Well, it happened.
The Thunder traded Carmelo Anthony.
Given his comments at the end of the season, it was clear that a divorce was on the horizon. Melo’s game had eroded and the Thunder couldn’t find a good fit for him on the floor. His refusal to consider coming off the bench probably complicated the on-court fit as well. The Thunder dealt him for Dennis Schröder and Timothé Luwawu-Cabarrot, and the Atlanta Hawks immediately began the process of waiving Melo, which should give some indicator of his value. The Hawks have been trying to get off the Schröder contract for a while, and Luwawu wasn’t getting a ton of run in Philadelphia. The Thunder also gave up a protected first-round pick in 2022. It’s not exactly the end that either side expected a year ago, when OKC traded for Melo with great fanfare as part of a Thunder big three.
But with the Thunder and Melo both moving on, what are the pros and cons of the move? What does the Thunder’s roster and books look like going forward? And what might still be coming this offseason?
On-Court Pros & Cons
It was pretty clear the Thunder needed to make this move. Carmelo was an awkward fit on the court and unhappy with his role.
Luxury tax aside, if there was going to be a trade, this was probably the best deal on the table. Atlanta is in the middle of a rebuild, and taking on heavy salary for compensation is a move they’re quite happy to make, especially if it comes with getting rid of Schröder, who’s been unhappy with his role. Schröder comes with character concerns including a pending battery charge, and his advanced numbers with the Hawks aren’t exactly awe-inspiring due to poor defense and mediocre shooting. However, he gives the Thunder a dimension they haven’t had in a long time as a sixth man for scoring and playmaking off the bench.
Playmaking has been a lowkey problem for the Thunder for a while, as the organization has lacked the kind of dynamic bench guard that’s driven its best bench units (Reggie Jackson, James Harden, Kevin Martin to a lesser degree). Getting Schröder allows Billy Donovan to play just as fast with the bench as with the starters and should allow the team to hold up when Westbrook rests.
The Thunder’s bench has a lot of long, rangy players who like to run the floor, and Schröder provides someone to push the break with. Shooting is going to be a real problem, though; the Thunder wasn’t a great shooting team last year, getting much of its offense from crushing offensive rebounding. Without Melo, the problem goes from bad to worse. Schröder is a similar archetype to Westbrook, with similar pros and cons — fast, slashing pick-and-roll playmakers with inconsistent defense and little shooting. They will probably play together in some lineups this year, but the fit isn’t natural — both like to dominate the ball, and neither’s great playing off it.
The Thunder has a choice to make: start Jerami Grant in Melo’s old spot, making bad shooting worse, or slide Patrick Patterson into the lineup and hope he has a resurgence. Even the bench shooting isn’t great; the best shooter is Alex Abrines, who was in-and-out of the rotation, and after that, there’s a precipitous dropoff. Terrance Ferguson has to show improvement for bench spacing to be workable. Donovan may opt to stagger Westbrook and Paul George some, which would help. But George-centric bench units were bad last year. Will they be better now? Hard to say.
Timothé Luwawu-Cabarrot hasn’t shown a lot to this point for the Sixers, but he’s a young, athletic wing prospect. The Thunder has lacked significant young talent in recent years due to some draft misses (Cameron Payne looms large). Luwawu joins Hamidou Diallo as an interesting young upside play for the Thunder. Where he fits in the rotation is an open question — he played a decent number of games for the Sixers last season, but the Thunder’s guard rotation is currently a little crowded, particularly if Roberson comes back for training camp.
Still, getting a prospect back is handy in a trade that was basically a salary dump.
Thunder Cap Sheet and Roster
So what does this trade do for the Thunder’s financial situation?
Here’s the breakdown.
The Thunder is still well over the tax, but cutting Carmelo Anthony’s salary saves significant tax money this year. Given the long-term money added for Schröder, though, the organization is about $6 million a year further over than they would have been waiving Carmelo and stretching him.
At this point, the team is pretty much locked in to being well over the tax line for the foreseeable future. That may change next summer when the straitjackets from the cap spike’s worst contracts start to come off the books and teams may ask less for salary dumps. For now, though, the Thunder projects as a very, very expensive team. Which is kind of how it’s supposed to work: you pay to contend. It’s not the egregious burden it was expected to be pre-trade, though.
The Thunder gave up a lottery-protected 2022 first-round pick as well. From what little information is publicly available, it looks like OKC will keep the pick if it falls one through fourteen in the 2022 draft, but give it up if it’s later than that. If the Thunder keeps the pick, two second-rounders will be substituted instead (presumably 2022 and 2023).
In addition, the Thunder generated a $10.9 million trade exception in the deal. A trade exception allows them to make a trade without sending any salary in return, which comes in very handy for capped-out teams. It can’t be aggregated with a player in a trade —think of it as a placeholder for a player of that value or smaller. David Griffin used trade exceptions to fill out a very expensive roster in Cleveland, and Sam Presti could look to do similar work.
The Thunder also now has a few decent mid-sized contracts that would work well for trade matching. The team stands at fourteen guaranteed roster spots for now, which leaves only one full-time roster spot for the season (you can sign up to twenty players for training camp and preseason, but in-season rosters are capped at fifteen).
The luxury tax burden is significantly lower, and players who can and will play came back in the deal. It remains to be seen what happens on the court, but on the books, this deal’s a slight positive for now. Though giving up a pick isn’t something that you want to make a habit of doing.
With fourteen roster spots filled, the Thunder could go into training camp with an empty spot or make a minor signing. But personally, I don’t think Presti is quite done.
Waiving Kyle Singler is definitely a possibility and one that might well happen before the season. That would give the Thunder an extra roster spot. OKC is also still thin on shooting and has a couple of low-mid salary players in Singler, Abrines and Patterson, as well as the full taxpayer mid-level exception available.
There could be more trades coming. It’s hard to say what the Thunder would target for sure, but more shooting is still a prime need. The fact that Presti sent Atlanta’s Mike Muscala to Philadelphia in the Melo deal instead of keeping him in Oklahoma City might mean he’s happy with the frontcourt shooting currently on the roster — but it seems unlikely.
There are the makings of a decent rotation taking shape this year, with a clear identity built around fast, attacking, pick-and-roll heavy basketball with long-armed, switchy defense. Any remaining moves will probably be minor and revolve around filling out depth and consolidating roster spots.
Is the Thunder a better team today than it was yesterday? It’s an open question. But it’s definitely more interesting, and Sam Presti may not be done. Hold onto your hats, because there’s still some time until training camp.