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The Thunder and bad contracts: acquisition of unwanted deals could benefit the Thunder

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Oklahoma City can improve the team’s assets by taking on extra money

Oklahoma City Thunder v Houston Rockets - Game Seven Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Oklahoma City will be a rebuilding team for the next few years. The aim of the rebuild is to replenish the roster with talent and load up on draft capital. Presti started the rebuild effectively; Sam has managed to get an excellent return on assets during the roster teardown.

The easy stage of the rebuild has been completed; a complete teardown involving good, valuable players will always provide a good return if the General Manager is competent. The next stage of the rebuild is much more difficult as there is no path to follow; there is the only the aim of asset acquisition.

The Philadelphia 76ers are synonymous with the idea of a transactional approach in which the only aim of the front office is to farm assets. However, I would argue that the 76ers approach was somewhat flawed. The ‘Process’ did not have a defined, easily understood end goal. To this day, it could be argued that ‘The Process’ is still ongoing.

In the early 2010s, in the years post-LeBron, the Cavs’ front office focused on finding pieces that could help the roster in the long-term. Chris Grant, the Cavs’ GM, obviously tried to put pieces around Kyrie Irving but he also had another aim in mind. Grant believed that there was an opportunity to bring James back to Cleveland in 2014.

It was a small window but James is one of the greatest players to ever play the game; Grant pursued ways to make the Cavs’ an appealing landing spot that had plenty of flexibility to build a roster that could win a ring.

Over the course of his tenure, Chris Grant acquired six first round picks and five seconds. Those picks were incredibly valuable to his successor, David Griffin. Griffin was able to use the assets to bring in Kevin Love, Timofey Mozgov and JR Smith. All three players went on to be core components of the Cavaliers’ team that won the NBA Championship in 2016.

The key difference between the Grant and Hinkie approach is that Grant’s approach had an end goal in mind, it was not an endless process. Sam Presti has to be aware enough to understand that he will not use all of these picks to make draft selections. This arsenal of picks will be used to get a star player in two or three years down the line.

Bad contracts are a way of getting draft picks or young players that could help the Thunder down the line. The Thunder being able to absorb these contracts is a service to teams who are constricted financially by the salary cap. This service warrants a return in the form of assets.

Oklahoma City are primed to take on bad contracts. The Thunder have four traded player exceptions; the largest of these exceptions is the Adams’ exception. This exception was created in the trade with the Pelicans and it is worth $27.5m. Oklahoma City can use the exception to absorb salaries.

There are fewer bad contracts in the NBA at this moment in time than there were in previous years. The cap spike of 2016 led to a plethora of bad contracts for players such as Gorgui Dieng, Luol Deng and Bismack Biyombo. However, the last few remaining contracts from the cap spike are now expiring deals. These contracts can no longer be considered to be ‘bad’.

From my research, I have identified five bad contracts that the Thunder could absorb fairly easily without any financial penalties. There would be no risk of the Thunder running into the luxury tax.

Terry Rozier:

Charlotte Hornets v Atlanta Hawks Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

Terry Rozier went to Charlotte as part of the Kemba Walker sign and trade last season. Rozier started at point guard for the Celtics during the 2018 Playoffs due to knee surgery for Kyrie Irving.

The next season was much more difficult for Rozier; the return of Hayward meant that he had less freedom in the offense. He had less touches and his play slipped in a restricted role. Rozier had a down year before he was traded to Charlotte.

The contract he signed with the Hornets made my jaw hit the floor. Terry Rozier signed a deal worth $56.7m over the course of three years. It was a huge contract for a player who had not shot above 40% on field goal attempts in any season before he signed with the Hornets. Rozier was overpaid before he even played a minute for Michael Jordan’s franchise.

Moreover, the Hornets have a glut of ball-handlers. Last season, Devonte Graham and Terry Rozier shared the playmaking duties. In this offseason, Charlotte added LaMelo Ball and Gordon Hayward to their roster. Ball is best with the ball in his hands and Hayward is too effective on ball to play in a pure off-ball role.

Rozier will have a reduced role on the Hornets next season and he will be paid $18.9m to do so. It is a contract that simply does not match the on court contributions made by Rozier. Rozier will be a fine reserve guard for the Hornets next season but it is a total misallocation of resources at a time where other areas of the roster need addressing.

The Hayward signing has made it clear that Charlotte are pushing for the playoffs. They will need the financial flexibility to trade for players who can make that target a reality. The bench unit is fairly thin in terms of talent; one or two trades could shore up the reserves. A Rozier trade creates that flexibility for the Hornets.

The Thunder could use the exception acquired in the Gallinari sign and trade to make this deal work. Gallinari’s trade to the Hawks generated an exception worth $19.5m for the Thunder to use. Rozier’s salary would slot nicely into this exception.

Charlotte would have to attach an asset to make this deal worthwhile for the Thunder; a 2023 lottery protected first round pick would be a suitable sweetener. I would argue that this is a fairly reasonable cost for Charlotte to pay and a solid return for the Thunder.

Dwight Powell:

LA Clippers v Dallas Mavericks - Game Six Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Dwight Powell has started for the Dallas Mavericks over the last few seasons. Powell formed a good chemistry with Luka Doncic and was an important driver of the team’s offensive efficiency. Powell was a very good finisher in pick and roll situations for the Mavericks.

However, the Mavericks are at a crossroads to some extent. The emergence of Luka Doncic as a top ten player in the NBA and the astute move made by Donnie Nelson to acquire Kristaps Porzingis has made Dallas into a contending team. Every single dollar now counts for the Mavericks, there can be no excess if Dallas wants to win a championship.

The center position is one where the Mavericks have committed a lot of resources. At this moment in time, Willie Cauley Stein, Maxi Kleber, Boban Marjanovic and Dwight Powell are all employed by the Mavericks. That is four players who can play at the center spot.

In addition to the abundance of centers, Kristaps Porzingis is a player who many believe would excel at the five. Kristaps at center would mean that Dallas would have an unguardable pick and roll action involving Luka and Porzingis.

Dwight Powell could be a player that Dallas looks to move on during the next season or so. It is a loaded position for Dallas and Powell has the largest contract out of all the players who can play this position, It would make sense to move Powell and try to work out a way to get more shooting around Luka Doncic.

Dwight Powell has three years on his contract and the total guaranteed money owed to Powell stands at $33m. That is a large financial commitment for the Mavericks especially when you consider that they are highly interested in pursuing Giannis Antetokounmpo in 2021. The Mavericks will need every slither of cap to have a chance at signing the Greek.

Mason Plumlee:

Denver Nuggets v Los Angeles Lakers - Game Five Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

Mason Plumlee was one of the more puzzling moves in free agency. Detroit signed Plumlee to a three year contract that was worth $24m. Plumlee is a fine backup center but it was an over-pay for a player who many expected to get a deal close to the veteran minimum.

Buyer’s remorse is a real thing in the NBA. We have seen teams sign players in free agency and then these players are dealt only a few months later. A good recent example of buyer’s remorse would be the George Hill signing by the Sacramento Kings in 2017. Hill signed a big deal with the Kings but left after just three months.

Plumlee’s contract is prime for buyer’s remorse. It is a lot of money committed to a player who is at best a backup center. There were better reserve bigs such as Nerlens Noel, Aron Baynes and Marc Gasol who all signed with teams on smaller deals.

The signing of Plumlee was nonsensical and it will stunt youth development for the Pistons. Sekou Doumbouya and Isaiah Stewart are both young players who project to be centers in the NBA. The path to regular rotation minutes for either player is crowded by Mason Plumlee and Jahlil Okafor.

Detroit are in a similar sort of phase to the Thunder right now. Troy Weaver has to develop young talent in the hope that the Pistons find a star who can built around. Player development can be difficult if minutes are scarce.

The Thunder could take on Plumlee without significant effect to the roster or the cap. Plumlee’s contract would mean that the Thunder takes on long-term financial obligations but this is not a big issue. The Thunder will not be good for a few years, there is very little cost in having a contract like Plumlee on the books.

In addition to this, the Thunder could do with a backup center. Mike Muscala currently occupies this role but I would argue that Mike’s role on the Thunder last season fit him really well. Plumlee could occupy the reserve big role without much fuss; Mason was certainly effective in this role for Denver last season.

Eric Gordon:

Los Angeles Lakers v Houston Rockets - Game Four Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

In the last month or so, we have seen the Rockets rocked by turmoil. Russell Westbrook was traded to the Washington Wizards. James Harden has reportedly asked for a trade. The departure of Daryl Morey and Mike D’Antoni has meant that the coaching staff and front office are wholly new for the Houston Rockets.

The Rockets are no longer the contending side that they have been for the last three years. I struggle to see Houston being competitive with all of the turmoil that currently afflicts the franchise. There is little point in paying for an expensive, old roster if this roster is not capable of winning a title.

Eric Gordon is arguably the worst contract on the Rockets. Gordon will be paid $54.5m in guaranteed money over the next three years. This is a sizeable sum for a player who seemed to drop off production wise last season. When Houston eventually tears it down, Eric Gordon would be a contract that the Thunder can acquire in return for an asset.

Houston have already traded away a lot of assets to the Thunder as part of the Russell Westbrook. It will be difficult to get another pick out of the Rockets as the Stepien rule stops a team from trading away picks in consecutive years. Houston can trade away their picks after 2027 but I do not think that the Rockets will want to trade away nearly all first round picks for an entire decade.

A deal surrounding the protections on the pick and pick swaps that the Thunder already own makes a lot of sense. The 2024 and 2026 pick traded to the Thunder are top-four protected; it would not be unreasonable for the Thunder to ask for all protections to be removed from these picks in the event of an Eric Gordon trade.

Harrison Barnes:

Sacramento Kings v Portland Trail Blazers Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

The Sacramento Kings have made a few blunders in free agency over the last five years. Trevor Ariza, DeWayne Dedmon and George Hill were puzzling signings by Vlade Divac. These players were win-now veterans added to a team at a time when these additions made little sense within the Kings’ development cycle.

Harrison Barnes was another strange contact presided over by the Divac regime. Barnes is clearly overpaid and he does not really make sense on this version of the Kings. Sacramento should be looking to surround De’Aaron Fox with shooting and competent bigs; a scoring forward in the mould of Barnes is an inefficient use of cap for Sacramento.

Barnes’ contract does not make for good reading; Harrison is currently being paid $22.2m in the current year and will be paid $60.7m in guaranteed money over the next three years. His contract is structured so that his annual salary over the deal’s duration. Despite this contract quirk, it is a hefty deal that the Kings may want to move on.

2021 will be a summer of huge player movement; a lot of players will hit free agency and will have the ability to determine where they want to sign. It would be in the Kings’ interest to free up cap space so that they can acquire players who fit well around Fox. The easiest way to free up cap would be to move Barnes.

Oklahoma City are well placed to absorb Barnes’ contract. The exception created in the Steven Adams’ trade could be used to take on this deal with little financial impact. Oklahoma City would end up over the cap but the total payroll would be below the luxury tax line. There would be no penalties incurred by the acquisition of Barnes.

The Thunder are going to be in a rebuilding stage and it will be important to make use of the assets that are available to the Thunder. Cap space and cap relief is a way for the Thunder to add assets to the cupboard.