It's once again that time of the year.
Another NBA Draft has arrived and, for Thunder fans, that means another night of having absolutely no idea what to expect.
The Thunder enters Thursday night's draft slotted to select 28th overall. But with general manager Sam Presti at the wheel, anything is again liable to happen.
Presti executed a trade in four of his first five drafts as general manager. Last year, when the team selected Reggie Jackson with the 24th overall pick, was the only time that Presti didn't pull off a draft-night trade.
This year, on the eve of what was shaping up to be the least suspenseful first round in the franchise's Oklahoma City era, a report surfaced that said the Thunder has sought to trade into the top three.
The supposed target: Florida guard Bradley Beal.
It's the second report in the past two weeks that has connected the Thunder with trying to move into the top three. Typically, where there is smoke around this time of the year there is, well, more smoke. But the Thunder can't seem to shake this cloud of speculation.
And this time, the player provided a firsthand account of Presti's plans.
“He told me he was going to decide what they're going to do and considered getting up there,” Beal told ESPN.com on Wednesday, relaying a conversation he had with Presti during an interview at the draft combine in Chicago.
Beal, a 6-foot-4 shooting guard, is widely considered to be a top three pick. In his lone season at Florida, Beal averaged 14.8 points, 6.7 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 1.4 steals. He's viewed as a cross between Ray Allen and Eric Gordon.
According to the report, Presti spent three days in Gainesville, Fla. during the lockout watching the Gators practice. The report goes on to say Presti has had numerous conversations with Florida coach Billy Donovan, both over the phone and during in Dallas back when Donovan attended the first-round matchup between the Thunder and Mavericks.
“Oklahoma City exhausted every opportunity on campus to find out everything they could find out about Beal,” ESPN.com quoted an anonymous person as saying. “They've done everything they can.”
The question is this: how much can the Thunder afford to give up for its coveted man — if he is indeed the coveted man?
Charlotte owns the No. 2 pick. The Bobcats, after winning a league-worst seven games, lost out on the draft lottery and Kentucky forward Anthony Davis, the consensus No. 1 pick. The Bobcats are believed to be more interested in bringing in an established player as opposed to selecting from the remaining prospects, none of whom are considered can't-miss players.
A report by CBSSports.com earlier this month, citing an anonymous source, said Thunder guard James Harden “could be in play” in a potential swap between Presti and former Thunder assistant GM Rich Cho, who is now the Bobcats' general manager.
Harden, a fan favorite in Oklahoma City, has emerged as a top five shooting guard and the perfect buffer between Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant because of his ability to orchestrate the offense as well as spot up on the perimeter. Harden averaged 16.8 points, 4.1 rebounds and 3.7 assists, all career highs, en route to earning Sixth Man of the Year honors in his third season.
Any conversation centered on the Thunder climbing 26 spots certainly would begin with Harden. But one league source called talk of the Thunder trading Harden at all “humorous.”
“That team just went to the NBA Finals,” the source said. “I don't think they're breaking up their team.”
There is a growing concern, however, that if the Thunder doesn't do so now it will be forced to in the near future. That's because Harden's rapid development has created a financial quandary for the Thunder.
Many believe Harden has played his way into a maximum-allowable contract, which could be north of $65 million over four years. Harden is eligible for an extension to his rookie deal this summer, along with Serge Ibaka and Eric Maynor.
It's extremely unlikely that the Thunder will be able to retain Westbrook, Harden, Durant, Ibaka, Maynor and Kendrick Perkins without paying a stiff monetary penalty for exceeding what the league refers to as the tax threshold. For this season, that threshold was $70.3 million in team salary.
Though Harden and Maynor both hinted last week that they would be willing to sacrifice financially to stick around with the Thunder, their deals, and Ibaka's new contract, seemingly all would have to be well below their market value in order for the Thunder to keep its core intact.
NBA commissioner David Stern has repeatedly trumpeted the need for “player sharing” under the league's new collective bargaining agreement, and the Thunder might be the first team to fall victim to the league's new model.
It's the only thing that lends credence to this round of speculation.
Still, that day won't come for at least another year.
Harden, Ibaka and Maynor are all under contract for next season. If they don't agree to a new deal by Oct. 31, they will be restricted free agents next summer. Even then, they could return for their fifth seasons under what's known as a “qualifying offer” should both the Thunder fail to come to terms on a deal and another team fails to offer a desirable contract.
Much of the Thunder's summer will be spent figuring out how to make it all work.
But who's to say that first step won't be taken Thursday night?