A Mini-Primer on Thunder Trade Rumors

Posted on Wed 20 June 2012 in Uncategorized by Aaron McGuire

You'd think -- after a game like last night -- I'd be raring to write a piece on Westbrook's enigma of a night. It was marvelous. Twenty field goals for Westbrook -- to put that in context, he made as many baskets as every other player on the Thunder combined. His distribution was crisp, for him. His defense was fine. His thirst was tangible. And then -- on the cusp of defeat, with a 95% probability of a loss -- he extinguishes the last of that 5% with a somewhat silly foul, one that erases the entire rest of his game. In some ways, I agree with Danny Chau's likening of Westbrook's classic to Rondo's incredible game two performance in this year's ECF. In others, I don't -- I actually don't think Rondo's was on the same level as Westbrook's, and the level of cosmic unfairness that permeates the current "well, he gave the game away" talk is vastly above anything Rondo has ever faced.

I'm not, though. These finals are still a sore subject, especially as a fan who feels the Spurs would both match up better with the Heat. I put many of my season-long impressions of the Thunder on hold after the conference finals. I thought they needed quite a bit more in the way of "unsustainable" developments to beat the Spurs than people tend to admit, I still think they absolutely lack a good organizational presence in their coach, and I firmly believe they desperately need a better playbook. After the Western Conference Finals, I thought they'd figured those out -- I put my negativity on hold. Of course, now, all of that stormed back to loom full-form over the proceedings. I still do think they can come back, but my lord -- 3-1 is a tough deficit in the Finals, and winning three straight against this Heat team is going to be a hell of a task. But. Alas. So, instead of writing a full-fledged piece about Westbrook, or Durant, or LeBron? I'll write a piece about possible transactions. The why, the what, the how -- a mini-primer of sorts on two of the popular Thunder trade rumors that have been floating about. Continue the jump.

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The big starting question: the team just won the west, as one of the youngest Finals teams ever. Why would they trade at all?

This answer is on it's face simple, but probably deserves some numbers. So let's table up.

A lot to unpack here, so I'll start with Westbrook. The exact terms of Westbrook's extension haven't been announced -- I guesstimated the terms here, based on the released final number of $80,000,000 over five years. For Harden's extension, I went a bit smaller, guessing that he'd recieve a contract worth about $75,000,000 over five years. I've included four key sections at the bottom -- the total OKC salary they're on the book for if they don't extend Harden and let him walk, the total amount if they extend him for my assumed contract and don't amnesty Perkins, and the picture if they extend Harden but dump Perk (and Ibaka, and Maynor), and finally, what happens if they dump Perk but resign everyone. I also did include qualifying offers in the totals when they existed, because I didn't think it was fair to assume new contracts for all of them.

But I digress. Next season is a really big year for the Thunder. It's the last guaranteed year on the contracts of Serge Ibaka, Eric Maynor, and James Harden. Assuming James Harden gets a market-value contact (and as one of the three best shooting guards in the league, trust me, he will get a market-value contract) this puts the Thunder in a legitimately awful position. Even if you assume that Maynor resigns for a bargain deal at $4-5 million a year (not a totally fair assumption, as he's way better than most people are remembering), Ibaka is going to command at least a $7-10 million dollar contract on the open market, if not more. Which starts to get you into "impossible salary situation" territory.

Don't believe me? Look at the table. Even if they amnesty Perkins and let Cole Aldrich become their starting center, if you add a $10,000,000 salary for Ibaka to their total in 2014, they'll be well over the 2012 Luxury Tax line. And that's with a roster consisting of just ten players. The situation gets worse in 2015, where they'd -- even without Perkins -- be almost $10 million over the 2012 tax line if you add in a $15 million dollar salary for Ibaka/Maynor combined. That total, worse still, would spread across just seven players -- with no extension for Thabo, Collison, or Cook allotted for. And even worse, they'd be locked in to a very hefty repeater tax starting in 2016 -- again, with less than half a full roster.

People talk about the OKC salary situation in a rather flip manner, but they shouldn't. There's no owner in the NBA -- Bennett included -- who can reliably pay the onerous repeater tax as a general rule going forward. It's a very effective dissuasion tool to keep teams from hoarding talent. The Thunder can't -- realistically -- stick with their core long term without letting some pieces go. It's just not possible. And even if it was, the complete and utter lack of flexibility Presti would have to improve the roster is not sustainable as a model for keeping a contender fresh -- especially not when you have a GM as creative and excellent at value trades as Presti is. So, when I started hearing rumors that the Thunder were looking to do some big moves -- even as they played in the finals -- I wasn't surprised. It's simply another extension of Presti being such an excellent manager. He knows this is a problem, he sees it, and he's trying to think of ways to stave it off at the pass and maintain a strong roster around their beacon. Risky? Perhaps. Necessary? Indubitably.

So, I'll discuss two of the oft-mentioned trade ideas: Westbrook for Rondo, and Harden for picks.

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Trading Russell Westbrook for Rajon Rondo

Let's go over one thing that never get mentioned, before we discuss the idea. This trade -- as the mental exercise is presented -- is literally impossible. Not "needs some adjustment" -- impossible. Westbrook recently signed a max extension whose exact terms won't be known until next season, but we can make a few guesses. He'll be paid somewhere in the range of 14-16 million in 2013. In that year, Rondo will make 11 million dollars. Due to trade rules, the only way that Boston could put together matching salary (and both are luxury teams, so they do need to match) would be to add JaJuan Johnson AND Avery Bradley or Greg Stiemsma to the trade. That's a markedly different trade than a simple swap, and changes the complexion of the argument.

Still, if a straight swap was possible, I'm going to go a bit against the grain. I actually think a straight swap -- Russell for Rondo -- would be a relatively awful move for Oklahoma City to make. First off, there's the finances. Rondo makes less than Westbrook, but it's about three million a year. That's really not enough of a gap to matter when you're almost $15 million over the cap. And if the Thunder had to take back tertiary pieces, as they would, the financial impact is nil. If the main reason you'd want to make a trade is to free up space and gain more flexibility, it makes absolutely no sense to deal with other contenders. You have to take back salary if you do that. You simply can't straight drop salary. And in that sense, the Thunder with Rondo instead of Westbrook solve absolutely none of the problems outlined above. They'll still have to drop two of Ibaka, Maynor, and Harden if they want to be an affordable team.

Most importantly, though, is the matter of fit. People get on Westbrook's case all the time because he "doesn't distribute" effectively. I've got to challenge this. Westbrook's problem isn't necessarily that he distributes poorly. He isn't phenomenal, but he's still among the best at getting the ball to guys who get open, and according to one liberal definition of hockey assists, he's actually the best at the league in personally setting up plays that result in scores. He has a lot of flaws as a passer, that's true. He can't pass while stationary. He can't magically get the ball through two or three defenders -- he's no Manu, or Nash, or Rondo. However, I'd challenge that in Westbrook's place, virtually nobody in the league could average more than 6 or 7 assists per game. Why, you might ask? Simple. The Thunder -- to a man -- are absolutely terrible at getting open. Atrocious at it. Watch their off-ball movement. Stagnant, aimless, very little institutional knowledge of where they need to be to collect the pass. People blame Westbrook for not getting Durant the ball, and yes, Westbrook occasionally misses an opportunity or two. But so does everyone. The difference -- and the reason Westbrook's assists are so low and his passes so rare -- is that the Thunder simply don't have plays that get guys properly open. Westbrook drives the defense and forces it to react, then hopes that in the reaction they leave some passing angle open. If not? He shoots it.

If Rondo was in Westbrook's position, you suddenly lose the stopgap "chuck the ball up and hope it goes in" plays that Oklahoma City's offense depends on. And don't underrate it -- the Thunder were essentially in a tie for the best offense in the league this year. Boston was the 27th best team in the league in offensive rating, tied with #25 and #26. Worse than the dysfunctional Nets, Kings, and Bucks. Boston is a fantastic defense, but point guard is the least important position on the court, defensively. Can we really expect OKC's defense to improve enough with a Rondo-Westbrook swap to offset the removal of their guaranteed 2nd option on every possession? Can we expect OKC's supporting cast to suddenly learn how to get open if Westbrook leaves the team? I like Rondo. He's a unique enigma of a player that would make almost any team in the league a bit better. The Thunder, though? Don't see it. And the difference in salary simply isn't worth it.

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Trading James Harden for picks (#2 + Henderson from CHA, or #4 + #24 + #33 from CLE)

This, on the other hand? Would be smart from the Thunder's perspective, I think.

Let's not beat around the bush. Yes, this is a short-term downgrade. In 2013, the Thunder would be worse -- under this scenario, they're essentially giving up their all-star caliber third man for a completely unproven high lottery pick and (in the Charlotte case) an underrated defensive bench guy or (in the Cleveland case) several low lottery picks. On the other hand, though, it would instantly clean up their books going forward -- it would allow them to not only keep Maynor and Ibaka, but probably keep Collison and Sefalosha as well. Add the Perkins amnesty, and it's possible they could be a player for some free agents in the summer of 2013, if they decide to let Ibaka walk. The move would adds a huge x-factor to the Thunder's core. It has the potential to take what looks like a highly expensive, CBA-ravaged contender and turn it into a perennial factor, on a relatively reasonable budget.

Who would they take? Good question. I've heard a lot of different ideas. Perhaps they'd take Bradley Beal, and simply slot Beal into Harden's spot and see if they can play the same role. They could go defense over offense and take Michael Kidd Gilchrist, developing him to play a Kawhi Leonard type role in their system going forward. They could go big and take Thomas Robinson, from Kansas, hoping that a Robinson-KD or a Robinson-Ibaka frontcourt can work defensively. They could also take one of the really big risks -- they could shoot for the moon with Andre Drummond, knowing that if he busts they've still got enough of a core to contend but if he doesn't they've essentially got an all-time great team. One of the nice things about this draft is that you can, if you're a team with pieces like the Thunder, talk yourself into almost any permutation as one that could theoretically work.

Again, it would be a risk. I like Harden to continue improving going forward, and I feel like this is a risky move. But is it really riskier than resigning Harden and becoming the 2nd incarnation of the Miami Heat, completely dependent on three players with no room for error on your supporting cast? I don't really think so. And that's why -- although it sounded silly when first announced -- I think this might be something Presti is actually considering. And when you say "why would he think about it now! THEY'RE IN THE FINALS!" I'd beg you to slow down -- the season's compression and the general lateness of everything means that the time between the finals and the draft is compressed as well. In fact, last year's finals game six happened a year and a week ago. If the finals go six or seven, the draft will occur less than a week after the last game of the finals. If you're a GM, you need time to put a deal like this together -- yes, he'd be thinking about it now. It's his job, you know?

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Sorry for the somewhat sparse content lately. Trust me when I say that starting in about two weeks, we will be making it up in spades -- we have a simply ridiculous amount of offseason content slated for publication. It's absurd. Watch out for that. Also: watch out for a piece tomorrow, either something from me on the moment where I stopped hating LeBron or something from Alex on... secrets. Stay frosty, friends.