Over the last year or so, there has been a crystallisation of classes within the NBA’s ecosystem. There are teams such as the Rockets, Thunder and Magic who are rebuilding for a competitive window in the future. There are teams such as the Lakers, Bucks and Nets who are desperately trying to win now.
The middle class is arguably the most difficult to define; there are some teams trying to catapult into that contending teams and some teams working out where they stand. The Portland Trailblazers are possibly the best example of a team in this class.
Portland have one of the best point guards in the sport and a decent supporting cast around Damian Lillard. However, the Blazers have not been able to make it to the NBA Finals over the course of the last five years and it is entirely possible that the Blazers have missed their window.
Free agency can be a magical time for an NBA team. It is an opportunity to add players to a team who can feasibly aid the team’s goal of winning a championship. There is very little opportunity cost attached to free agency signings; cap space is the only resource sacrificed.
Next year's free agency will be quiet compared to previous years. Kyrie Irving and James Harden are expected to re-sign with the Brooklyn Nets. Kawhi Leonard signed an extension as has Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant.
2022 was expected to be a star laden class that would again change the landscape of the NBA. At this moment in time, Bradley Beal is the best player who can hit the market as an unrestricted free agent.
Zach LaVine can hit free agency in 2022 but I struggle to see him leaving Chicago now they have added DeMar DeRozan, Nikola Vucevic and Lonzo Ball. It is clear that Billy’s Bulls are trying to win now.
There are other interesting restricted free agent options available but signing restricted free agents can be difficult to negotiate. The Collective Bargaining Agreement outlines that the player’s original team can match any offer sheet.
Free agency will not be easy next year for any teams who are planning on making material improvements to their squad. The only method of talent acquisition available to them would be trade.
I would argue that the Thunder are well positioned to make moves in this current market. Oklahoma City has liquid assets that can be used to sweeten the pot and the Thunder also have productive, experienced veterans that might be appealing for the right team.
Derrick Favors will provide strong interior defense and efficient inside scoring for any team that acquires him. I am aware that Favors had a torrid series against the Clippers but those issues arose due to the Jazz defending the point of attack pretty poorly. He is not the same player that he was three years ago but Favors is a fine backup center.
The likes of Favors, Williams and Roby are interesting enough assets that a team with designs on improving their playoff performance may choose to take a swing. In those situations, the Thunder can add talent to their roster that makes sense for the long-term.
The James Harden trade is the perfect example of a team using their cap space to acquire that sort of player. The Harden trade was complex for the fact that the Nets did not have exactly what the Rockets wanted. Brooklyn had the picks to swing the deal but they did not necessarily have an All-Star talent who Houston could build around.
To get a player like Victor Oladipo to Houston, the deal ended up involving four different teams and I would argue that the teams on the margin achieved the strongest returns. The Cleveland Cavaliers got Jarrett Allen for the cap relief that they would provide when acquiring Prince.
Indiana played their hand adeptly as they dealt the injury-prone Oladipo for Caris LeVert, a scoring forward who could complement Domantas Sabonis and Malcolm Brogdon. Indiana only had to send a second round pick to Houston to sweeten the deal.
When someone like Lillard eventually hits the market, money will have to be re-directed to a team with plenty of cap space. There will also be a requirement for picks as these liquid assets are easily transferrable and allow a team to select a young player on a cost-controlled contract in the Draft.
The weakness of free agency next summer means that the trade market has only grown stronger. These conditions mean the Thunder, a team with an abundance of picks, veterans and interesting young players are well-placed to make moves within the market. There is no other team that can facilitate a trade quite like the Thunder can.