tool to have, but usually requires a unique situation in order to use. After all, how many teams are willing to give up useful players making that kind of money for next-to-nothing?
Challenging Work Ahead
Heading into the draft, OKC is committed to $142 million in salary for 2019-20. That’s for eight active players and a small dead cap hold for Kyle Singler. Center Nerlens Noel holds a $2 million player option that he’s likely to decline. Three players – Abdel Nader, Hamidou Diallo, and Deonte Burton – have non-guaranteed contracts that could tack on up to $4.5 million more. All told, the Thunder head into the draft facing nearly $200 million in salary and tax commitments by the end of the 2020 season.
That’s a very fluid number, but it also illustrates why OKC may want to shuffle the deck. Take some of that commitment and swap it out for different – and perhaps more useful – rotation players. It’s why fans may continue to hear about scenarios involving just about every non-All-NBA player on the team.
In the end, it shapes up as a climate ripe for the Thunder to strike as it re-designs itself in 2019.