The NBA’s trading deadline is now just two weeks away.
At this time on Feb. 21, we’ll learn whether what you see with the Oklahoma City Thunder is what you’ll get in the playoffs, or whether the team took a stab at a deal to shore up an area or two prior to the postseason run.
On our weekly 30-minute Google+ Hangout today on newsok.com/live, we discussed trade possibilities for the Thunder. And I had a suggestion for Sam Presti.
It’s time the Thunder general manager listens to his fan base and go after the big man in Phoenix.
It’s time Presti makes a play for Jermaine O’Neal.
What, who did you think we were talking about?
O’Neal, 34, is at the tail end of his career. But he still could be a fantastic fit for the rest of the year. Now in his 17th season, O’Neal is averaging 6.6 points, 4.1 rebounds and 1.1 blocked shots in 16 minutes per game. He could slide right in behind Kendrick Perkins as the backup center and be an immediate upgrade over the incumbent Hasheem Thabeet, who’s averaging just 4 1/2 minutes fewer than O’Neal.
Most importantly, O’Neal wouldn’t ruin the future financial state of the franchise, or force the Thunder to part with one or more of its promising young players — two things OKC refuses to even entertain. O’Neal is making the veteran minimum, or roughly $1.35 million. But only about $850,000 of that is paid for by the Suns and therefore used for trading purposes (the league reimburses a fixed amount to teams signing veterans like O’Neal to one-year deals). It all leads to the perfect proposition for OKC. O’Neal is making minimal money, on an expiring contract and still has talent in the tank.
The only thing left to do is pin down a package.
The most logical scenario would involve Eric Maynor, the reserve point guard who lost his job in mid-December and hasn’t played meaningful minutes since. It wasn’t long ago that Maynor was widely considered one of the best backup point guards in the league and a potential future starter. Before tearing his ACL, Maynor appeared to be playing his way right out of OKC’s price range. Now, the emergence of Reggie Jackson seems to have made Maynor expendable. But if he can return to form, Maynor would be a good get for the Suns and their stability behind starter Goran Dragic. By trading for Maynor now, Phoenix also would gain the right to match any offer Maynor might receive as a restricted free agent next summer. Additionally, the Suns have a history of success with getting the best out of former injured players (Steve Nash, Grant Hill, Shaquille O’Neal and even Jermaine O’Neal). Maynor might just flourish playing for a Phoenix franchise that offers the fountain of youth.
It’s worth noting, too, that O’Neal recently had a heated confrontation with Suns GM Lance Blanks. Although Blanks recently downplayed the seriousness of that dispute, it’s possible the relationship has ended between player and team, leaving O’Neal on the proverbial chopping block. If so, the Suns might not require much in return. Maynor alone might do the trick. But keep in mind the Thunder also can dangle its own first round pick, which projects to be the 29th overall selection.
Presti probably wouldn’t want to surrender that pick solely for a one-year rental. Never know what better deal might come along. In the 2010 draft, Presti used two late first-round picks, No. 21 and No. 26, to move up to the 11th spot. Never mind who was taken once there. But with Toronto’s protected first-round pick in the bank, the Thunder might be more inclined to sweeten the pot.
O’Neal for Maynor works straight up, and the beauty of that swap is that it actually would save the Thunder nearly $1.5 million by shedding Maynor’s $2.33 million from the books. Another idea is for the Thunder to try to get P.J. Tucker in that package as well. Tucker is a bulldog defender, and, if nothing else, he’s another body the Thunder could throw at LeBron James in a potential Finals rematch. And because Tucker is making the league minimum, the Thunder still would be saving about $700,000 even in that two-for-one swap.
The only issue is that would leave the Thunder with just two point guards. Teams generally like to have a third for emergency purposes, and keeping Maynor around might be worth it based on that preference alone. But with Russell Westbrook as durable as they come, Kevin Durant playing more and more at the point and Jackson showing signs of coming into his own, the Thunder realistically could live without that luxury. Or, if the Thunder takes a pass on Tucker, the team always could sign a veteran guard with its 15th and final roster spot. Could there be a deeper reason Presti added Chris Quinn to the Tulsa 66ers earlier this year?
It certainly wouldn’t be the most glamorous trade in Thunder history. But it could have a big impact. O’Neal’s presence in the paint could hit the Heat where it hurts and finally make Miami pay a bit for playing small.
Meanwhile, financially OKC need not have any fear. Because the Thunder is less than $1 million from exceeding the tax threshold, any deal that might be made before the deadline is sure to be minor. It’s not that OKC is obstinately against paying the tax. OKC simply can’t this season without facing future implications.
Under the new collective bargaining agreement, starting with the 2015-16 season teams that were in the tax in three of any of the four previous seasons must pay what’s known as a “repeater tax.” Because the Thunder is likely to be in the tax for the next two seasons if it re-signs Kevin Martin, the franchise can’t afford to exceed that threshold this season. If the Thunder did, that would then cost the organization an additional dollar on top of the incremental rate it already would be penalized for exceeding the tax. The rate starts at $1.50 for every $1 teams go over and increases incrementally to $1.75, $2.50, $3.25 and $3.75 for each additional $5 million teams spend beyond the tax.
So, no, it’s not a blockbuster, and it’s not even the big man from Phoenix most around these parts might covet.
But in adding Jermaine O’Neal, the Thunder could get just a tad bit better without blowing up its books or parting with promising young players.
It’s an idea, at least, one that should add a shred of intrigue to an otherwise ho hum upcoming two-game set against the Suns.