The disastrous, career-altering injuries to Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant signaled not just the potential end of the Warriors dynasty, but the kick-off of perhaps the most wide open NBA in a decade.
Between the Warriors potential demise and the uncertain destiny of the current champions (Is Kawhi Leonard really going to leave Toronto after leading them to a championship? Who knows?) means there is no prohibitive favorite going into the 2019-20 season; nearly half the league can credibly tell themselves “This is our year”.
The consequences of that openness are already being felt, first in the Lakers massive trade for Anthony Davis, and then with the Utah Jazz acquiring Mike Conley from the Memphis Grizzlies, forming a dynamic backcourt with Donovan Mitchell to partner with Rudy Gobert. Conley is a huge upgrade on incumbent point guard Ricky Rubio. He is also 31, and the Jazz gave up two first round picks to get him. The Jazz are going for it right now.
The Oklahoma City Thunder are on paper ripe for such a move, with two perennial all-stars who are nearing the end of their primes.
The Thunder have two seasons - at best - left of the Russell Westbrook and Paul George title chasing window. The time to strike is now, but the Thunder have very limited avenues to improve. Big contracts for Steven Adams, Dennis Schroeder, Andre Roberson, and Jerami Grant - in addition to Westbrook and George - leave the team not just over the salary cap but well over the luxury tax line. The cost is high enough to create speculation that the team will try to reduce its salary obligations.
It’s hard to blame ownership for wanting to reduce their bill. Sam Presti is nothing if not creative; if any GM could swing a trade to improve his team’s roster and decrease their tax bill, it would be him.
Lo and Behold, such a trade could now be available after the Conley trade.
In addition to two first round picks, the Jazz also sent Grayson Allen, Kyle Korver and Jae Crowder to Memphis. Allen, only a year into the league, might be part of the Grizzlies future. But with Memphis entering a full rebuild, veterans Crowder and Korver may be out of place, and the Grizzlies may be willing to move them for the right price.
Crowder in particular represents just what OKC needs: another wing who can actually hit a 3 pointer and defend credibly, and who is capable of playing at the small forward and power forward positions.
Such players are naturally pretty expensive, but Crowder is entering the last year of a deal signed before the massive cap increase, and will be paid just over $7 Million next season. That low cap hold means OKC could send a player like Andre Roberson and perhaps another trinket to the Grizzlies for Crowder (to make the math work, OKC would need to take back a little extra salary in the form of someone like Javon Carter or Bruno Caboclo).
Crowder could help this Thunder team win now.
OKC is perilously thin on the wing. Terrance Ferguson was in essence their starting shooting guard and backup small forward by playoff time. A healthy Andre Roberson helps, but there’s a chance Roberson is never the same as he was before the injury that has now cost him a season and a half of his career. Even if he returns to form on defense, Roberson will do nothing to help OKC’s cramped offense.
Crowder is not a true sharpshooter. He’s a career 34% shooter from 3, which is only average league wide but would have made him the 5th best shooter on OKC last season. His offensive game is solid, and his identity as a grinding, hard nosed defender means he would fit right in on a Thunder team that will be leaning on it’s defense for a lot of it’s win.
Crowder is also versatile. He fills a position of need, able to play at the 3 while George rests and as the 4 alongside him in smaller, wing heavy lineups. The Thunder could have him usurp all of Patrick Patterson’s minutes at backup 4, play small forward when George rests, and start him at either forward spot in a pinch.
He could find his way into the closing lineup once certain nights when he matches up better at the 4 than Jerami Grant, or if the Thunder elect to go with lineups featuring Grant at center as they did against Portland in the playoffs. Crowder has proven to be the kind of player you want in the playoffs dating back to his days in Boston, and the Thunder are perilously towards low on such players.
Crowder has flaws, of course. He flourished more in ball movement heavy systems under Quin Snyder in Utah and Brad Stevens in Boston. On the other hand, he struggled during his tenure in Cleveland when he was expected to go long stretches without the ball and fire up 3 pointers when LeBron James passed him the ball. His role in OKC would probably be closer to the latter than the former.
While Crowder is a decent 3-point shooter and has increased his volume, he remains more similar to Grant or Ferguson - players who defenses will be content to leave open in the playoffs - than a Korver or JJ Reddick. Still, if Sam Presti needs to shed salary this offseason, he could do a lot worse than adding a proven playoff-caliber rotation wing in the process.
Crowder wouldn’t be a Mike Conley-level move, but the Thunder already have their superstars in Westbrook and George. Crowder is the kind of player to help keep those guys from being overloaded in the regular season and help them thrive in the postseason.