6 min read

Breaking down the somewhat complicated Thunder roster situation

Per NBA rules, teams can have 12 players on its active roster, meaning 12 guys that are dressed and ready to play. You can have up to 15 players on the team, as that’s a provisional for players that are injured, but any man over 12 isn’t allowed to be in uniform and is deemed inactive. This is also known as the Robert Swift Rule (not really, but it should be).

Also, you must have at least one player on your inactive list and any player sent to your D-League affiliate counts toward your inactive players. The active and inactive list can be set on a game-by-game basis, one hour before tip-off, with no length of stay required for either list. If, for example, a star player is injured and forced to sit out one or two games, the coach can place him on the inactive list and “activate” another player, giving the team a full 12 players available to play. Really not all that complicated. That is, until you get to the Thunder roster.

Oklahoma City has nine spots currently locked up:
Kevin Durant
Jeff Green
Thabo Sefolosha
Nenad Krstic
Damien Wilkins (sigh)
Nick Collison
Chucky Atkins
Russell Westbrook
James Harden

Those guys will be on the active roster without any doubt, barring a buyout or trade. So with three spots remaining on the active roster and six guys still out there, who gets what and who’s going where?

Shaun Livingston99 percent chance to be on the active roster
A virtual lock to be on the opening night active roster. With Earl Watson being bought out, the Thunder’s down to two point guards – Westbrook and Atkins. And Atkins probably isn’t going to be with the team much longer one would think. Livingston looked great during the summer leagues and with his height and length, he can play three positions and give OKC that versatility it loves.

D.J. White85 percent
White was probably the most consistent player in the summer leagues and he gives OKC some nice frontcourt depth. He only played in seven games last year, but was productive in all of them. He’s a nice player that won’t ever blow you away, but is always a candidate for 15 points on 6-8 shooting and seven rebounds. He’s a great pick and pop guy off the bench and he’s even got a post move or two. He’s the ideal bench big man and I think he’s a pretty valuable piece. The only thing that could hold him back is if he’s still not totally healthy or still hasn’t added the extra weight desired by the coaching staff.

Kyle Weaver80 percent
Weaver played in 56 games last year with the Thunder and saw a ton of time this summer at point guard. I think Thunder management has ideas of Weaver being the third point man on this team and also sliding into the 2-guard and small forward positions when needed. That’s why players like Weaver are so darn valuable – instead of having three guys to play those spots, you just need one. Basically the entire Thunder roster is built this way which gives so much breathing room to Scott Brooks. Weaver is a solid defender that’s worth keeping around. Maybe OKC’s staff decides he’d be better of in Tulsa refining his point guard skills. But as it stands now, I think he’ll be on the active roster come opening night.

Serge Ibaka50 percent
Last Monday, I would have put this chance at around 75-80 percent. But a poor Vegas showcased a lot of Ibaka’s weaknesses and things he needs to improve on. He’s weak on the glass. He’s not a great help defender. His offensive game looks NBA ready, but sometimes he can kind of get lost in the flow of the game. Oh, and he’s weak on the glass. Did I already say that? At 6-foot-10, OKC needs Ibaka to be a rebounding big that can score and defend. And I think he will absolutely be this. But not yet. Keep in mind, he’s just 19 years old. And the amount of polish and skill he showed these last two weeks is extremely encouraging. But just not yet. I think he’ll see time on the big club this year, but unless he makes a good jump (which I think he’s capable of) I don’t think he’ll find a permanent spot.

Byron Mullens40 percent
I actually could see Mullens making the active roster, just because center is where OKC lacks depth the most. Behind Nenad Krstic, there’s technically no one. Maybe the Thunder decides Ibaka could play the 5, but since Mullens is 7’2″ and all, even if he doesn’t like it he’s going to play some center. I think he’d rather be with Oklahoma City playing center than in the D-League playing where he wants. And if not, then I’d question his brain. But as it stands, he’s not ready. He’s a total project and has a lot to work on. He’ll see some minutes, but I doubt he’ll be active from the get-go. But again, he does add depth to the only position that lacks it, so you never know.

Robert Vaden30 percent
He didn’t do what he wanted to do and he didn’t do what OKC was hoping he’d do the last two weeks. He shot the ball poorly outside of one nice game where he hit 4 of 5 from three. He’s got potential to be a 3-point specialist, but the Thunder’s got so many guys at guard that it’s hard to make room for him. I thought it was basically a competition between Vaden and Weaver for that last guard spot this summer and Weaver out-played Darth and that’s not saying a ton.

The next question is, should the Thunder just stick all six on the 15-man roster and have three sit in their Hugo Boss’s? What would seem like a nice idea is the three that aren’t put on the active roster would be placed on the inactive list and sent to OKC’s D-League affiliate. And as is the advantage of having your affiliate just two hours up the road, the Thunder would be able to call and recall the players if needed or if substantial progress has been shown. But there’s a problem with that – you can only assign two players to your D-League affiliate off your NBA roster. So something’s got to be done it seems.

Remember though, the NBA requires one player to be put on the inactive list and the team has to carry 13 players. So with one guy being designated to sit and look good in his suit, that would leave just two players left, which is exactly the number of players that are allowed to be in the D-League from the Thunder’s roster. Presti-chango! Maybe that was the plan in buying out Earl Watson was to create that one extra spot as needed. Or maybe I’m completely wrong and none of this matters one bit.

But who would benefit more from sitting and not playing with the big club rather than actually playing in Tulsa or somewhere else. Who’s the best candidate for the coveted Robert Swift Position? I think Ibaka fits the bill. He’s close to be ready for real NBA action and I think if say, Nick Collison were hurt, Chewie could step in and fill that spot. Mullens would be just fine for this spot too, but I think the organization has higher hopes for Ibaka. Vaden, well, nah.

And what about DeVon Hardin? He played a few nice games in Vegas and could maybe contribute in the future. He could be a candidate for the inactive spot. But he doesn’t look ready at all right now. So with OKC allowed just two spots in Tulsa, it would seem like using one on Hardin wouldn’t make a bunch of sense, especially when he can easily go back to Europe and play next year. But again, the center position is lacking, so maybe (albeit unlikely) there’s a chance he makes the active roster. If I were setting a number on him, I’d put it at 10 percent. But heck, as hard as I try, I have no idea what Sam Presti is thinking.

This all gets much easier if two dead weights can get dropped. I’m guessing, but I bet Sam Presti is working on buying out Chucky Atkins (whose clause is under a million) and maybe even Damien Wilkins. That’s two coveted active roster spots opened up and two slots that could be filled by guys that are ready to contribute. That’s why Watson was bought out and not traded. When you really look at OKC’s roster situation, you can see there’s a bit of a disconnect between the youth movement and the old guys clogging things up. So if there’s not a lot of value in guys like Atkins and Wilkins and the return isn’t worth the free roster spot, then just buy them out and make room for some young players. That’s what I anticipate happening at least.

And don’t forget the Thunder’s still talking with Desmond Mason about staying. So if OKC signs him, that means there’s just two open active roster slots and things will get shuffled around. Or heck, if the Thunder goes out and gets someone else, it sucks that spot up too. That’s another reason I don’t think Presti was all that concerned with going after guys like Paul Millsap or Marcin Gortat. If you sign someone like that you lock down a roster spot and set back your chance at developing your young talent. And in this case it appears that instead of trying to strike big with the quick fix, Presti defered to development. Which is after all, the Thunder way.