Peace, Love and Thunderstanding: Changing Gears


For the past few weeks, the discussion for the Thunder has been almost entirely related to the NBA Draft.  I plan to take a break from that this week except to briefly discuss UConn giant Hasheem Thabeet.

I have made it no secret that the Thunder drafting him would not be welcomed by me.  While a lot of fans and analysts think Thabeet would be a good fit in Oklahoma City, I don’t see it.  Those people like him because he’s tall and can block shots, but none of those people mention that the guy doesn’t seem to like basketball (he started playing only when a basketball coach in Tanzania convinced him he could get a free education in the U.S.  They also don’t mention that he skipped out on the “athletic testing” at the NBA Combine which is a red flag making me wonder if the reputation he’s gotten as “extremely athletic for his size” is a media creation based on a misunderstanding of how much athleticism it takes for a reed thin 7’3″ player to get his hand above the rim.

Of course, I agree that the Thunder are in need of a player who can bolster the front line and protect the rim by making players fear a blocked shot.  The problems with drafting Thabeet to fill that role are:

  1. I’m not convinced he will do that in the pros.  He blocked a lot of shots in college because his coach, Jim Calhoun, allows his big men to stand next to the basket, a practice that is called “illegal defense” in the NBA.  He’s also boasts a similar frame to Shawn Bradley who was probably the most dunked on player in NBA history.
  2. The Thunder can do better in improving this position.

After the jump, I explain how Sam Presti can fill that hole for the team without using the draft.

During the remainder of the off-season, the Thunder have some advantages that other teams don’t in improving their team.  While most of the league suffered this past season as a result of the recession, the Thunder’s performance here in Oklahoma City was outstanding (from an economic viewpoint, not on the floor).  Those struggles for the rest of the league will actually cause the first reduction in the salary cap in recent history.  When you consider that only three teams (OKC, Detroit, and Memphis) were slated to be under the cap at the current standard, the reduction will handcuff the other 27 teams even more.

The salary cap cut will also affect the luxury tax threshold.  For most owners not in New York, the luxury tax is the devil.  Teams who spend more on salaries than the threshold allowed by the league have to pay the front office a dollar for dollar tax for every dollar above the max.  So, say the limit is $65MM and a team ends the season with a payroll of $68MM.  They have to pay $3MM (on top of the salaries they already shipped out) to the league, and the league turns around and distributes that money to the teams that did not spend exorbitantly.

So, in essence, it hits the teams doubly hard.  It comes out of their pocketbook and goes into the bank account of their competitors.  Plus, it’s cashflow out for no benefit.  So, while the salary cap has little effect on team spending habits, the luxury tax threshold is a penalty front offices take seriously.

Anyway, since the luxury tax threshold is calculated based on the salary cap, teams who thought they were safe, will now be looking to shed salary through trades and avoiding free agents for fear of getting hit with the tax.  The Thunder will be one of the few buyers in this fire sale market.

With that in mind, here are some of the players the Thunder could target to take advantage of this environment (keep in mind, they don’t need to grab a superstar because they theoretically already have their core players locked up–who will all be looking for big raises in a couple of years):

1.  Anderson Varejao (6’10” PF/C – Cleveland – 26 years old)
(earned $5.8MM in 2008/09)

Varejao is exactly the type of player the Thunder are seeking.  He’s a veteran, but not washed up.  He plays stellar defense.  He is an excellent rebounder.  He plays with high energy.  He blocks shots.  His style of play is a lot like Tyson Chandler who the Thunder acquired before backing off due to injury concerns.

His downside is that he is not much of an offensive player, but the team already has Nenad Krstic and Jeff Green for offense on the front line.

As for signability, Varejao and the Cavs had contentious negotiations two years ago when Varejao was a restricted free agent.  He felt that Cleveland undercut him with their offer and he eventually got Charlotte to make him a passable offer, which Cleveland then matched.  Now that he is an unrestricted free agent, Cleveland will have to pay him to get him to stay.

The good news for OKC is that only Cleveland (who own his Bird Rights), Memphis, and Detroit can offer more than the mid level exception (which should be around $5MM/year).  That’s less than he made last year.  For Cleveland to give him more than that, they will almost certainly be hit with the luxury tax.  Detroit is almost a certainty to use their cap space on Carlos Boozer.  So that just leaves Memphis to compete with for the services of Varejao, and right now Memphis looks poised to take Thabeet.

If all that goes down, the Thunder are basically competing with themselves should Varejao be their top target.


2.  Chris “The Birdman” Andersen (6’10” PF/C – Denver – 30 years old)
(earned $998k in 2008/09)

Remember “The Birdman”?  He was a member of the Hornets when they originally came to Oklahoma City, immediately became a fan favorite, and then became the sad story of the inaugural season of NBA in OKC by making the marketing campaign around him ironic.

After sitting out two years for violating the NBA’s drug policy, Andersen returned to the league by playing for Denver at the league minimum.  It has been, to say the least, a feel good story.  Birdman has come back as one of the best shot blockers in the league, and continued to be a darling to any fanbase he enters.

The cons for Andersen are the same as Varejao.  He just isn’t much of a threat to score unless a point guard sets him up for easy baskets.  Plus, there’s the whole thing that happened last time he was living here.  Finally, he’s going to be in line for a HUGE raise after the performance he put on blocking shots in the Western Conference playoffs.  He was causing such ruckus near the basket that for a solid week Kevin Durant twittered about nothing but how Birdman deserved Defensive Player of the Year honors.

Signing him, though, is probably the same circumstance as Varejao except that with Andersen, his current team is also handcuffed to the mid-level exception as the most they can pay him.  The odds of them offering even that much are slim, though, when you consider that last off season, the Nuggets GAVE Marcus Camby to the Clippers to avoid paying luxury tax.

3.  Marcin Gortat (6’11” C – Orlando, 25 years old)
(earned $712k in 2008/09)

The former Magic second round pick out of Poland has been one of the breakout stories of the season.  His statistics are not impressive, but considering he plays behind Dwight Howard, he isn’t getting a ton of minutes.  It is what he is doing with those minutes that makes him coveted.

Project his stats out to starter minutes of 36/game, and Gortat averaged 10.9 points, 14 rebounds, and 2.4 blocks.  Those are good numbers and show he can clog up the middle of the lane and scare players from challenging him for a layup.  He also shot 57% from the floor, which is deceiving.  He is obviously not taking many shots outside of five feet from the basket.

Getting Gortat to sign would be a similar process to Andersen.  He hasn’t played long enough to create Bird rights, so the Magic (as a team over the cap) can only offer him their mid-level exception.  The Thunder could probably outbid all other offers by proposing a deal for about $6MM/year.

4.  Rasho Nesterovic (7’0″ Center – Indiana, 33 years old)
(earned $8.4MM in 2008/2009)

There’s a big drop off in filling the team needs at this point (but I would still argue that all of the players after this point are better bets than Thabeet).  Nestorovic’s value comes not from what he provides on the floor, something that has continually diminished over the past few years, but what he provides off of it.  Rasho has a couple of rings that he earned as the starting center for the Spurs.  That means he’s already got the confidence of Thunder GM Sam Presti, who cut his teeth for managment in San Antonio, and has veteran presence the Thunder lack.

You can count on Nesterovic taking a huge pay cut in his next contract, so the real issue with signing him is convincing him he has a role with the team.

5.  Etan Thomas (6’10” C – Washington, 31 years old)
(will earn $7.35MM in 2009/2010)

Some may remember this guy as the Derrick Thomas kid who led Tulsa’s Booker T. Washington high school to the 6A state championship (with Ryan Humphrey) in 1996.  Since then, he went on to Syracuse, became a poet, and developed a heart condition on the way toward a nine year and running NBA career.

Because of his tendency to be injury prone, he is extremely overpaid, but he can provide defense, rebounding, and shotblocking.  And, his contract is in its final year, so the risk of trading for him is minimal.  Washington, on their end, would be willing to trade him because they are a lottery team on the verge of paying the luxury tax.  We could probably even get them to take Damien Wilkins (who has a smaller expiring contract) off of our hands in such a deal which would keep a roster space free for someone Coach Scott Brooks might use.

6.  Krylo Fessenko (7’1″ C – Utah, 22 years old)
(earned $810K in 2008/09)

Fessenko is a project.  But with Robert Swift gone, the Thunder could make space to find out if this Russian guy is more promising.  He’ll definitely be cheaper than Swift while they explore his abilities.

There were a couple more names that I wanted to mention, Shelden Williams and Jarron Collins, who the Thunder could likely acquire if they wanted, but they are so low on the list and I can’t imagine Presti needing to go past #3 on this list before getting the player that can help them out.