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.