Don’t Assume Joffrey Lauvergne Acquisition Means Another Imminent Trade for OKC

Like many, I was surprised by OKC’s acquisition of Nuggets big man Joffrey Lauvergne. The big man rotation was already bursting at the seams with Steven Adams, Enes Kanter, Ersan Ilyasova, Domantas Sabonis, Nick Collison, and Mitch McGary. OKC needed help on the wing, not inside. Further, the move left the team with 16 guaranteed contracts, one over the NBA limit. Understandably, many speculated that the transaction portended a bigger move involving Enes Kanter or Ersan Ilyasova, which would open a spot in the rotation for Lauvergne. However, given the current glut of big men in the NBA, along with the widespread trend towards small-ball, and OKC’s lack of tradeable positive assets, such a trade seems exceedingly unlikely.

Kevin Durant’s relatively late free agency decision handcuffed the team while most of the best free agents were available...

With seven big men currently on the books, and three point guards they won’t be trading, OKC’s obvious target in a trade would be a wing who can play either the two or the three. Unfortunately for the Thunder, rotation-quality wings are insanely scarce across the league at this point in time. Bradley Beal got $128 million this offseason, Allen Crabbe garnered a ridiculous $75 million. OKC likely would’ve been thrilled to add someone like Joe Johnson or Jared Dudley, but Kevin Durant’s relatively late free agency decision handcuffed the team while most of the best free agents were available.

The vast majority of teams in the league could use another competent wing, whereas very few are searching for a non-elite big man. It’s not that all big men have become dinosaurs, the league just values skills far differently now than even five years ago. Enes Kanter’s hyper-efficient post scoring and excellent offensive rebounding would’ve made him a star in most other eras. In the modern NBA however, playing competent defense is nearly essential for a starting big man. Players that can switch out and guard on the perimeter, protect the rim, and catch lobs are more highly coveted than post scorers like Kanter, which is why a guy like Bismack Biyombo got $72 million.

Donatas Motiejunas illustrates how poor the market is for big men right now. It’s nearly September and he’s still available. Greg Monroe, a player comparable to Kanter with an even more favorable contract, has been conspicuously dangled on the trade block all offseason long by Milwaukee with no takers. The Sixers have been hoping to make a move for Jahlil Okafor as well, but have similarly found that no one is willing to give up much for a center who can’t play defense, even a young one with potential. There just don’t seem to be any teams looking to give up a rotation wing in exchange for a big man who won’t move the needle for their team.

Given all this evidence, there really appears to be no one out there who would give up anything meaningful for Enes Kanter. It just doesn’t seem plausible. OKC fans and media seem to have an inflated view of his value. One newspaper columnist suggested that Kanter could fetch “someone in the Tobias Harris/Jae Crowder/Chandler Parsons/Rudy Gay/Luol Deng/Otto Porter Jr. /Trevor Ariza family of small forwards,” which is positively insane. Yes, he gave the Thunder great production, efficiency, and insane per-36 numbers last season. And yes, he was vital against the San Antonio Spurs in the playoffs. Ultimately however, he’s just not good enough on defense to be the starting center on a playoff team.

you’ve got to have a team willing to give up something for the privilege of paying Kanter...

So if you accept that premise, then you’ve got to have a team willing to give up something for the privilege of paying Kanter (a player who has struggled with attitude issues) $18 million a year to come off the bench. Even in the new cap environment that seems like a massive stretch. If OKC were willing to dump him for a mediocre draft pick and expiring contracts, they could probably accomplish that. But to what end? He can still be a productive player off the bench for the Thunder this season. There’s no reason to move him unless there’s a chance at improving the current roster.

So maybe an Ilyasova trade then? That too, appears unlikely. The small-ball revolution has contributed to lowering the demand for “traditional” power forwards. With so many more “traditional” small forwards playing more minutes at the four, there isn’t much room left for guys who can’t switch or protect the rim on defense. While Ilyasova’s shooting at the four provides valuable spacing on offense, he has trouble guarding many of the more athletic power forwards in the league on defense. Like Kanter, many teams would likely be happy to have a guy like Ilyasova coming off the bench, but very few would want him as their starting four.

Teams might be willing to give up something for Ilyasova’s shooting, but probably not enough to make trading him worth it. In the most likely OKC starting lineup of Westbrook-Oladipo-Roberson-Ilyasova-Adams, Ilyasova is the only true shooter. The spacing he provides will be vital to opening up lanes for Russell Westbrook to drive to the basket. So if OKC trades Ilyasova, they must return a wing who provides similarly excellent shooting and spacing. Further, OKC already has two great wing shooters who won’t provide much defense this season in Anthony Morrow and Alex Abrines. As such, trading for yet another offense-only wing would be redundant and illogical. And we’ve already established that you’re not getting a two-way wing for someone like Ilyasova.

Because the possibility of a big splash trade seems so unlikely, it seems that the Lauvergne trade was made simply to add further depth to a frontcourt that was perhaps not as deep as it appeared. Adams, Kanter, and Ilyasova are a solid top-3 big man rotation, but after that, it gets fuzzy.

Many have expected Thunder lottery pick Domantas Sabonis to fill the fourth big spot, with some even suggesting he might be starting by the end of the season. However, NBA history has shown that relying on a rookie picked outside the top-10 to play significant minutes is a dubious proposition. Sabonis showed flashes of brilliance while playing in the Olympics for Lithuania, but he’s still only 20 years old and must improve substantially before be can be counted on for regular NBA minutes.

Nick Collison will turn 36 by the time the season starts, and won’t really be much more than a glorified coach going forward. Mitch McGary has had his moments, but the franchise’s patience with him seems to have reached a breaking point given the acquisitions of Sabonis and Lauvergne.

I see the trade for Joffrey as insurance and asset accumulation by Sam Presti. He was available for a relatively low price, he’s a young guy under team control, and he can be a solid 4th big for OKC this year. Big, splashy trades are exciting and fun to imagine, so it was easy for Thunder fans to believe Sam had something up his sleeve when he unexpectedly acquired Lauvergne, but I just don’t see it happening.

If OKC had desirable future picks or young players to package with Kanter or Ilyasova, a trade would be more plausible, but they can’t trade a first round pick until 2020, and they’re likely uninterested in moving promising young players under team control. An NBA GM could certainly do something stupid, opening up an opportunity for Sam Presti to work his magic. However, you never know when something like that is going to occur, and can never count on it. Barring that dream scenario, I expect Presti to dump Mitch McGary for scraps before the regular season to get the roster to 15, with the roster remaining otherwise intact. So much could change during the season, but it’s hard to imagine OKC pulling off a major trade until at least the 2017 All-Star Break.


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