Thunder Trade Deadline Primer
1:37 PM EST on February 6, 2023
With the NBA trade deadline approaching rapidly, the Oklahoma City Thunder find themselves in a strange position.
Going into the final quarter of the season, it is more conceivable that the team could advance to a position in the standings where they have home-court advantage in the first round than falling to co-favorites for the Wembanyama lottery.
Now, comes a perilous time in the front office’s decision tree.
On the eve of training camp, Thunder General Manager Sam Presti gave a two-hour TED talk about long-term planning as it applies to NBA roster management that the Thunder described as “Media Availability.” In response to a question regarding his philosophy toward consolidating trade assets, Presti gave this response, off the cuff:
“I really believe the team declares itself…the team will show that through its competition. I heard this phrase a long time ago and it always stuck with me – friction polishes. When you run up against difficulty, it gives you ideas as to how to solve those problems. We haven’t run up against that yet because I don’t think the team, itself, has really declared who we’re going to be, ultimately. And I think we are definitely on the path to that, but I don’t think we can say and predict the needs of the team because we haven’t—we’re not a fully formed team. If you want to get an answer to that, the priorities have to be in the right areas first…it’s going to reveal itself, but we’re going to have to be consistent enough to demonstrate what the needs are and then we have to have alternatives that make sense to add.”
At the time, I interpreted this passage as a flowery way of tempering the expectations of us, as fans, to accept another season of being intentionally bad. Or, as Presti put it earlier in that press conference, “don’t fear outcomes.”
As the season has progressed, though, one starts to wonder if the team has declared itself to be a budding contender. Coming off a January in which the team went 9-5, they have a ton of momentum and a legitimate shot at making the playoffs.
The good run of form has been in spite of a rather glaring hole in the center of the defense.
Going into the season, Chet Holmgren was expected to be a rim-protecting big man that would make teams hesitant to take the ball to the basket. A lisfranc fracture, ended that. So, at the beginning of the season, Jeremiah Robinson-Earl took on the center role as a solid defender, but then a knee injury put him in street clothes for a yet-to-be-determined length of time.
Slenderman cos-player Aleksej Pokusevski was next in line to be the defensive lynchpin and he was surprisingly effective, until a non-displaced fracture in his shin forced him to the sideline. Now, the center position has been relegated to rookie second-rounder Jaylin Williams and shooting specialist Mike Muscala.
This is certainly a polishing friction for an extremely young team that finds itself in the mix for the final playoff spots in the strong Western Conference. Is that surprise place in the standing the declaration that Presti sought? Is the center weakness the priority that has presented itself? With February 9th being the last opportunity to make a significant change to the roster, are there alternatives that make sense to add?
DESIRE TO MAKE A MOVE
While the answer to all of those questions could be “yes,” there were some other pull quotes from that September talk that suggest otherwise.
- “We’re not trying to make it convenient because I think that’s going to limit our potential.”
- “A lot of progress that happens during an NBA year is not intentional. It’s random. And you have to be very observant…All of the evolution of the game isn’t a result of invention. So much of it is just discovery—things that happen…You can’t just say, ‘we are going to be creative,’ that doesn’t solve anything. You have to create circles of opportunity where things can happen.”
- “Set the conditions for discovery.”
- “You can’t get long-term results with short-term people.”
- “Our goal is just continuous improvement and not taking shortcuts that would lead to setbacks.”
Perhaps an argument could be made that experience from a playoff appearance—however short—would be invaluable to this roster (only five players have logged minutes in a playoff game, and only three did it playing for OKC in the bubble).
Even if Presti were persuaded by that, the criticality would have to overcome the potential disruption to the chemistry of the roster. With no empty roster spots, it is not as simple as renting a player for the remainder of the season in return for some extraneous draft pick capital. Someone would have to leave.
Just about everyone who has been active has made contributions to the success of the team, down to the Eugene Omuruyi and Lindy Waters III who are only on two-way contracts.
At the end of the first quarter of the team’s first nationally televised broadcast in two years, TNT’s Stan Van Gundy responded to a declaration that eleven players had already checked in for the Oklahoma City by saying, “they do that a lot. If you’re on this Thunder roster—you’re playing.”
Ironically, while this was being said, the camera was focused on Darius Bazley who sadly passed out high fives while still wearing his warmup pants and jacket. It was the fourth straight game he would not so much as visit the scorer’s table to check-in. It was part of a stretch of thirteen games that saw him see no action in nine. Many times, including that nationally televised Miami game, he was the only available player who did not play.
Coach Daigneault has been very complimentary of Bazley’s attitude during the run of DNPs, and more recently, the enigmatic power forward has played more regularly, though still sparingly. That said, the player is in the final year of his contract and his NBA career could depend on getting an opportunity to show his wares to the rest of the league.
By barely playing, the Thunder have certainly indicated they are no longer setting conditions for discovery with Bazley, or perhaps have decided he’s short-term people. Either way, trading him would not fall under the category of a shortcut.
Outside of Bazley, finding a player the team would not hate to see go is difficult. Tre Mann may be second on the list. Yet, while inconsistent, his outside shooting and isolation scoring ability are skills the team values. However, with a glut of players at his position, if the team wants to make a playoff push, the center shortage could make him a roster casualty in order to make a deal go through.
If the team is motivated enough, making a deal should be simple enough. They have at least fifteen tradeable first-round picks, which is more than they will ever want to actually use themselves, along with plenty of second-round picks to tack on as sweetener to a deal. What they lack, though, is salary cap space. While the salaries of their current roster are mostly low, they are paying a lot of players who no longer pay for the team to the point that they’re actually on the cusp of having to pay salary tax. That really limits what kind of deals they can make.
Considering those limitations, here are a few players the team could acquire:
James Wiseman, 7’0” Center, Golden State
The second overall pick in the 2020 NBA draft, Wiseman is still only 21 years old and has one more year left on his rookie contract. Of course, the third-year veteran has only played 58 career games. He missed a significant chunk of his rookie and sophomore years with injuries and just hasn’t fit into the Warriors system that is hampered by a traditional center.
Technically, the Thunder could absorb all of Wiseman’s contract into a trade exception created when they spun Derrick Favors off, but Golden State would want something that could help them now. The Warriors could be interested in Mann, whose style probably meshes better with Steve Kerr’s system, and the Thunder could include a first round pick to give Golden State’s front office some cover for cutting ties with a high lottery pick so quickly. Meanwhile, Sam Presti could also demand that they take Bazley if only to keep the Thunder beneath the luxury tax threshold.
In return, OKC would have a beefy big man that could make it easier for the defense and secure rebounds that the team has had trouble corralling. He could assist them in making a playoff push this season, and they can hold on to him until next season to see if he can stay healthy and co-exist with Chet Holmgren.
Mo Bamba, 6’10” Stretch Center, Orlando
Stories have recently leaked that the Magic is soliciting offers for a handful of their young players to free up minutes for their crowded rotation. Bamba is on the list after seeing his role reduced by the emergence of Bol Bol, a taller player with a similar skill set.
In OKC, Bamba could fit nicely with his 39% three-point percentage coupled with 2 blocks/36 minutes.
Finding a way to make a deal work will be the hard part. Bamba’s salary is just slightly too high to fit into the Favors exception. That means the Thunder have to put together at least $8.2MM in salaries to send the other way. The Bazley/Mann package is only $7.2MM.
Naz Reid, 6’9” Center, Minnesota
The Timberwolves are on the hook for $70MM/season for the next four years to the two people ahead of Reid in the depth chart, so the fact that Reid has been putting up a line of 20.8 points, 9.8 rebounds, and 1.9 blocks per 36 minutes means that re-signing him in the offseason will not be cost-effective.
Meanwhile, the Wolves sold the farm to get Rudy Gobert last offseason and are draft capital poor and lacking in depth everywhere that Reid does not play. They could actually be a good fit for Bazley, and if OKC throws in a lesser first rounder, a deal could probably be had.
Reid would shore up the middle for OKC short-term and the Thunder could look to sign-and-trade him next Summer if he’s a bad fit once Holmgren is back, or if they just need the roster spot for their 2023 draft pick.
Cam Reddish, 6’8” wing, New York
Reddish would not fit a “need” for the Thunder, but in the event the team were just seeking to find Bazley a landing spot, Reddish would be a good “kick-the-tires” kind of player. The former Hawks lottery pick is in a similar position as Bazley in that he needs to find a situation that allows him to showcase prior to free agency.
At 23 years old, Reddish has failed to prove he’s an NBA rotation player after high expectations being taken tenth by Atlanta. He’s a capable defender with the kind of length the OKC front office desires. For his career, he makes about 32% of three point shots, but his 88% free throw rate makes it likely he could develop outside the arc (perhaps if he had someone like Chip Engelland to work with). New York gave up a first-rounder to acquire him a year ago and now are seeking two second-rounders.
Even if a swap of Reddish for Bazley straight up (with draft capital from OKC and maybe some cash from New York to cover the salary difference) failed to make any impact on the team’s current performance, it still could be a worthwhile deal. The Thunder have cultivated a reputation for doing right by their players and Bazley has been a part of the program for nearly four years. Giving him a chance to prove himself as he head to the open market would fit that narrative.
What should we expect?
In the end, I do not think the Thunder do more than find a new landing place for Bazley at the deadline, ideally to someone who can absorb his contract without needing to send back another player. While the team has declared itself as a playoff contender, the time just does not seem right to make a significant roster move. Presti will probably want to give this current roster the circle of opportunity to sink or swim this season rather than taking a short cut to make it happen now.
In the Summer, Holmgren will return from injury, and they will add the 2023 draft pick to next year's roster. At that point, they will see what the team's long-term needs are.
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