The exhibition season has come to an end, and the Oklahoma City Thunder now has a decision to make.
No, not whether to re-sign James Harden.
The defending Western Conference champion must resolve the matter of how to round out its roster.
By 4 p.m. on Monday, the Thunder must whittle down its roster to 15 men. Four players — Daniel Orton, DeAndre Liggins, Hollis Thompson and Andy Rautins — have competed for the 15th and final spot throughout a month long camp that coach Scott Brooks has deemed the toughest of his tenure.
After seven preseason games, it appears the battle has boiled down to two: Orton, the 6-foot-10 center who starred at Bishop McGuinness, and Liggins, a rugged 6-6 swingman who's turned heads with unwavering heart and hustle.
The final decision will be an interesting one by OKC's brain trust. Brooks loves players like Liggins who play hard and excel at little things. Thunder general manager Sam Presti, on the other hand, has a history of taking a flier on promising big men projects at a discount rate, or players like Orton.
If playing time this preseason is any indication, Liggins has the leg up. Of the four training camp invitees, Liggins played in the most games (five of seven, with two starts) and averaged the most minutes (20.6). He averaged 4.8 points, 4.2 rebounds, 1.4 assists and 1.4 steals while shooting 59 percent.
“You got to give the guy a lot of credit,” Brooks said. “He's making the decision hard on all of us. But I think he's putting himself in a position where you know what he brings every night. He brings toughness, he brings energy, he brings enthusiasm for the game and he wants to do the right thing.”
Throughout training camp, Brooks repeatedly has praised Orton's offensive rebounding and presence in the paint. Yet Orton appeared in just one exhibition game despite the Thunder playing the first four without starting center Kendrick Perkins. Orton scored 13 points with three rebounds, one assist and one blocked shot in 19 minutes in that contest.
His tools are keeping him in the race. As a 22-year-old big man with above average athleticism and nimble feet, Orton has more upside than Liggins. Orton also has the benefit of playing a position that historically is harder to fill. And even though he would be the fourth-string center behind Perkins, Cole Aldrich and Hasheem Thabeet, Orton could be kept solely for insurance purposes, either this season or down the line as the team faces mounting financial obligations.
In a perfect world, the Thunder would keep both. But the offseason additions of Thabeet and rookie forward Perry Jones III left OKC with only one available roster spot.
A popular idea has been to sever ties with other players, namely Lazar Hayward and Daequan Cook. But in order for the Thunder to trade one or both of those players OKC would need a taker. That means a team would have to sign on to take back salary ($3.1 million for Cook and roughly $1.1 million for Hayward) and give up something in return. Neither Cook nor Hayward have a ton of trade value, not to mention the more punitive rules in the new collective bargaining agreement have caused most teams to trim payroll rather than add to it.
It's not out of the question that the Thunder waives a player to free up another spot. But with everyone else on guaranteed contracts, the player would have to agree to a buyout (meaning he forfeits some money) and the Thunder still would be responsible for a portion of his salary. Therefore, it seems unlikely the Thunder would pay to part ways with one non-rotation player only to pay to keep another one.
This thing looks like it'll play out the old fashion way.
Cut day is coming.