Let’s make a deal

2012 NBA Draft

By KOLBY PAXTON

The San Antonio Spurs have long been referred to as the CIA of the NBA, concealing everything from injury specifics, to draft intentions, to Greg Popovich’s dinner plans.

These days, however, the River City’s secret keeping is a trend that has followed one former employee north, into the heart of Oklahoma, and the front office of the Oklahoma City Thunder.

If Spurs General Manager R.C. Buford is the John Brennan of the Association, then Sam Presti is Michael Morell. And Presti’s secrets are never so air tight as in the month of June, in the midst of the NBA Draft.

In 2008, many assumed that the Thunder would pursue UCLA big man Kevin Love. They had the school right, but whiffed on the player. A year later, the pick figured to be Ricky Rubio or, at the very least, Tyreke Evans. Instead, the Thunder snagged some guy with a beard and an old man’s game.

A year ago, on the eve of the draft, rumors swirled that Oklahoma City was set to offer up uncle James Harden, that bearded old-ish young man, in exchange for the opportunity to select Florida shooting guard Bradley Beal at No. 3 overall. Thunder fans scoffed at the thought of losing their beloved sixth man for a prospect – any prospect, really. And the deal, itself, never happened. OKC was instead content to stand pat at No. 28 and select the best available player. That player, Perry Jones III, was, by all accounts, nothing short of grand larceny at such a late stage in the first round.

Much to the chagrin of Loud City, however, Harden would eventually be shipped out of town, and one year later, all that the Thunder has to show for him is Jeremy Lamb and the 12th pick in tonight’s draft. For that reason, and virtually that reason alone, there is significant attention being paid to that pick. More specifically, there is significant attention being paid to what exactly OKC – armed with three first round choices – does with its collection of selections.

Any of the following scenarios are in play – along with about a dozen others – as we head into this evening’s festivities:

1.) Thunder trade picks 12, 29 and 32, along with Serge Ibaka, to Cleveland for the No. 1 overall pick, Tristan Thompson and Dion Waiters.

In a perfect world, Cleveland would be willing to swap its top selection for Oklahoma City’s first round and a prospect like Jones. In reality, the Cavs are reportedly overvaluing the top choice in a draft with no top player, asking Minnesota for Kevin Love, Portland for LaMarcus Aldridge, and the Thunder for Ibaka.

Unless Portland bites, that leaves Cleveland with only Oklahoma City with which to deal. After Ibaka’s performance – or lack thereof – in the 2013 playoffs, it’s not too awfully difficult to fathom a scenario in which Presti elects to cut ties with what is now a $12 million a year role player, in favor of adding a guy like Nerlens Noel or Alex Len.

The caveat being that the Thunder obviously wouldn’t make the trade for the pick alone. Cleveland would almost certainly have to make OKC the same offer it reportedly extended to Minnesota – an offer that includes Thompson and Waiters.

In any event, I’m not wild about overreacting to Ibaka’s month of May. You’ll surely recall a certain Houston Rocket who floundered for Oklahoma City last summer. Safe to say he rebounded from the experience.

2.) Thunder trade picks 12 and 29 in order to move into the top eight.

Without a doubt my favorite option, and without a doubt the safest option. Drafting at 12, it is highly unlikely that the Thunder come up with anything exciting. I know, I know. “The middle of the draft is deep.” Whatever. That’s just another way of saying this draft pretty much stinks. Without moving, OKC sits at 12 in an 8-10 player draft.

There are four players to keep an eye on should they fall into that 6-8 range: Len, Michigan guard Trey Burke, Lehigh guard C.J. McCollum, and Syracuse guard Michael Carter-Williams. If any of that foursome dips within reach, you could see Presti & Co. make a play to move up and grab them.

Of the four, my fingers are crossed for Burke – a true point guard that could adequately spell Russell Westbrook, play alongside Westbrook, and allow Reggie Jackson to move off the ball with that second unit.

3.) Thunder trade any picks, anywhere, so long as the deal includes Kendrick Perkins.

The Thunder could swap the 32nd pick for the first overall selection straight up and it wouldn’t make me as happy as any deal that dumps Perkins on someone else would.

There are two available centers, Al Jefferson and Andray Blatche, that could make the difference between the Western Conference Finals and an NBA title next season. Unfortunately, OKC cannot afford to pursue either of them with Perk on the books. As simple as amnestying him would seem, in theory, it wouldn’t actually make a large enough dent in practice. Trading him away is the only answer.

The problem is, not only is Perkins grossly overpaid, the rest of the league is well aware that he is grossly overpaid. If Presti were to successfully move Perk out of town, he should be awarded an enormous raise and the 2013-’14 GM of the Year on the spot. There are few things in professional sports more difficult than that task at this juncture.

In reality, the only way to move one of the worst starting centers in the NBA – complete with a $19 million price tag – is to mask the stench of his contract with draft picks. Sort of like spraying Old Spice on sweaty gym shorts.

4.) Thunder don’t budge, make a selection at No. 12.

This could go one of two ways. At No. 12, the only two big men worth having, Noel and Len, will be long gone. If OKC still insists on going with a center, they’ll be selecting Cody Zeller, Kelly Olynyk or Steven Adams in this spot. Olynyk, despite consistently being ranked below the others, is the lesser of three evils. Zeller and Adams are busts before they ever even lace up their Nikes. Just another annual serving of Patrick O’Bryant and Byron Mullens and some other guy named Zeller – yet no one ever seems to catch on.

Taking either of them in this spot would be the most disappointing possible outcome for the Thunder.

On the other hand, there are three players, none of them Americans, who could potentially be there at No. 12, each of whom could prove to be another foreign homerun for the NBA GM most renowned for such things.

Sergey Karasev, a 6-7 Russian sharpshooter, has been penciled in for whoever ends up drafting in place of Dallas in most recent mock drafts. With Kevin Martin almost certainly gone, adding a gunner can only help. Karasev can play right away, given considerable seasoning at a high level of play over in Russia.

German point guard Dennis Schroeder is another option, provided Presti wants to insure his backcourt without giving up the pieces necessary to move up and snag Burke or Carter-Williams.

Perhaps most intriguing of the foreign crop of players is 18-year-old Greek forward Giannis Antetokounmpo. Antetokounmpo is one of the hotter names in the draft right now, but he’s old news to Presti, who was flying overseas to watch him as far back as last winter. Though it may sound blasphemous, and, admittedly, my own personal assessment is based purely upon grainy YouTube highlights, the NBA player that Antetokounmpo most reminds me of is Oklahoma City’s own Kevin Durant.

Truthfully, I don’t have the slightest idea what to expect from Presti and the Thunder, and I’m not going to act as if I do. The inherent unknown, in and of itself, is what makes this particular draft must-see-TV.

A Hardened heart

By Kolby Paxton

Oklahoma City will begin defense of its Western Conference championship tomorrow when the Thunder returns to the site of its most recent landmark victory, a come-from-behind 107-99 victory over the mighty Spurs.

James Harden contributed 16 points that night, none bigger than his veins-of-ice water three-point dagger with just over two minutes to play. He won’t score any in this one, though. He’s in Atlanta, preparing to play the Hawks, as a member of the Houston Rockets.

Boy, that escalated quickly. I mean that really got out of hand fast. One moment, Russell Westbrook was squirting mustard on Harden’s beard. The next, Sam Presti was stabbing a collective fan base in the heart with a trident. We knew this day was possible, but no one was braced for impact. Our seats weren’t even in the upright and locked position yet.

The Sixth Man of the Quarter Century was due $5.8 million in 2012-’13, then he would become an unrestricted free agent, at which point his qualifying number was set at $7.6 million. That number was arbitrary. That much was understood. If he made it that far, more than a dozen suitors would likely line up with maximum contracts worth more than twice as much. Harden would sign an offer sheet worth $80 million dollars over five years with a team like the Rockets, and the organization would bid him adieu.

If our bearded gunner was to remain in Thunder blue, Presti & Co. would likely ink him before he ever hit the market. Such was the intention on Saturday, when Oklahoma City offered him four years and a reported $55.5 million – $4.5 million under the maximum. Harden was given an hour to decide, balked, and was swapped for pieces.

It wasn’t totally delusional for the Thunder and its fans to expect Harden to play for a discount. After all, both Durant and Westbrook could have made more on the open market, but sacrificed – albeit, to very limited degrees – in order to stay in Oklahoma City. Since last season ended, Harden repeatedly insisted that he wanted to be in Bricktown, that he wanted to stick with this group, on this journey.

Moreover, inking The Beard to a max contract would have tied the Thunder to $65 million in annual salary, leaving an average of just $500k per player with which to fill the remaining 10 roster spots, while remaining below the $70.3 million luxury tax threshold – otherwise known as $1.5 million less than the average wage for current players not named Durant/Westbrook/Ibaka/Perkins/Martin.

The same level of reserve spending, in addition to $15 million per year for Harden, would have put the Thunder more than $10 million over the projected luxury tax threshold for 2013-’14 – which would cost Oklahoma City over $25 million in cap penalties next season, and $35 million in each season there after. In that respect, moving Harden for a shooter with an expiring contract, a lottery pick and future picks was a shrewd move from the NBA’s shrewdest GM.

Unless, of course, you consider the fact that the $4.5 million difference could have been more than compensated for by simply exercising the amnesty clause on Kendrick Perkins’ inflated contract.

I must admit, I feel better after seeing this photo, knowing that we apparently have some sort of X-Man playing power forward.

Yes, basketball season started Tuesday and I am already complaining about the lethargic, over-paid, fake-tough guy once again. Perk is due $9.1 million next season. Subtract $9.1 million from $80 million, sign Kwame Brown for one-third the cost of Perkins, and you’re $4 million over the tax in a worst case scenario – with virtually the same guy playing center, minus the awkward chin-fuzz. Suddenly, that $35 million donation to David Stern’s retirement fund is down to $10 million per. Easily manageable for a franchise that raked in $30-$35 million in revenue during a lockout-shortened 2011-’12 season; a franchise that, according to Forbes, sits on more operating income than any team in the NBA other than the Bulls and Knicks.

Of course, that’s a purely hypothetical situation, but so is the alternate universe in which Perkins actually plays up to his paycheck – or, at this point, the one in which Serge Ibaka transforms into the All-NBA player that he’s being paid like.

I like Serge. He’s freakishly athletic, a consummate teammate, and, by all accounts, a wonderful person. Still, the Thunder had another year of James Harden on the cheap, another crack at the title with all of its pieces in place, and another 100 or so games with which to further evaluate Ibaka.

In the past, a good-to-great offensive outing by Ibaka, one like he turned in during Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals, was a luxury, a bonus, a pleasant surprise. No more. In dealing Harden a season early, Presti and the Thunder have levied the expectation of offensive contribution upon a player primarily known for his defense. Oklahoma City will need to replace nearly 17 points per game, and much of that must come from a player averaging half of that for his career.

Maybe Ibaka continues to develop, becomes a 15-10-3 guy, and Harden is still deemed disposable. But what if that doesn’t happen? What if Serge is the same player in 2012-’13 that he was in 2011-’12? Wouldn’t you like to have the opportunity to then re-sign Harden, dump Perkins, and swap Ibaka for pieces? We’re talking about a Kevin Martin rental, Jeremy Lamb, and the first round selection of a team that figures to be bad, but not awful.

That was too much to pass up?

Failure to re-sign Joe Johnson left Suns management with a black eye.

The belief that Harden should have signed for less than market may also be a bit misguided. The Thunder already used its two allotted five-year deals with Durant and Westbrook, meaning the most they could offer Harden was four years. By sacrificing a fifth year to stay in Oklahoma City, wasn’t he already making a considerable concession? By agreeing to play third-fiddle despite first-fiddle ability, wasn’t he already compromising for the betterment of the organization?

At the end of the day, it was never really about $4.5 million. For Presti and the Thunder, it was about staying true to a set of central beliefs – most notably, sacrificing me for we. Players like Westbrook, Durant, Ibaka and Nick Collison each allowed for a franchise-favorable contract structure that allowed Oklahoma City to save itself from cap penalties heading into the new collective bargaining agreement. The expectation for Harden was the same. His reluctance to provide even the slightest of contractual bargains essentially stamped his ticket to Houston. But is individual sacrifice only measured in dollars and cents? On the court, where games are won and lost, did Harden not exemplify the Thunder code of selflessness?

Presti weighed the risk of losing Harden versus losing a brick in the foundation of his negotiating philosophy and favored the latter. In doing so, he made the correct business decision. But, if sports are, in fact, all about winning championships, was it the correct basketball decision?

Seven years ago, the Phoenix Suns, trotting out a young, exciting trio of Steve Nash, Amare Stoudemire and Joe Johnson, went head-to-head with those mighty Spurs, bowing out of the Western Conference Finals in five games. The following summer, contract negotiations with Johnson, a restricted free agent, turned sour. The Suns were reluctant to offer a maximum deal to Robin’s Robin. Prior to the 2005-’06 season, Phoenix dealt Johnson to Atlanta for Boris Diaw and two first round picks. Without Johnson to stretch the floor, the Suns, ever a contender, never realized their championship potential.

Years later, former owner Robert Sarver called the decision not to re-sign Johnson the biggest regret of his tenure.

Here’s hoping a clean shaven Presti doesn’t similarly lament the day he parted ways with Harden.