Most people’s reactions are the same when they hear the Oklahoma City Thunder might be signing Hasheem Thabeet.
Why is the better question.
The No. 2 overall pick in 2009 has been a bust through his first three seasons. He’s played for three different teams. He’s never averaged more than 13 minutes. And he has career averages of 2.2 points, 2.7 rebounds and 0.9 blocked shots. Thabeet has been such a disappointment that Houston didn’t even pick up his fourth-year option before trading him to Portland in March. It’s something that almost never happens with any first-round pick, let alone a top three selection.
None of that suggests he’s a fit for the Thunder.
But Oklahoma City has been enamored with the former 7-foot-3 Tanzanian center since he was a dominant defensive force at UConn. The Thunder was rumored to be interested in drafting Thabeet with the third overall pick in 2009 and perhaps would have taken him instead of James Harden had the Grizzlies not swooped in and plucked Thabeet partly out of fear that the Thunder would take him if they didn’t.
That would have turned out to be a disaster.
But even after Thabeet’s early career struggles, the Thunder has maintained its intrigue. Thabeet traveled to Oklahoma City on Sunday and is believed to be meeting with the Thunder. An email landed in my inbox Sunday from a reader who saw Thunder general manager Sam Presti at the airport picking up someone. The reader, Brian, didn’t recognize him (which adequately sums up Thabeet’s first three NBA seasons as a N0. 2 overall pick) but knew one thing. “Dude was tall,” Brian wrote. “I’d say close to 6’10″ or 7 even.”
Brian said he saw Presti and the tall fellow around 5:30 p.m. Sunday. By now, for all we know, the tall fellow very well could be finalizing a deal right now to become the 14th player under contract for the Thunder next season.
Before you scream “What!!!,” let’s examine three reasons why.
1) MONEY MATTERS
Because of Thabeet’s historically bad start to his career, the Thunder is likely to be able to sign him to a minimum contract. For a player with three years of service in the 2012-13 season that’s approximately $880,000, or roughly the same amount as No. 28 overall pick Perry Jones will earn in his first season. With Kevin Durant entering the second year of his maximum extension and Russell Westbrook’s new deal kicking in next year, the Thunder must now begin the process of finding rock-bottom bargains with which to surround its core. James Harden, Serge Ibaka and Eric Maynor also are now all eligible for extensions. None will come cheap. So to have any chance of keeping its core together, while also filling out the roster with capable complementary talent, the Thunder has to have a few minimum deals. Thabeet is an example of the Thunder possibly taking a chance on a guy who never figured it out but perhaps can in OKC while providing some cheap labor. And that brings us to the next reason.
2) PEER PRESSURE
The Thunder has quickly grown a stacked young roster that values hard work. It’s the biggest tenant of the Thunder’s culture, and a trait that, frankly, has become a source of pride for the OKC organization. Go back and listen to both Presti and assistant GM Troy Weaver’s draft night comments about Jones, as well as Jones at his introductory press conference. Note how many times all three men pointed to the culture of hard work here and how that will push Jones to maximize his abilities. The Thunder’s confidence in its roster being able to hold every player that comes through here accountable for busting his tail borders on cockiness, an arrogance that almost assumes no player is immune to slacking once he walks through the doors of Thunder headquarters. But thus far, it’s been true. Thabeet could soon be the biggest case study. The big man has a reputation for being more in love with the lifestyle than the game. Shopping and partying for Thabeet has trumped suicides and pull-ups. But the Thunder would be banking on what’s become the backbone of its development: its culture of hard work. Maybe if Thabeet is surrounded by Durant and Westbrook and Nick Collison and Kendrick Perkins, he’ll have no choice but to work hard or stand out like a 7-foot fish. It will be by far the most challenging aspect of bringing in Thabeet in hopes that he turns out to be anything valuable.
3) BRACING FOR THE FUTURE
Simply put, it will take huge sacrifices by Ibaka, Harden and Maynor for the Thunder to keep its core together. Rarely do pro athletes have that much sacrifice in them. Not three pro athletes that are on the same team and all around the same young age. With Durant and Westbrook already inked to max deals, the Thunder will not, we repeat, will not, be able to keep its roster together if Ibaka, Harden and Maynor command anything close to their market value. Look at what’s going on throughout the league. Last summer, DeAndre Jordan got a deal worth $43 million over four years. This summer, Omer Asik, who’s a quality low-post defender, but not that good of a low-post defender, got $25 million over three years. Eric Gordon, who’s neck and neck with Harden in terms of talent, is seeking a max deal. The Blazers have offered Roy Hibbert a max deal at $58 million over five years. Oklahoma City simply can’t keep up with those figures. The only way the Thunder would have a chance is by executing the elephant in the room — amnestying Perkins. It seems to be becoming more of a realistic possibility by the day. If the Thunder doesn’t, and successfully re-signs Harden, Ibaka and Maynor, then OKC is guaranteed to be a taxpaying team in 2013-14 and 2014-15. Thabeet, possibly, is being viewed as a player who can help the Thunder absorb the blow of having to part with Perk. Getting Thabeet now gets him a year to acclimate himself to the Thunder and learn how to be a pro. Two years from now, if all goes well, the Thunder will have a serviceable backup to Cole Aldrich (assuming Aldrich can play), and Thabeet would not have cost OKC much more than $2 million.