LAS VEGAS — As bad contracts and bad headaches go in the NBA, the Thunder is on the league’s lighter end of the spectrum. But Oklahoma City parted with one of its few unhappy players and its most expensive contract on Friday when it waived reserve point guard Earl Watson. Watson has agreed to sign a one-year deal with Indiana. But under league rules, he can’t officially ink his name with the Pacers until the seven-day waiver period ends next week. For the Thunder, the deal puts Oklahoma City even further below the salary cap while freeing an additional roster spot.. Watson, the 30-year-old backup to Russell Westbrook, grew frustrated with his role last season as a member of the 23-win Thunder. The eight-year veteran became caught in the Thunder’s commitment to youth and went from opening-night starter to mid-season backup to bench warmer by season’s end. He finished the season with averages of 6.6 points and 5.8 assists while playing 26.1 minutes in 68 games. The Thunder has long stressed its commitment to high-character players and likely didn’t want to risk tampering with the team’s current chemistry. Watson never publicly requested a trade but was often visibly discouraged inside the locker room and on the bench during games. He said at the end of last season that he didn’t expect to return to Oklahoma City. Watson’s playing time was inconsistent toward the end of last season and could have become even more erratic next year with the Thunder committed to developing Westbrook and Shaun Livingston at the point guard position. Backcourt players Kyle Weaver and No. 3 overall pick James Harden are also capable of initiating the offense. The Thunder also has Chucky Atkins in the mix, but the 34-year-old point guard has only a partially guaranteed contract for next season and could be on the way out as well. Thunder general manager Sam Presti, as he’s done in the past after waiving players, did not provide additional details of the transaction, saying only, "We thank Earl for his professionalism and wish him the best in the future.” The terms of the buyout agreement are unclear, but the Thunder could now be more than $14 million under the salary cap if Watson agreed to forfeit half of the $6.6 million he was owed in 2009-10. The Thunder was approximately $11.5 million under the cap before the move. The Thunder discussed deals involving Watson throughout last season but likely never agreed to a trade because it would have required the team take on additional players for salary cap purposes. Oklahoma City could have held onto Watson until the trading deadline in hopes of a team seeking to shed salary and offering a sweeter deal for Watson’s expiring contract. But Watson isn’t believed to have inspired many attractive offers, and because the Thunder already is so far below the cap, Watson’s expiring contract was much less valuable to Oklahoma City. Oklahoma City’s roster now has 13 players under contract, two fewer than the maximum allowed under league rules. If Atkins is also bought out or perhaps traded this summer, the Thunder will have even more flexibility with three available roster spots. It’s possible the Thunder could use its additional cap space and one of the spots to bring in a veteran point guard who can help Westbrook’s development. The assets also might help make it possible for Oklahoma City to bring back free agent forward Desmond Mason. Watson couldn’t be reached for comment Friday. His departure marks the latest defection from the Thunder’s ever-changing roster. Oklahoma City is now left with only two players, Nick Collison and Damien Wilkins, who Presti did not either draft or acquire via free agency or a trade since taking over in 2007.
Earl Watson’s Thunder Stats→Points per game: 6.6 →FG percentage: 38.4 →Assists per game: 5.8 →Steals per game: 0.7 Source: NBA.com