The two most valuable trade chips the Thunder possess present quite the pickle for Oklahoma City as today’s 2 p.m. trade deadline nears. But what a great position it is for the Thunder to be in. With a stable of ever-improving young players who already are exceeding expectations, it’s the expiring contracts of Etan Thomas and Matt Harpring that figure to be at the center of any deal the Thunder consummates. Together, Thomas and Harpring earn slightly more than $13.8 million. That’s a high enough figure that typically leads to a lopsided deal this time of the year as a handful of teams go into cost-cutting mode. Over the weekend, Dallas used the expiring contracts of Drew Gooden and the increasingly ineffective Josh Howard to lure Caron Butler, Brendan Haywood and DeShawn Stevenson away from Washington. On Wednesday, Cleveland bolstered its pursuit of a title by plucking away Antawn Jamison from Washington in a three-team deal in which the Cavs needed only to part with Zydrunas Ilgauskas and a first-round pick that likely will be the 29th or 30th overall selection. With Thomas and Harpring, similar deals for, say, Phoenix’s Amar’e Stoudemire or Utah’s Carlos Boozer, could be available to the Thunder. But Oklahoma City’s front office hasn’t shown any interest in making a move of such magnitude. Multiple league sources said the Thunder is expected to stand pat this year, instead remaining committed to its long-term philosophy of allowing its young team to grow together. But the question becomes, is that the right way to go? Is it better for the Thunder to package its expiring contracts in an attempt to add more talent, or hold onto the two and let them come off the books in July? The answer will be determined by the amount of incoming value general manager Sam Presti thinks he can land. And for the Thunder, the term value now holds more meaning than the typical low-risk, high reward moves the team has mastered over the past few seasons. Any deal for Harpring and/or Thomas means the Thunder would need to take back nearly the same dollar figure, because only three teams are under the salary cap and neither Memphis, New Jersey nor Sacramento is far enough under to take back an unbalanced amount. That would leave the Thunder in the position of welcoming a bad contract that has subsequent seasons left on it that would eat into the team’s future cap space. It’s a risk the Thunder has been careful to avoid, as extensions for Kevin Durant and Jeff Green can begin to be negotiated this summer and Russell Westbrook prepares to re-up next summer. Durant and Green’s contract extensions wouldn’t kick in until 2011-12, meaning any incoming contract with two or more years remaining on it could be problematic. Even before then, the Thunder currently is projected to have more than $12 million in salary cap space this summer depending on where the cap is set. That money could be used on a free agent or in a trade to improve the roster. There is also the matter of whether a player who is acquired fits with the team’s identity on and off the court. The Thunder no longer has any pressing positional needs after acquiring reserve point guard Eric Maynor in the deal with Utah that brought Harpring’s contract — which is even more valuable than Thomas’ because he’s not playing due to injury and is being covered by insurance. If OKC did pull the trigger on a trade, a talented enough player would then take away minutes and therefore stunt the growth of first- and second-year players who are currently blossoming. Chemistry and character have and always will be deciding factors in Oklahoma City as well. Acquiring a big-name player could also prevent management from gaining an authentic interpretation of the team’s skills. As currently constructed, the Thunder’s playoff push is undoubtedly being fueled by Durant, Westbrook, Green and Co. A major move, however, would mask mistakes and could lead to clouded judgment. Add it all up, and it points to the Thunder watching this year’s deadline come and go, without anyone hearing a peep out of Oklahoma City.
Trade talkCavs get Jamison: Washington trades Antawn Jamison to Cleveland in a three-team deal that sends Drew Gooden to the Clippers. Also, the Knicks sent Darko Milicic to the Minnesota for Brian Cardinal. Read more NBA trade news on Page 4C