Why NBA’s Most Aggressive Rebuild Could Drive Blockbuster Deals This Summer | Bleacher Report

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The Oklahoma City Thunder will miss the playoffs for the second straight season, and over that time executive vice president of basketball operations Sam Presti has amassed more draft capital than any team in NBA history.

How long can the Thunder collect draft picks, play the lottery and use their financial flexibility to take on unwanted contracts? They can’t kick the can down the road forever. At some point, the team will have to prioritize winning.

Still, it’s way too early to get on Presti for his machinations. Keep in mind the Sacramento Kings and Minnesota Timberwolves have a combined one playoff appearance dating back to 2006.

So maybe those aren’t even fair questions to ask.

Still, several competing executives were surprised to see the franchise remain quiet at February’s trade deadline. Since the team is well below the NBA’s minimum salary, why wouldn’t Presti take on additional unwanted contracts for additional draft capital?

The answer to that question could be the key to the trade seasons surrounding the draft and free agency, with implications across the league.

The Thunder currently have up to $ 31.8 million in cap space, but it won’t last. Once the clock rolls over on July 1 (the start of the 2022-23 campaign), nearly all will disappear when Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s extension kicks in and Derrick Favors presumably opts into the final year of his contract at $ 10.2 million.

A handful of teams project to have cap room in July, but only the Thunder have space in June. Presti should have the opportunity to either add talent to the roster or absorb unwanted salary, along with picks to fatten his stockpile.

Free Money

Teams are obligated to pay out at least 90 percent of the salary cap each season. With the current cap at $ 112.4 million, the Thunder are well below the floor ($ 101.2 million). The math is slightly tricky — only part of the waived salaries for KZ Okpala and Miye Oni count, after midseason trades — but the franchise will likely need to send roughly $ 21.6 million to the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA) for finishing the season below the floor.

Any trades that add payroll near the draft won’t impact what the Thunder owe to the NBPA. That figure locks in on the final day of the regular season. It’s up to the union to decide how to disburse those funds. The precedent is to give a full share to players who were on the roster for at least 41 games and a half-share for 20-40 games. Based on the current roster, that projects to be an additional $ 1.5 million for everyone but Aaron Wiggins and Vit Krejci, who would receive about $ 771,000 each.

Presti had the choice between taking on draft capital for free at the deadline or holding until the draft. He chose patience and bonuses for his young roster; trust that none of the players are complaining about the projected outcome.

Draft or Free Agency?

The Thunder could look ahead to free agency, perhaps to make a run at one of the top free agents like Deandre Ayton (restricted), Zach LaVine, Bradley Beal (player option) or James Harden (player option), among many others. If Presti wants to add talent or dump salary via trade, he can outbid almost any team with about 20 future first-rounders available as trade chips.

Key to any decision will be the final standings and the draft lottery. Given the opportunity to draft a player like Chet Holmgren (Gonzaga) or Jabari Smith (Auburn), the Thunder may have no desire to open enough cap space to chase a big man like Ayton. If the lottery isn’t as generous, perhaps Presti will choose to test the Phoenix Suns’ appetite to match a large offer sheet to Ayton.

Given the team’s young roster, most of the listed vets aren’t likely to be on the Thunder’s radar. Instead, the Thunder may use their cap room in trade at the draft to amass even more future picks.

Trade Opportunities?

Few teams project to have cap room this summer — just the Detroit Pistons, Orlando Magic, Indiana Pacers, San Antonio Spurs, Portland Trail Blazers and Memphis Grizzlies. The Thunder can help them increase their spending power or give another franchise the cap space to compete in free agency.

The Los Angeles Lakers will undoubtedly look to get out of Russell Westbrook’s contract, assuming he opts into his final year at $ 47.1 million (he will). The Thunder could send out Favors and another minor contract (perhaps Mike Muscala) for Westbrook.

But the price would be astronomical to the Lakers, given Westbook’s massive salary. Would Los Angeles give up two future first-round picks (2027 and 2029) for Favors and Muscala? That’s a poor return for a franchise hoping to compete for a title with LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Even if Westbrook amounts to addition by subtraction, the Lakers need value back if they’re willing to give up that kind of draft currency.

And the Thunder wouldn’t be unreasonable to demand that bounty. They can probably orchestrate two or three salary dumps with other teams looking for flexibility.

Kevin Love has resurged in Cleveland, but the Thunder could absorb his $ 31.3 million contract for the current season (along with $ 28.9 million for 2022-23) if the Cavaliers want to reduce their payroll next season perhaps to re-sign Collin Sexton.

The Atlanta Hawks are expected by many around the league to get out of $ 21.5 million owed to Danilo Gallinari next season. Trading Gallinari may be the better option for the Hawks. While he only has $ 5 million guaranteed, Atlanta is nearing the luxury tax, and dead money could be costly.

The Dallas Mavericks might want out of Reggie Bullock to better afford Jalen Brunson in free agency. The Denver Nuggets may trim some contracts to avoid the tax. If the Pistons need additional cap space, would the team pay the Thunder to take on Kelly Olynyk?

The New York Knicks seem to regret paying Kemba Walker. The Suns are widely expected to try to dump Dario Saric’s contract. The Philadelphia 76ers shopped Tobias Harris’ significant contract before acquiring Harden at the deadline. The Utah Jazz may be looking to make substantial changes in the offseason if the playoffs are a bust.

It’s too early to guess what Presti will do with his team’s cap room. Whatever the decision, it could shape the NBA’s free-agent market in July.

Email Eric Pincus at eric.pincus@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter, @EricPincus.

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