While reserve center Hasheem Thabeet returned to his native Tanzania earlier this month, teammate Daniel Orton made a serious bid for a new home on the Thunder depth chart.
In three games at the Orlando Pro Summer League, Orton averaged 12.0 points, 5.0 rebounds, shot 66.7 percent (16 for 24) from the field, had five blocked shots, three steals and also made his lone 3-point attempt.
The 6-foot-10, 255-pound former Bishop McGuinness High School standout had never looked better in an NBA setting. Orton seemed in better shape, was more agile and displayed the ability to pick-and-roll rather than just pick-and-pop.
“After watching him play, you know that he has the talent and he is an NBA player,” said Thunder assistant Rex Kalamian, who coached OKC to a 5-0 record and the Summer League title. “He's got a lot of skill.”
Although it is dangerous to overreact to what transpires at Summer League, pleasant performances such as Orton's shouldn't be completely ignored, either.
Some proclaim Orton made himself trade bait by excelling in Orlando. Another viewpoint is Orton might have made Thabeet expendable.
Thunder rookie center Steven Adams also had some moments in four Summer League appearances (9.0 ppg; 6.5 rpg; .600 FG; five blocks). If the 19-year-old New Zealander proves to be further along than anticipated, being able to release Thabeet would free up $700,000 of salary space and one roster spot.
Last July, Thabeet signed a three-year, $3.65 million contract with $1.7 million of it guaranteed. His $1.2 million salary was fully guaranteed last season and $500,000 of this season's $1.2 million salary is guaranteed.
The fact $500,000 would stay on OKC's books even if Thabeet is released could be his biggest leverage to remain on the roster because the Thunder has much better things to do than forfeit half a million bucks to someone no longer on the team.
Then again, Thabeet could be dealt to another team and become the Thunder's third trade exception (roughly $2.5 million for Eric Maynor, which expires Feb. 21, 2014; roughly $6.6 million for Kevin Martin, which expires July 11, 2014).
Rookie second-round pick Grant Jerrett (10.8 ppg; 50.0 3FG, five blocks in four games) also performed well in Orlando and made a strong bid to make the roster.
OKC has 11 players with guaranteed contracts and three players with non-guaranteed deals (see chart).
Non-guaranteed contracts become fully guaranteed on Jan. 10 each season. Before the deadline, non-guaranteed pay is prorated.
If Thabeet, Orton, Liggins and Jerrett make the 2013-14 roster, the Thunder would have the full allotment of 15 players and a team salary of approximately $70.9 million, which is safely under the league's punitive tax threshold of $71.7 million.
Those non-guaranteed deals also give OKC the flexibility to waive Thabeet, Orton and/or Liggins before Jan. 10, which would free up salary and make room for someone like veteran guard Derek Fisher, who has been a late addition the previous two seasons.
Orton, who turns 23 on Aug. 6, is 31/2 years younger than Thabeet and is easily the Thunder's most talented offensive center.
With the hefty contract of starting center Kendrick Perkins expiring after the 2014-15 season, Thabeet, Orton and Adams have an opportunity to line up as far more affordable replacements.
Who knows, Orton might already be next in line.
Players selected in the first round of the NBA Draft can be offered 80 and 120 percent of their predetermined pay rate in that year's rookie salary scale.
Lottery picks routinely sign for 120 percent of their pay rate, which is why center Steven Adams of Pittsburgh reportedly will be paid $2,090,880 his rookie season with the Thunder rather than the $1,742,400 slotted for the No. 12 overall pick.
OKC saved money with rookie small forward Andre Roberson of Colorado, however, and reportedly will pay him $740,560 next season rather than the $925,700 slotted for the No. 26 overall pick.
Second-round picks do not have guaranteed contracts. Next season's minimum salary starts at $490,180, which is what Arizona power forward Grant Jerrett, picked No. 40 overall, will be paid if he makes the Thunder roster.
PLAYER; 2013-14 SALARY
Kevin Durant; $17,832,627
Russell Westbrook; $14,693,906
Serge Ibaka; $12,350,000
Kendrick Perkins; $8,727,437
Thabo Sefolosha; $3,900,000
Nick Collison; $2,585,668
Jeremy Lamb; $2,111,160
Steven Adams; $2,090,880
Reggie Jackson; $1,260,360
Perry Jones III; $1,082,520
Andre Roberson; $740,560
x-Hasheem Thabeet: $1,200,000
Daniel Orton; $916,099
DeAndre Liggins; $884,293
Grant Jerrett; $490,180