Behind all the attractive assets and the pit of possibilities, whether the Thunder decides to grab a seat at the trading table before the Feb. 24 deadline ultimately will boil down to one fundamental question.
Does the front office think now is the time to strike?
There might not be a team in the NBA in better position than the Thunder to take advantage of this year's trading season. But, depending on the extent of the deal, doing so could potentially be an all-or-nothing proposition.
The most important thing to keep in mind as the deadline approaches and the rumors start swirling is the Thunder has spent the past 3½ seasons seeking to get here — the point where it can sit comfortably as a franchise that boasts one of the league's most cost-friendly payroll structures.
Moves that were made during the franchise's final year in Seattle were done with one eye looking ahead to today. Now, as the league faces the prospects of a falling salary cap and a potential lockout, the Thunder must decide whether the time is right to pounce or if standing pat is more appropriate.
Uncertainty over what new rules in a renegotiated collective bargaining agreement could look like has pushed numerous front-office personnel to proceed with caution. The Thunder, though, has the right mix of ample young talent, future salary cap room and additional assets to broker a blockbuster.
Seven of the Thunder's 11 players who have guaranteed contracts for next season will return still on their rookie deals. The Thunder's payroll next season, including the first year of Kevin Durant's contract extension, will be roughly $40 million. That's $18 million under the current salary cap and provides plenty of room even if the cap decreases, as has been anticipated.
Taking back additional salary beyond the 2012-13 season, however, could pose a problem. Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka are scheduled to get their bumps that year, and having Durant, Westbrook, Ibaka and potentially Jeff Green still on the books along with another high-dollar deal could put a sizable squeeze on a small-market franchise like the Thunder.
But there are always options.
The Thunder has a glaring need for improved low-post scoring and defense and has been linked to players like Cleveland's Anderson Varejao and Denver's Nene, two centers who have carved out a niche playing their role alongside their respective stars. But Varejao is out for the year with a torn ankle tendon, and Nene can opt out of the final year of his deal this summer, making a trade for him risky since it would involve giving up valuable assets. Other players, like Los Angeles Clippers center Chris Kaman, have just one year remaining on their deals and could easily serve as an upgrade without threatening the current payroll structure.
But what makes the Thunder unique is its mix of success and youth. The Thunder entered Saturday night's game at Sacramento with a 33-18 record. The roster averages just 24.5 years of age.
So for as tempting as trading season can be, the Thunder is nowhere near a place where it has to make a move.