Mike Fanelli | July 6th, 2019
July 5th, 2019 will go down as one of the wildest days for the state of California in history. Coming off its second earthquake in as many days, the NBA’s prime summer league game between Zion Williamson and the New Orleans Pelicans verse R.J. Barrett and the New York Knicks was stopped and ultimately suspended because of safety concerns due to the earthquake. Who would have guessed an earthquake stopping a Las Vegas summer league would have been only the third biggest NBA story of the day!
Unless you are still hiding under a desk, worried about another earthquake, the news that the Los Angles Clippers added Kawhi Leonard and Paul George in a 30-minute window is now old news. Leonard didn’t want to be LeBron James‘ third wheel and well Toronto tried their best. In the end, Kawhi told the Clippers if they wanted him, they needed to get George. The Clippers rightfully fulfilled his request and traded away Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Danilo Gallinari, and the mother load of draft picks to the Thunder for George.
What seems like a lifetime ago (shortly after the Anthony Davis trade happened), I wrote up an article, breaking down the next NBA star to be traded. Never in a million years did I see George being traded and clearly the power of the Klaw is too strong for anyone with normal size hands. Most of you reading this already have gotten plenty of breakdown on what these two moves mean for the Clippers and the rest of the NBA. Instead of adding to it, you guys can check out The Scorecrow’s articles about the trade and what it means for the Clippers here and here.
I, however, am going to answer a different question: what’s next for the Toronto Raptors and Oklahoma City Thunder franchises? The short answer is both teams need to figure out their course of action (or plan for you simpler minded folks) and act on it. However, no one likes a short answer so let me break it down in more detail.
The Raptors knew this day very well could come when they traded for Kawhi last offseason. However, general manager Masai Ujiri had a backup plan after making the trade. The Raptors are still playoff locks in the east even without Kawhi. However, they are no longer looking at a top-four seed. They can keep their core together, make the playoffs and probably get bounced in the first round or they can look towards rebuilding for the future, using their best player’s contracts as assets.
What I like to call the Raptors “remaining big three” of Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka will all be free agents after the 2019-2020 season. In fact, the only Raptor players currently under contract for the 2019-2020 season are Norman Powell and OG Anunoby, while they will have emerging star Pascal Siakam as a restricted free agent. Their “remaining big three” will all be over the age of 30 when their contracts expiring, Lowry and Gasol 34 and 35 respectively. The Raptors knew when they traded for Kawhi that if he left a rebuilding process was likely to happen and smartly, they didn’t give out any bad long term contracts.
Now that I have knocked on the age of the “remaining big three”, let me back up and say all three can help a team win, whether it’s for the Raptors or another team. The Raptors need to weigh making the playoffs this year, coming off the franchise’s only NBA championship, verse getting a jump start on the rebuilding process around Siakam. If I was making the call, I would be on the phone shopping anyone on the roster not named Siakam, focused on trying to trade their “remaining big three” and Powell.
Of course, this may be easier said than done, especially in the case of Powell and even Gasol. However, the Raptors have a real chance to pull a smaller (and I can’t emphasize the word smaller enough) like trade that the Boston Celtics did back in 2014. By this I mean, the Raptors can move aging players for draft picks and bad contracts in an attempt to speed up their rebuilding process. In addition to their talents, the “remaining big three” all have contracts that make them appealing to teams looking to dump bad long term salary.
Teams like the Minnesota Timberwolves, who missed out on a free agent point guard, might be interested in a Lowry and Powell for Canadian born Andrew Wiggins and Jeff Teague swap. Other teams might be willing to pay the Raptors draft picks to take back a long term salary in exchange for one their expiring deals or trade picks to dump salary to get under the luxury tax line. Either way, the Raptors should take on the rebuilding process a year early and use their “remaining big three” as player assets or contract assets to get draft picks. The team has a history of hitting on recent picks, so the more the better.
Oklahoma City Thunder
So the Raptors had their back up plan in place and knew Kawhi could easily leave them. However, the Thunder were shocked to find out a year after signing a long term deal, George wanted to be traded. The Thunder made the tough call but got back a great return. Those five first-round picks (four of which are unprotected) and Gilgeous-Alexander set them up with a promising future, while Gallinari was thrown in as salary filler. The Thunder are still a likely playoff team in the west without George but their title window was just slammed shut.
Here is the dilemma for the Thunder, there are two courses of action here for the Thunder, trade Russell Westbrook and start over with their gold mine of draft picks or keep him and make the playoffs. As a solo small market franchise (meaning they are the only major pro sports team in the state of Oklahoma), the fans don’t have anywhere to turn their attention should the Thunder blow it up and rebuild. This factor tends to make me think they will try to retool around Westbrook rather than trade him away, even though it means they will likely be a first-round exit in the playoffs for many years to come. However, there is speculation that Westbrook could be on the way out the door.
Whether the Thunder ultimately keep or trade Westbrook, they should make another trade to get under the luxury tax. According to Spotrac, the Thunder about $9.5 million dollars over the tax and still need to add at least one more player to meet the league minimum of 14 players on a roster. Gallinari is entering the last year of his deal and should be easy to move for the Thunder, in order to get under the tax line and have room to sign a few solid free agents. With all the picks they got from the Clippers, they shouldn’t have a hard time finding a suitor.
After the release of Avery Bradley and trade for Dwight Howard, the Memphis Grizzlies have enough cap room to make a Gallinari for Jae Crowder swap. The Grizzlies would want back a draft pick but since both players are entering the final year of their respective deals, the Grizzlies would likely not want much draft compensation. By making this trade, the Thunder get under the tax line, get back a solid role player, and open up themselves to sign an impact free agent. By getting under the tax line it allows the Thunder to use the non-tax payer mid-level exception, starting at about $9.3 million dollars, instead of the taxpayer mid-level exception, which starts at about $5.7 million dollars.
If the Thunder plan to keep Westbrook, this is the course of action they should take. However, if they decide it’s time to trade the franchise’s best player, they could net themselves a huge return. There were rumors and reports that the Thunder were looking to trade Steven Adams earlier this offseason and if Westbrook is moved, he would more than likely be out the door as well. Even with his supermax contract and age, plenty of teams will line up to trade for Westbrook.
A small market team like Phoenix, Charlotte, or Minnesota could put together a package for the Thunder to bring in Westbrook. Smaller market teams would look to make a deal as it is harder for them to get big name free agents to sign and Westbrook would be under the team’s control for at least the next three seasons. A dark horse team to keep an eye on is the San Antonio Spurs.
Right now it’s just speculation but earlier this offseason there were reports that the Spurs wanted to trade DeMar DeRozan in an attempt to shake up the roster. If any coach can get the best out of Westbrook it would be Gregg Popovich. The Spurs could offer the Thunder DeRozan, Marco Belinelli‘s expiring deal, young guard Dejounte Murray or Derrick White and some draft picks. This package would give the Thunder more draft picks, a young guard to pair with Gilgeous-Alexander, and a star player in DeRozan to sell to the fan base (or potentially move at the trade deadline in February).
In the end, the Kawhi and George move to Los Angeles has thrown the entire NBA world into chaos and the fans (bleeping) love it! The NBA doesn’t have a clear title favorite for the first time in years and the regular season will actually matter this upcoming year. To conclude the Raptors are in good shape to build post Kawhi and knew this day was likely coming. Meanwhile, the Thunder were totally caught off guard and have some hard decisions to make, but if they decide to blow it up and rebuild, they will have far and away the most assets in the league to play with.
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Main Image Credit: Vaughn Ridley, Getty