The Thunder has acquired Etan Thomas and two 2010 second-round picks from Minnesota in exchange for Damien Wilkins and Chucky Atkins.
On one hand, the deal could be viewed simply as three aging reserves and two second-round picks swapping places. But this trade holds much more significance for the Thunder in both the short and long term.
Just last week I touched on how the Thunder’s post play remains the weakest link. Young guns D.J. White, Serge Ibaka and Byron Mullens aren’t ready to contribute consistent minutes next season and the addition of Thomas now means they don’t have to.
Oklahoma City is now looking at a steady power forward/center rotation of Jeff Green and Nenad Krstic as the starters and Nick Collison and Etan Thomas as their backups. Roles should be clearly defined in 2009-10 as opposed to the uncertain responsibilities surrounding Thunder bigs Collison, Green, Chris Wilcox, Joe Smith, Robert Swift and Johan Petro at the start of last season.
But more than that, the Thunder has brought in the type of player it lacked — a tough-minded, physical presence who rebounds, defends and blocks shots like his career depends on it. Collison is as close as it gets on the Thunder, but he lacks Thomas’ athletic gifts, shot-blocking skills and physical prowess in the post. Not only does Thomas fill that void, but he can now serve as a mentor to players like Mullens, Ibaka and White. If the Thunder stood pat and you looked around the locker room come October there wouldn’t have been any name plates above cubicles that you honestly could have said would make the young bigs better. They needed someone to challenge them every day by punishing them on the practice court and demonstrating healthy habits on game days.
The Thunder also landed two more second-round picks from Minnesota in next year’s draft. One is Minnesota’s and the other will be the lesser of the eventual second-round slotting between Houston, Portland and Chicago. It bumps Oklahoma City’s total number of draft picks to five in 2010. The Thunder has its own first-rounder as well as Phoenix’s unprotected first-round selection. And OKC likely will retain its own second-round pick rather than having to send the conditional pick to Dallas as agreed to in the draft-night deal for Mullens.
Meanwhile, Thomas’ expiring $7.35 million contract is only slightly more than the combined $6.78 million Atkins and Wilkins were owed next season. Atkins was only guaranteed $760,000. But because the Thunder is so far underneath the salary cap and Thomas’ deal is coming off the books anyway, the deal isn’t a financial risk.
Thomas, however, is injury-prone. He’s appeared in more than 65 games only twice in his seven-year career. He missed the entire 2007-08 season following open heart surgery to repair a leaking aortic valve before returning for 2008-09 and playing only 26 games before tearing his MCL in mid-January. The only questions are whether Thomas can stay healthy long enough to contribute in the areas in which the Thunder sorely need his services and whether he’s outlasted the setbacks and even has enough left in the tank to contribute.
But The Thunder has undoubtedly added another player who fits the team’s commitment to high-character players. Thomas’ work as a poet, author and community activist has been well documented and lauded for years, establishing him as not only one of the classiest NBA players but also one of the most conscious ones. I remember trying to set up interviews for a profile I did on Gilbert Arenas in January 2007 and a Wizards PR man eagerly wanting to get me Thomas on the phone. I didn’t know it then but it was a testament to Thomas’ character. (Trust me, PR people are never that willing to just hand a player the phone for an interview.)
Oklahoma City also has just 12 players under contract following the trade, allowing the Thunder to explore more signings or trades this summer or during the season. It could pave the way for Desmond Mason’s return or the addition of a third point guard to play behind Russell Westbrook and Shaun Livingston.
And just like Earl Watson, Wilkins had the potential of becoming a bit of a problem had he stayed on the roster next season. Wilkins, known as a classy guy, often voiced his displeasure with his situation last season and could have gone from miserable to malcontent next year. Wilkins likely would have played fewer minutes next season than the 15.5 he averaged last year now that Thabo Sefolosha is here for a full season and No. 3 overall pick James Harden figures to be solidly in the rotation. Atkins, meanwhile, will be 35 in 2 1/2 weeks, and his career-low shooting percentages of 29.1 percent from the field and 25 percent from 3 in 18 games for the Thunder last season proved the sun is setting on his career.