With last week's signing of guard Royal Ivey, previously of the Milwaukee Bucks, the Oklahoma City Thunder will have 16 players under contract; one over the NBA's allowed maximum for opening-night rosters. The organization now faces the tough decision of choosing who will be cut.
Presuming a contract will not be offered to three unsigned draft picks (Tibor Pleiß, Ryan Reid, and Latavious Williams), three players are reported to be on the chopping block. Center B.J. Mullens, forward D.J. White, and guard Kyle Weaver are the top three candidates to join the already vast free agency pool this summer.
It should be noted that the Thunder would prefer not to lose a big man as a measure of protection for the 2011-2012 season, if current center Nenad Krstic accepts a reported offer that would land him with the Olympiakos Basketball Club in Greece after his contract expires at the end of the upcoming season. Mullens, standing just over 7'0", seems to be the player general manager Sam Presti and head coach Scott Brooks would like most to retain, considering his reasonable size and the fact that he was only a rookie last year. White has seen limited playing time for OKC, just 19 games over two seasons, but much like Mullens, he could be safe from unemployment solely because of his size.
That leaves Kyle Weaver, a 24-year old Washington State-alum, who has 68 games of experience over two seasons, by far the most of the three possible cuts. While being a reliable and young bench asset in the past, Weaver's services may no longer be required following Oklahoma City's acquisition of sharpshooter Daequan Cook and swingman veteran Morris Peterson this off-season. While Weaver may not be the least valuable on the roster, he has been caught in an unfortunate position out of the team's rotation. If Weaver is released or traded, a slight possibility, newly-signed fellow guard Royal Ivey will probably occupy his role in the Thunder rotation.
Along with whoever may be released in the coming weeks, veterans Etan Thomas and Kevin Ollie and former Arizona playmaker Mustafa Shakur join the team's list of departures over this offseason. Their roster spots now belong to Cook, Peterson, Ivey, and draft pick Cole Aldrich, who was acquired in a draft-night exchange.
Aldrich, who just completed his promising junior season as Kansas University's center, factors into Presti and Brooks' long-term plans and could find significant playing time as the man in the middle during his rookie season.
The Thunder's franchise player and defending scoring champion Kevin Durant signed a five-year, $86 million contract extension with the team. This particular move has been overshadowed by that other thing that happened this summer but, in the future, may be seen as the best signing during the 2010 free agency scramble.
Yet, remarkably, while assembling a solid group of seasoned veterans and promising youngsters, the Thunder still boast $6 million in cap space. When the signing of rookie Aldrich is completed, some of the money will be eaten up, but the deal would only account for a small portion of the remaining money as the No. 11 pick can only sign for the rookie scale of just over $1.7 million. How the extra cash will be utilized remains to be seen.
It has been rumored that the Thunder has shown interest in shot-blocking power forward Louis Amundson, who is a free agent after a strong 2010 Playoffs performance for the Phoenix Suns. 6'9" Amundson's tough defense, undeniable will, and ability to block players much taller than him would definitely be valuable to the team; however, the minutes might not be available and if a signing was completed, another cut would be required.
Regardless of all the rumors and speculation, one thing remains true— the Oklahoma City Thunder, much like the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference, continue to make minor improvements each and every year that strengthen their playoff chances. With a young core and a proven star in Kevin Durant, the Thunder could find themselves in a very favorable position in the NBA in the very near future.