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Explaining the Thunder’s Approach to 2017 Free Agency

Explaining the Thunder’s Approach to 2017 Free Agency
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When the clock strikes 12:01 AM ET on July 1, the Oklahoma City Thunder will make its interest known to Clippers free agent Blake Griffin.

It will undoubtedly make the same phone call to Gordon Hayward’s representatives.

Heck, it’ll probably reach out to Chris Paul’s people as well. And if he opts-out of his contract with Golden State, the Thunder will most likely hit up Kevin Durant’s people.

It’s standard operation every offseason, even when the Thunder doesn’t have cap space available. It’s not just Oklahoma City that does it, either. As noted in “Return of the King” by Brian Windhorst and Dave McMenamin, all 30 NBA teams reached out to LeBron James in July 2014 when he opted out of his contract with Miami. That included the Thunder, who had as much a chance of landing the megastar as the Nets have of winning a 7-game series against the Warriors today.

I believe this is known on the Internet as “shooting your shot.” Or “YOLO”. Whatever the cool kids are saying these days.

The idea of Griffin back in his home state has gained traction thanks to a tidbit in a L.A. Times article. The author, B.A. Turner, noted that “several executives” expect the Thunder to make a bid for the former OU Sooner legend. Making that a reality was always a tricky proposition. It’s even more complicated now.

Oklahoma City enters this offseason over the salary cap and with only smaller cap exceptions to spend; the kind that are unlikely to send a star free agent scrambling towards our fine state. It’d most likely take a weird set of circumstances and a sign-and-trade to make it happen.

So why bother reaching out to those guys?

Some of it is relationship building. Some of it is because you just never know. In today’s NBA where players openly recruit each other at all times—and where front offices forge working relationships with player agents and reps — a player’s level of interest in a team is probably no big mystery to front offices. Still, you’d be derelict in your duties as a team executive if you didn’t at least make a phone call. Or send a text. Or, in the case of the Clippers, send out a Lync invite or something.

All of this begs the next question: Why did Oklahoma City put itself in this position? More specifically, why did it extend Steven Adams and Victor Oladipo and take itself out of this summer’s free agent market?

Let’s be realistic for a moment: in the history of the NBA, how many Grade A free agents have signed with a team in a bottom-20 market?

LeBron to Cleveland is an obvious one that comes with an Akron-sized asterisk. Carlos Boozer left Cleveland for Utah in 2004 under odd circumstances. Orlando snagged Grant Hill and Tracy McGrady in 2000. Sure, it can happen. But it’s pretty rare.

We also hear more about the winners and less about the losers. Several teams came up empty in 2000, most notably Chicago. The prize the Magic were actually after that same summer, one Timothy Theodore Duncan, chose to remain with the Spurs. Those same Spurs pursued Chris Webber and Jason Kidd in subsequent years, snagging neither. The Knicks and Nets spent years carving up their teams in anticipation of making a splash in 2010 and came up short. The Rockets went hard after Chris Bosh in 2014.

(I’ll do the readers a favor and fast-forward over the events of early July 2016. Suffice it to say a few teams didn’t get the star player it wanted.)

And lest you think I’ve forgotten about the Spurs signing LaMarcus Aldridge, I haven’t. I saved it to note that it took San Antonio, praised as a shining example of small market success, merely 15 YEARS to sign a major free agent since modern free agency rules went into effect in 2000. It also doesn’t hurt that Aldridge went to high school outside Dallas and attended nearby University of Texas at Austin.

Maybe Griffin’s ties to Oklahoma will mean something. It may need to in order to lure the former OCS Saint and Oklahoma Sooner away from that Podunk metropolis of Los Angeles.

Still, as late as mid-October of last year, the Thunder had a path to create maximum cap space this summer without sacrificing its young core of Steven Adams, Victor Oladipo, and Andre Roberson. The plan was to forego extensions for each, but the owners and players were still working on a new collective bargaining agreement. In late October, right before the deadline for extending rookie scale contracts, teams were notified that cap holds might increase the following summer.

Cap holds are a phantom chunk of money that remains on a team’s books after a player’s contract expires. That player’s hold remains until he re-signs with his former team or signs with a new organization. He can also have his rights renounced, which removes the hold but prevents a team from exceeding the cap to re-sign him.

Oladipo’s cap hold was projected to jump from $13.1 million to nearly $20 million. Hold amounts for Adams and Roberson would have increased by a few million as well. Suddenly creating maximum cap room would have required making deeper cuts, such as dumping Alex Abrines and Domantas Sabonis in addition to Enes Kanter and others. That caused Sam Presti to change course and lock up Adams and Oladipo instead (while also trying to lock up Roberson).

When the new agreement was finalized, those cap hold increases were pushed off until 2018.

Oh well.

Sure, the Thunder still could have waited on those extensions. Waited to see if players wanted to sign in Oklahoma City. Maybe renounce the rights to a couple or all of its free agents in order to sign a Griffin or Hayward. But again, the history of stars signing in small markets isn’t rich.

Meanwhile, other teams could have hunted for Adams or Oladipo and signed them to offer sheets with terms the Thunder didn’t particularly want. Signing bonuses. Trade kickers. Three-year deals with player options after two years. These are all factors in Houston’s decision to not match Chandler Parsons’ 2014 offer sheet with Dallas, for example.

Given those dicey realities, and taking heed of the league’s warning about rising cap holds at the time, the Thunder played it safe and re-signed its own. The side benefit is it makes Adams and Oladipo easier to trade in the next year if the Thunder chooses to do so.

As many try to stress over and over: free agency isn’t going to be the magic elixir for this Thunder team. Sure, it will try to get in the game. But if it can’t, it will go back to the two things it has long relied upon: developing from within and trades.