Cost-Effective Moves the OKC Thunder Can Make in Free Agency
Though the Oklahoma City Thunder have the cornerstones of their organization locked in with long-term contracts, this also creates little to no wiggle room to make big splashes in the free-agent field.
Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka are all signed through at least the 2015-16 season (plus an additional year for the latter two). In total, these three will account for roughly $44.7 million of the Thunder's total payroll of $67.7 million next season (not including free-agent signings or draft pick salaries).
Obviously, these guys are earning their salaries, but it isn't always too easy to surround the core with talent without a whole lot of money available for spending.
As it stands, Oklahoma City has 12 players under contract, but three of those deals (Hasheem Thabeet, Daniel Orton and DeAndre Liggins) are all non-guaranteed for the upcoming season. Therefore, for the sake of roster space with possible incoming talent via draft or free agency, these three may be waived based on the discretion of general manager Sam Presti.
Even though the budget is a little tight, the Thunder still have at least some room to try and make a move on a free-agent target. The question here isn't just who would the Thunder target, but also, who could the Thunder afford?
One of the most realistic scenarios for OKC is to re-sign their veteran sixth man, Kevin Martin. As one of the main pieces in the James Harden trade with Houston, Martin filled a role similar to that of Harden's and was more than competent in doing so. His averages of 14 points and 2.1 three-pointers made per game gave Oklahoma City a scoring boost and limited the damage of replacing an important player.
Martin's nine years of NBA service entitles him to a veteran's minimum of about $1.27 million for any contract he signs in free agency. The Thunder would love to sign him to a multi-year deal at that amount, but Martin will and should demand more.
While his last contract was signed back in 2007 with the Rockets for five years, $53 million, Martin is now 30 years old and won't be fielding offers anywhere in that neighborhood. Fortunately for the Thunder, and their somewhat limited cap space flexibility, Kevin Martin does possess the all-important Bird rights.
Basically, this means that a team can bend the rules and exceed cap room restrictions to re-sign one of their own players. This only furthers the sensibility of OKC bringing back Martin, since they wouldn't have to clear too many hurdles or shuffle too many guys around to do so.
However, there is still the interesting thought of saving some of that money and using the mid-level exception to sign another player, instead.
The mid-level exception is available to teams once a year in free agency where they have a varying amount of money to spend, depending on whether or not they have cap room or if they were forced to pay the luxury tax. In the Thunder's case, they are over the salary cap, but not to the point of having to pay luxury tax. Therefore, they will have $5 million to spend for a duration of four years.
So as you can see, even with the mid-level exception, OKC isn't exactly able to dangle too much cash for any given free agent. Even so, the tantalizing opportunity to compete for an NBA title can often outweigh financial gain for players in the free-agent pool.
Some interesting (but maybe not plausible) players who could be a replacement for Martin include: Monta Ellis, J.J. Redick, O.J. Mayo, Nick Young and J.R. Smith. Of these possibilities, Ellis, Smith and Mayo would command the most money due to their youth and proven ability to post scoring averages near the 20-point mark.
Unless Presti can effectively negotiate those guys into taking less money for a chance at a championship, the Thunder would be left with the options of Redick or Young.
Redick was recently dealt at the trade deadline this past season and will be an unrestricted free agent on July 1. Though it's taken a while, Redick has blossomed as of late and averaged a career-high 15.1 points per game between his stints in Orlando and Milwaukee last season.
Additionally, Redick brings similar qualities to the table compared to Kevin Martin, such as perimeter shooting, high free-throw percentages and about the same (if not better) rebounding and passing abilities.
Not only that, but Redick may also come a bit cheaper for the Thunder, since the thought of playing with an elite contender has eluded him since Dwight Howard's departure from Orlando.
As for Young, he's a bit more inefficient than Redick or Martin but is an equally potent scorer. Young hasn't found a place to stick since he's been traded from the Washington Wizards a couple seasons ago, but he too may be interested in playing with a high-caliber team such as the Thunder.
This is especially because Young will be up against some talented, younger players at his position in free agency, so he wouldn't be fielding a whole lot of lucrative offers. The mid-level exception could be used on Young, who may thrive in a winning environment and overall change of scenery.
These moves I am proposing, though, have more to do with a scoring guard off the bench and less to do with a seemingly bigger problem of Kendrick Perkins at the center position.
Perkins, while possessing some great veteran leadership, has become a bit of a burden on the court for Oklahoma City. This has led to a major outcry amongst Thunder fans to dump Perk as soon as humanly possible.
However, a sudden change may invoke a major negative impact on team chemistry for OKC, so the better route to take would be a more gradual replacement.
Having a pick in the lottery of the upcoming draft means that the Thunder may very well look for his replacement there, but they could also alternatively look to sign a veteran in free agency to help the future prospect develop.
A great fit would be Samuel Dalembert, who is an unrestricted free agent. Dalembert has proven himself to be a solid defensive center who can block his fair share of shots (1.1 blocks per game last season). If the Thunder were able to sign him to the veteran's minimum of around $1.3 million, they could make space by waiving the likes of Hasheem Thabeet and/or Daniel Orton.
With Dalembert to play behind Perkins on the bench and ahead of a hypothetical rookie big man, it would be a much smoother transition for the impending exit of Perkins and wouldn't leave the Thunder up the river and without a paddle if Dalembert had to step in as a starter.
These moves, while possible, are all reliant on how active Presti wants to be this offseason. So far in his time with the Thunder, he's shown himself as a more patient man who doesn't spend big money in free agency. Rather he prefers to land the guys he wants via trades or smart drafting.
Even then, sometimes it's the little moves and the small improvements that can add up to a team's increased success and even a championship. The Thunder really don't have much leeway for any dramatic changes, but they may not need to make a headline-grabbing signing in order to grow stronger.
If Presti is willing, though, the options are out there, and he will show no hesitance to make the necessary arrangements to get who he wants.
Player statistics courtesy of ESPN.com. Salaries and cap room data courtesy of ShamSports.com.
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