LAS VEGAS — With the entire NBA gathered here in the desert, a city where only money flows, it’s an appropriate time and setting to analyze how Sam Presti and the Thunder have maximized every cent of every dollar they’ve spent this summer.
The Thunder entered the offseason with north of $30 million in salary cap space, and unlike in 2021-22, when the Thunder’s payroll at the end of the season was about $22 million below the salary floor — a shortfall that was shared among Thunder players – the new collective bargaining agreement has harsh penalties for teams that do not reach the salary floor at the start of the season, thus incentivizing teams to use their cap space in the offseason.
But as Thunder has creatively shown, there’s more than one way to use.
Instead of signing free agents either to one-year deals to hit the salary floor or to potentially onerous multi-year deals, the Thunder approached his spot with only the future in mind. A future where the primes of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Josh Giddey, Jalen Williams, Chet Holmgren and who knows who else could overlap.
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Gilgeous-Alexander is already on his rookie max extension (which will pay him upwards of $40 million annually through 2026-27), and in the Thunder’s best-case scenario, the likes of Giddey, Williams and Holmgren could be headed for rookie max extensions as well. It’s obviously early, as Holmgren has yet to play in an NBA game, but it’s a scenario the Thunder are preparing for.
Keeping homegrown talent even under those contracts is possible under the new CBA, but it would also come with a gigantic price tag for a small-market ownership group led by Clay Bennett who doesn’t have pockets the size of Steve Ballmer.
While it remains to be seen how Thunder ownership will respond if and when that time comes, as it similarly did in 2012, Presti and Co. are working. in a way that they don’t let the current costs of a promising but inexperienced team sacrifice the financial. flexibility and bank savings, the front office needs when it’s time to fight.
That’s why the Thunder didn’t make a Dillon Brooks-esque signing or similar splash in free agency. OKC instead operated in the margins, taking on unwanted expiring contracts in exchange for picks, as it did by acquiring Patty Mills ($6.8 million), Victor Oladipo ($9.5 million) and Rudy Gay ($6.5 million).
The Thunder received three second-round picks to take over Mills’ contract from Houston, and then, remarkably, OKC added another second-round pick in flipping Mills to Atlanta in a separate deal. The Thunder also received former Rockets Usman Garuba and TyTy Washington Jr. in the agreement with Atlanta.
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Garuba and Washington have underwhelmed as recent first-round picks, but the Thunder could flip one or both of them, or try to develop them within a more structured system. Or waive them if nothing happens, even if there is plenty of time before it is needed.
Teams can sign up to 21 players in the offseason, and right now the Thunder are at 19 players on standard contracts, not counting the reported free agents of former EuroLeague MVP Vasilije Micic, who will sign with the room-level exception, and Jack White, who would bring the number to 21.
And when cutting a player(s) is inevitable, whether it’s a veteran like Oladipo or a prospect like Garuba, the Thunder operate from a position of strength and are able to pick their best 17 guys when the season starts. You’d rather make tough decisions on players 18 through 21 than players one through four.
The Thunder’s flurry of head-spinning, and sometimes headache-inducing, moves have made the Thunder’s offseason easy to poke at: Does the Thunder know it can’t carry 39 players? What about the roster? How will Aaron Wiggins get minutes? What about Poku? Is OKC hoarding second round picks for fun?
But Thunder, if you haven’t noticed, doesn’t care about optics.
Heck, when the Thunder’s trade for Mills was made official Saturday, the trade to ship him away had already been reported.
In addition to using its cap space to sign Micic and White and absorb the contracts of Oladipo and Gay, the Thunder’s biggest maneuver came on draft night.
The Thunder used about half of their salary cap to acquire Davis Bertans’ contract from the Mavericks. Bertans, a sharpshooter who will have a chance to stay in OKC, is owed $17 million this season with only $5 million guaranteed in 2024-25.
To clean up Dallas’ books, the Thunder traded its No. 12 pick for the Mavericks’ 10th pick. In doing so, OKC made sure it got its guy in guard Cason Wallace, who dazzled in his summer league debut.
And while taking on $17 million in perceived bad money may seem like a steep price to pay, it was $17 million the Thunder had to spend this season anyway, all while keeping its books clean and its coffers full, in the years to come.
They might not look pretty or make sense on the surface, but every move the Thunder have made this offseason has been about cashing every draft and dollar now, preparing for when it’s time to pay and go all-in.
Thunder offseason timeline
– Thunder trade: Least valuable of its possible four first-round picks in 2024, 37th pick in 2023 draft (Hunter Tyson), second-round pick in 2024
– Nuggets trade: 2029 first round pick (protections not reported)
22nd of June
– Thunder trades: No. 12 pick (Dereck Lively II)
– Mavericks trade: No. 10 pick (Cason Wallace), Davis Bertans
– The Thunder draft Keyontae Johnson with the 50th pick
30th of June
– Thunder decline $1.9 million team option for Lindy Waters III, making Waters an unrestricted free agent
– Thunder trades: Cash considerations
– Heat trade: Victor Oladipo, 2029 second-round pick, 2030 second-round pick
8th of July
As part of a five-team deal…
– Thunder trades: Cash considerations for Hawks
– Rockets trade: Patty Mills, 2024 second-round pick, 2029 second-round pick, 2030 second-round pick to Thunder
8th of July
According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski…
– Thunder trades: Patty Mills
– Hawks trade: TyTy Washington Jr., Usman Garuba, Rudy Gay, future second-round pick
Thunder 2023-24 roster/payroll (as of July 9)
• Shai Gilgeous-Alexander: $33.4 million
• Davis Bertans: $17 million
• Lu Dort: $15.3 million
• Chet Holmgren: $10.4 million
• Victor Oladipo: $9.5 million
• Vasilije Micic: $7.7 million*
• Josh Giddey: $6.6 million
• Rudy Gay: $6.5 million
• Kenrich Williams: $6.2 million
• Cason Wallace: $5.3 million
• Alexey Pokusevski: $5 million
• Ousmane Dieng: $4.8 million
• Jalen Williams: $4.6 million
• Tre Mann: $3.2 million
• Usman Garuba: $2.6 million
• TyTy Washington Jr.: $2.3 million
• Jaylin Williams: $2 million
• Isaiah Joe: $2 million
• Jeremiah Robinson-Earl: $1.9 million
• Aaron Wiggins: $1.8 million
• Jack White: $1.8 million*
• Keyontae Johnson: Two-way contract
* Salary estimate. Micic and White have not been officially signed.