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The Thunder’s next step, finding the center of the future

Oklahoma City must plan to address one of the weakest points of the roster

NBA: Los Angeles Lakers at Oklahoma City Thunder Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

The Thunder have no real long-term solutions at center at present. Oklahoma City have three centers on the roster and all of them factor in Sam Presti’s thinking in different ways. Mike Muscala, Derrick Favors and Jeremiah Robinson-Earl all have different roles and stories.

Mike Muscala is someone who I would expect the Thunder to keep around for the future. Muscala has emerged as a good veteran on a young roster and as a standard-bearer for the team’s culture.

Muscala expressed a desire to stay in Oklahoma City during his exit interview and chose to sign a new contract with the team in the offseason. Muscala opted to continue wearing Thunder Blue in an offseason where he could have been paid more by another team.

Good stretch-fives command a high price in today’s NBA, Muscala would have likely received stronger offers than the $3.5m he received from the Thunder. He will continue to be the Thunder’s backup center when the situation is correct. In odd way, I think it is likely that Muscala will end up being a Collison-like figure for this generation of the Thunder.

Jeremiah Robinson-Earl was taken in the 2021 NBA Draft and he is already shaping up to be a draft night steal. Robinson-Earl has impressed with his maturity and versatility. JRE can feasibly defend both forward spots, shoot the long ball and find the smart pass.

Robinson-Earl has carved out a starting spot for the Thunder through his consistency and feel for the game. Robinson-Earl is undersized for the position that he plays but he has been able to do relatively well by being decisive in his decision-making.

It is difficult to say where Robinson-Earl’s future lies with the Thunder. He can play as a 4 or a small-ball 5. I do have my concerns about whether he simply has enough size to start for a team with legitimate championship aspirations.

I am aware that Draymond Green played center for the Warriors for all three of their championships. However, Green at center was an option that was sparingly used by Steve Kerr. Kerr started centers like JaVale McGee, Zaza Pachulia and Andrew Bogut before defaulting to the Green at the 5 lineup when it mattered most.

He relied on big-bodied, physical centers to soak up regular season minutes and preserve Green’s health for the long run. It is incredibly difficult to play small ball all of the time. The Houston Rockets acutely understand those difficulties.

The Rockets traded away Clint Capela for Robert Covington and committed to a roster where they had very few players above 6’8. The decision was necessary and it did unlock the full force of Russell Westbrook’s play but it came at a cost. PJ Tucker was wore out by the time the postseason rolled around and the Rockets’ did not have the same sort of defensive solidity.

Starting JRE at center for 82 games of the season will fatigue him unnecessarily and hinder his growth as a player. There is no time for offseason work when a player has to manage ailments in the summer break.

Derrick Favors is not the solution either. Favors is a respectable backup center who can do a job for the Thunder but he will be somebody that Sam Presti looks to move on in the offseason or at the trade deadline.

The Thunder will be bad this season and should net a high draft pick in the 2022 NBA Draft. That pick could be invested at the 5 and Oklahoma City could add a long-term solution. There are three centers in the top-15 of most mock drafts who would fit the bill for the Thunder, Chet Holmgren, Jalen Duren and Yannick Nzosa. That being said, none of those are easy, quantifiable home runs.

Holmgren is a fantastic player but I do not know if he can play center full time in the NBA. Holmgren is skinny and will likely take a bruising against players like Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid and Steven Adams. I like him situationally playing the 5 like Anthony Davis does but for me, I think that Chet is more of a 4.

Duren is an exciting young player who the Thunder should probably look at drafting if they end up with the #5 or #6 pick. He would be exceptional value outside of the top-3 given his skillset and what he could bring to the Thunder.

Duren is an excellent rebounder and interior defender; those are two qualities that the Thunder badly need at the moment. All that being said, Oklahoma City are likely to land in the top-3 of the Draft and that pick requires more decision-making. At the top of the Draft, best player available should be the Thunder’s strategy. I cannot say that Duren is one of the best three players in this Draft.

Yannick Nzosa is a promising young player but he is incredibly raw and will need a long time to grow into being an effective contributor at the NBA level. I like him as a player and think he would be a strong rim protector but he is lacking on the offensive end of the floor.

Nzosa has these brief moments of real quality interspersed with unsteady production. Oklahoma City already have a prospect like that on the roster and I do not know if there is room for another long-term project whose future is difficult to determine.

The Thunder have to dream big and the right player will be coming onto the market in a year’s time. Deandre Ayton should be the Thunder’s No. 1 target and he will be more attainable than previously expected.

Ayton’s quality and importance to the Suns in their Finals run almost guaranteed him a maximum contract extension like his peers received. Jaren Jackson Jr, Trae Young and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander were all part of the 2018 Draft and have all received max contracts. Deandre Ayton is the only player out of that group to have started an NBA Finals but he was ignored by ownership.

Make no mistake, Robert Sarver is a cheap owner but he did splash the cash in the offseason. He re-signed Chris Paul and Mikal Bridges to large multi-year deals but Ayton did not receive the same treatment. He received an insulting, lowball offer and opted to hit restricted free agency.

The Thunder have money to burn and Ayton would be a long-term solution at center. History would also suggest that Robert Sarver is willing to do deals when it comes to young, restricted free agents.

16 years ago, the Suns walked exactly the same road with Joe Johnson. Johnson was acquired from the Celtics in 2002 and quickly established himself as a core component of Steve Nash’s orchestra. Johnson’s playmaking, scoring and length meant that he was the ultimate utility man on a team with legitimate championship aspirations. Sarver chose to lowball Johnson with a 6 year $60m contract.

That offer opened the first crack in Johnson’s relationship with Phoenix and he never looked back. He found himself a starring role and a lucrative deal in Atlanta and he signed the offer sheet. In restricted free agency, a team can opt to match the rival offer sheet and retain their player.

Phoenix could have done so with Johnson, a future All-Star, and kept together a core that was capable of winning a championship. Instead, Robert Sarver chose to trade Johnson to Atlanta for Boris Diaw and picks. He was more than willing to deal a young star.

Joe Johnson’s interactions with the Suns’ ownership as he approached restricted free agency are eerily similar to how DeAndre Ayton’s negotiations have played out. If Sarver acted the same way with Johnson 16 years ago and has not learned his lesson, there is cause to believe he will act the same way with Ayton.

For the Thunder, the price would not be cheap. Oklahoma City would have to deal away two picks at the very least, a quality role player and a young player with All-Star potential. On all three counts, the Thunder can satisfy those requirements. Oklahoma City could offer the Houston and Clippers picks, Kenrich Williams and whoever they select in the 2022 NBA Draft.

It is a steep price to pay but Ayton is one of the best centers in the league. DeAndre defends the interior very well while also having the speed and awareness to defend in the space. He is an efficient inside scorer who would bring vertical spacing to the Thunder’s offense; Giddey would be hitting double digit assists most nights.

Oklahoma City must take advantage of Ayton’s uncertainty in Phoenix and Sarver’s cheapness. Ayton will have plenty of teams queueing up to offer him a lot of money but the Thunder have all of the resources to make the deal happen while also boasting exciting young talent.

Sam Presti once said that ‘scared money don’t make none’ in regard to the Paul George trade. Oklahoma City took a swing on PG and a desirable outcome panned out. Nobody expected George to wear anything other than Laker Gold but he ended up in Thunder Blue. It is time to apply the same principles to the pursuit of Ayton.