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NBA Daily: Decisions Loom For Thunder With Deadline Ahead

With the deadline fast approaching, the Oklahoma City Thunder will have some tough decisions to make. Quinn Davis looks at the merits of each moveable player and the best course of action.

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Entering the 2019-20 NBA season, a new-look Western Conference seemed to have extremely limited playoff space. The Oklahoma City Thunder, who had traded Russell Westbrook and Paul George away, were not expected to compete for that space.

The age and contract of Chris Paul — combined with the seemingly lackluster roster around him — made the team appear as a likely trade port for contenders in need of one more piece. Paul, as well as fellow veterans Danilo Gallinari and Steven Adams, were expected to be highly sought after come January and early February.

Fast forward to today: The Thunder sits safely in seventh place in the Western Conference. The eighth-seeded Grizzlies trail them by 5.5 games, while the sixth-seeded Rockets hold a two-game advantage in their spot. Some of the shake-up is due to injuries to previous Western Conference Finals attendees in both Portland and Golden State — but mostly the Thunder have just been playing great, sound basketball.

Paul has seemingly bought into the culture, noting in multiple interviews that he has had as much fun as ever playing basketball this season. He also just told Rohan Nadkarni of Sports Illustrated that he will not be opting out or accepting a buyout to play for a contender.

With the team on the road to the playoffs and a Paul trade becoming increasingly less likely, Thunder general manager Sam Presti will have some tough decisions to make at the deadline. Do you trade the veterans around Paul to accumulate assets? Or should you stand pat, let this roster try to reach their ceiling and move forward with the stockpile of draft picks received in the last two blockbuster trades?

There is an intangible value to giving young players experience in April. They will see first-hand the effort and attention to detail required when the games become do or die.

On the other hand, there is also value to having a veteran team around the young players that the Thunder hope will one day be the faces of the franchise. There are obvious off-the-court mentorship reasons as well as basketball benefits to this strategy. A team with a handful of capable professionals allows for rookies to play within themselves and decreases the likelihood of developing bad habits. If the team decides to sell off their veteran players, there is also the risk of losing team chemistry and the interest of others looking for a new team.

With that said, these benefits are extremely hard to quantify. There is also a fair argument on the other side of the coin, too. The guaranteed minutes and lack of expectations make for a more experimental and open environment, in which a certain skill set may be discovered that would have otherwise never been unearthed.

It would be foolish to confidently say one strategy is better than the other — moreover, there are examples on either end. The Thunder’s own Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has developed quite nicely while spending his first season-and-a-half with two talented rosters. Meanwhile, Trae Young has become one of the league’s best offensive players in the same amount of time while being asked to do everything for an uninspiring supporting cast in Atlanta.

Even if there were more examples found on one side, using them would be a flawed exercise. There is no way to tell whether a rookie who blossomed in one scenario would flame out in the reverse.

This is the life of an NBA executive, one Presti knows all too well. If there was a clear answer to these questions, every team would have figured it out by now. The most likely answer is that every player is different and what works for some may fail for others.

For the Thunder, the player to cater to is Gilgeous-Alexander. The second-year guard has looked like a burgeoning All-Star for much of the season and will be priority number one as the team heads into this next chapter — whatever it may be.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that he has taken a second-year leap while under the tutelage of the future Hall-of-Famer in Paul. There is no telling the amount of knowledge and wisdom passed down from one of the most cerebral players to ever step foot on a court.

With that in mind, along with the contract concerns discussed earlier, it seems unlikely that the Thunder would break up that symbiotic relationship (barring any incredible offers, of course).

The next two trade pieces would be Danilo Gallinari and Steven Adams. The former is off the books after this season, while Adams is signed through the end of the 2020-21 season.

Gallinari is the likely candidate here as his ability to both space the floor and act as a secondary playmaker would be valuable to… well, pretty much every franchise. His expiring contract would also allow potential buyers to stay flexible for this offseason.

Adams, meanwhile, is a fan favorite in Oklahoma City and a far harder to trade with his longer contract. The burly center also fills a more niche role as a defensive anchor and screen-setter that may not be as coveted by teams at the top of the standings.

Another name popping up in trade rumors is current sixth man Dennis Schroder. The speedy ball-handler is on the books until 2021 but has a much more reasonable salary of about $15 million per year. Teams in need of leadership up top may already be inquiring about the availability of the veteran point guard.

Better, Schroder is in the midst of his best season. He is averaging 18 points per game on his best efficiency ever. His ability to finish at the rim, in the mid-range and from three-point distance are all at career-highs, per Cleaning the Glass. His steady play and the Thunder’s winning record have made him a potential candidate for Sixth Man of the Year.

If teams like the Philadelphia 76ers or Los Angeles Lakers could shed enough salary to open up room for Schroder, a bidding war could emerge for the German guard.

Trading any of those four veterans could have significant effects on the Thunder’s results for this season. The team’s best lineup features all four of those veterans next to Gilgeous-Alexander. That foursome has a mind-boggling net rating of plus-35 in their 242 possessions together, per Cleaning the Glass.

If playoffs are the goal, the Thunder should stand pat at the deadline, keep the core together and chase an exciting first-round series against one of the league’s best.

The risk of staying competitive is well-documented. Even though the Thunder have accumulated a king’s ransom of draft capital, most of these picks are from the Houston Rockets and Los Angeles Clippers, two teams that will likely be competing for championships in the foreseeable future. The Thunder making the playoffs will leave them drafting consistently in the mid-to-late first round where it is much harder to predict the potential of incoming draftees.

With that said, the Thunder have the most to offer when a team is looking to trade out of a high pick, or when a disgruntled star emerges. The capital they accumulated could be simply saved up for future opportunities.

The Thunder may not win a championship this season — or even make it out of the first round — but the foundation is conducive to next-generation successes. Further, the current framework of the team has proven a perfect garden for Gilgeous-Alexander to grow.

There may be tougher decisions down the line and a time at which those assets need to be cashed in — but for now, the risk of losing this foundation outweighs the reward of a potential return.

Quinn Davis is a contributor for Basketball Insiders. He is a former collegiate track runner who currently resides in Philadelphia.

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