That’s what Vegas set the Thunder’s win total at this summer.
Chris Paul’s contract was awful, and he was getting too old to be an impact guy. Steven Adams was fine, but not a guy you’d build around. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was a nice young player but not one who could carry this roster of castoffs and cap filler to any sort of decent playoff berth.
Now? The Thunder are sitting in the catbird seat. They’re within spitting distance of home court advantage in the playoffs and already over that Vegas win total before the All-Star break.
You could be forgiven at the start of the year if you thought the best half of the Thunder’s roster would be gone at the trade deadline. But the Thunder’s success has given them something they desperately needed to propel this new era forward: leverage.
What a Quiet Trade Deadline Means
At the deadline, the most exciting Thunder move was picking up Isaiah Roby from the Mavericks for Justin Patton.
Though there were rumors that teams were sniffing around multiple Thunder players (with the Heat reportedly coming very close to a Danilo Gallinari trade), the Thunder basically stood pat at the deadline.
We know from the haul that Sam Presti got for both Paul George and Russell Westbrook that he’s going to squeeze any potential buyer hard. The Heat weren’t willing to budge on the Thunder’s demands, same as in the potential Chris Paul trade last summer. And most of the teams that were rumored to be trying to get Thunder players don’t have much in the way of assets.
Because the Thunder are playing so well, Presti can afford to push teams for more. They’re a playoff team—they don’t want to sell off their pieces if they don’t have to.
There’s a good chance that the Thunder of next year look a lot like the Thunder this year if no major trades are available.
Only Gallinari, Andre Roberson and Nerlens Noel will be free agents next year. Mike Muscala can take his player option if he wants, and there are some decisions to be made on the young players, but the Thunder aren’t going to change much through free agency. They won’t have cap space unless Gallo leaves.
The Gallo Problem
The one wrinkle in all of this is Danilo Gallinari.
The veteran forward’s contract expires at the end of the season, and if the Thunder are trying to maximize assets it feels like a waste to not deal him at the deadline.
There are four main possibilities for what the Thunder are thinking, and they have some overlap:
- The Thunder value Gallinari on the court more than the return they could have gotten at the deadline. This is the most plausible option given where the Thunder are in the standings right now and their salary situation for next year.
- The Thunder are confident they can re-sign Gallinari in the summer. This is also possible, though there are a few things standing in the way. There isn’t much cap space around the league (more on this in a minute), so it’s more likely than it might be in another year.
- The Thunder think they can sign-and-trade Gallinari to another team in the summer. Last year’s free agency period saw the revival of the sign-and-trade, most notably used in the Kevin Durant/D’Angelo Russell double S&T.
- The Thunder want to cut salary more than they want to get assets in return for Gallinari. This is an unlikely option, mainly because if they really wanted to cut salary that badly they would probably have ducked the luxury tax.
Gallo is a good player, but teams aren’t lining up around the block to pay him like they will for the star-studded 2021 free agency class. According to Michael Scotto of Bleacher Report, the Heat progressed to the point of talking to Gallo about an extension in any trade, but they couldn’t come to an agreement that satisfied all parties. That’s because of 2021.
Why 2021 Matters
The Heat worked out a similar deal with the Grizzlies for Andre Iguodala to the one they were trying to work out for Gallinari, but there was a crucial difference with Iguodala: his contract extension has a team option in 2021.
2021 is the year many of the best players in the NBA are going to be free agents again, including Giannis Antetokounmpo. It’s an open secret around the league that Pat Riley wants to sign Antetokounmpo, and he’s not the only one. Teams that think they have a chance in free agency are lining their contracts up so they can make cap space for 2021.
If mid-tier free agents like Gallinari can get a longer-term contract, they may opt for the security over the short-term money. That gives the Thunder an advantage in free agency because they have his Bird rights and can offer more money than most other teams.
Preparing for the Future
This offseason, the Thunder can create a little cap space if they are willing to let Gallinari walk, but not enough to make a difference. It’s much more likely they continue to operate as an over-the-cap team.
If they do keep Gallinari, the market for his services is likely to be thin. Most teams will only have the taxpayer mid-level exception or the regular mid-level to offer (roughly $6 million to $9 million per year). Only six teams are projected to have cap space.
Miami could make a big one-year balloon offer to Gallinari, but it might not be worth it given what we know. If Gallo cares about money first and foremost, the other teams on the list have plenty of it, but they’re also likely to be very bad next year. Gallo’s been on winning teams at just about every stop.
Want to forecast what OKC will do in 2021?
Watch what happens with Gallinari this summer.
Chances are good that if the Thunder want to keep him, they can. And they could throw their hat in the Antetokounmpo sweepstakes too. Even if they miss out on the big prize, the 2021 class is shaping up to be unbelievably stacked.
Here’s where Sam Presti can both have his cake and eat it too.
How to Predict the Thunder’s Plans
Right now, the Thunder could get enough cap space in 2021 to sign Antetokounmpo or one of the other big free agents if they wanted to. The usual caveats apply—Oklahoma City’s not a prestige market, they’d have to gut the team, and it’d be difficult to add the sort of impact guys they’d need to fill out the roster. But if they went for a smaller, longer-term extension for Gallinari they might be able to still make it happen.
Watch what happens with Gallinari in the summer. If he signs for a longer-term, smaller money extension, it’s likely Sam Presti is going big game hunting. If he walks away, it may mean the same thing—it’s possible the Thunder are keeping the decks clear for 2021 free agency and they can’t reconcile on a contract.
A sign-and-trade, though, especially with long-term money coming back, signals Presti probably plans on a more traditional small market rebuild through asset collection, trades and the draft.
It’s likely this summer will be slow for free agency. Teams will be jockeying to position themselves for the next offseason, and the Thunder have plenty of options. Watch Danilo Gallinari if you want to forecast what they’ll do.