Oklahoma City Thunder: Exploring the value of its veterans

The Oklahoma City Thunder are in Year Two of their rebuild and it’s trending in the same direction as last season. Sporting one of the league’s worst points differential (-7.6), the franchise is sitting with a 13-24 record. At this juncture, the Thunder are ahead of schedule with most pundits predicting a win total of around 18 games.

Thunder General Manager Sam Presti’s goal of building through the draft is well documented. However, with the trajectory they are on, they will likely land outside the top three. In order to achieve a high pick, they will need to lose more games thus the trade deadline is a pivotal moment in the franchise rebuild.

Oklahoma City has three veterans who will have value on the open market. Let’s take a look at them.

Oklahoma City Thunder: Exploring the Value of its Veterans

Kenrich Williams aka Kenny Hustle

When the Oklahoma City Thunder traded Steven Adams to the New Orleans Pelicans in a four-team deal, an unassuming Kenrich Williams was thrown in the deal to make the money work. The 6’8 forward struggled to find a role with the Pelicans, splitting time between the first team and its G-League affiliate. Williams arrived at the Thunder organization competing for a roster spot on a team about to rebuild and he’s made every post a winner.

In 99 games with Oklahoma City, Williams is averaging 7.6 points, 4.4 rebounds, and two assists on 51-42-56 shooting splits. He isn’t a high-volume offensive player but instead takes intelligent shots, gets to his spots, and hits spot-up threes.

This season, Williams is averaging seven points, four rebounds, and two assists on 46 percent shooting, 39 percent from three, and 55 percent from the line.

Williams’s true value comes on the defensive end. According to Cleaning the Glass, he ranks in the 92nd percentile on points per 100 possessions (102.9) when he is on the floor. Additionally, he holds a 99.1 defensive rating and holds his opponents to 44 percent shooting (stats per NBA.com). Williams is a tremendous on-ball and off-ball defender who has a strong grasp on positioning and where to be on the floor.

Who should inquire about Williams’s services?

The Utah Jazz and Memphis Grizzlies are two teams that need help on the wing. Utah is holding the fort with Bojan Bogdanovic and Joe Ingles but both are aging. Bogdanovic is 32 and Ingles is slightly older at 34 but the latter is really struggling on the defensive side of the ball. Bogdanovic is a serviceable defender but not the defensive stopper the Jazz need to pair with Royce O’Neale. The duo will give opposing teams fits and a rotation of Bogdanovic, Ingles, O’Neale, and Williams is salivating. Additionally, Utah could look to shed some salary in a deal as well.

As for Memphis, they have a bevy of young players on good contracts to make deals.  However, Oklahoma City would prioritize a player and/or a future pick instead of a veteran deal. Of course, Oklahoma City could eat any deal the Grizzlies don’t want due to its cap space. Memphis is currently running a Dillon Brooks and Desmond Bane rotation at the three-spot so adding Williams relieves some defensive duties for the pair. The Grizzlies are fourth in the standings and could really solidify its position as a top-four team.

Oklahoma City Thunder Sniper Mike Muscala

One of the oldest members on the Thunder roster, Mike Muscala is having a tremendous season shooting the rock. In 14 minutes of action, the 29-year-old is hitting 42.6 percent of his shots on 3.7 attempts, ranking ninth in the association. The spacing he offers as a stretch five allows franchise star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander more room to operate and opens the floor for driving lanes. This is reflected in the numbers as well as the Thunder’s anemic offense powers to 110.9 points per 100 possessions (per Cleaning the Glass).

His major contribution comes from where he does most of the damage on the three-point line. Muscala is shooting a whopping 46 percent from above the break, stretching the defense as far as it can. If defenders leave him open, it’s incredibly difficult for defenders to cover the ground and it provides driving lanes for elite off-the-bounce scorers.

Defensively, Muscala isn’t a defensive stopper in isolation but is a formidable team defender. He ranks in the 75th percentile per 100 possessions and understands the basics of pick-and-roll defense. Additionally, Muscala isn’t a strong rebounder and while his career numbers are low (2.4 rebounds per game), this is due to being a floor spacer than a paint-heavy big.

Who Needs a Stretch Big?

All NBA teams need bigs who can stretch the floor so the options are endless. The Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers immediately come to mind. The Bucks are looking to go back to back and could do with a replacement for Brook Lopez who’s out for the year. After a slow start, Milwaukee has battled its way into the third spot with a 25-15 record but a spacing big could help Giannis Antetokounmpo operate down low.

As for the Lakers, shifting Anthony Davis back to power forward should be a new priority. Spacing for LeBron James and Russell Westbrook opens up endless possibilities. The Lakers need help defensively and while he isn’t a maestro on that side of the ball, he is an intelligent team defender.

One major issue is how his last tenure in Los Angeles ended. He was criticized heavily for his play but to be fair, the team was horrible. Muscala still shot 37 percent from three on 3.4 attempts and was as advertised so it’s confusing considering these factors. Oklahoma City is a franchise known to do right by its players thus it’s difficult to imagine the Thunder throwing the veteran back into a toxic situation.

Bruising big man Derrick Favors

When Oklahoma City acquired Derrick Favors at the end of last season for a first-round pick from the Utah Jazz, it was a mutually beneficial transaction. Utah traded a first-round pick in exchange for luxury tax savings and the Thunder happily obliged given its desire to rebuild.

Fast forward to the present and Favors has been a true professional given his situation. He’s averaging 5.4 points and 4.7 rebounds in 16 minutes and offers a leadership role on a young team. His percentages have predictably dropped from 64 percent last year to 51 percent this season given the caliber of players he’s next to. Favors can still hit a small midrange jumper and offers some offense when in rhythm.

The most interesting part about Favors is his defense has improved statistically since moving to Oklahoma City. According to Cleaning the Glass, he ranks in the 66th percentile with the Thunder allowing 108 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the floor. This is interesting given he ranked in the 22nd percentile for Utah last year. He knows where to be on the floor and does the dirty work others refrain from doing.

Is There a Market for a Throwback Center?

Old school centers are making a comeback in the league, especially physical bigs who can dominate inside. Still, the market for players with this skill set is low therefore a big return is unlikely. The Cleveland Cavaliers and Chicago Bulls could do with another bruiser on their rosters.

Cleveland is having a wonderful season on the back of Jarrett Allen, Darius Garland, and rookie sensation Evan Mobley. Their defense ranks third in defensive rating (104.8) and is a signature of their season so far. The duo are monsters protecting the paint and exceptional on the perimeter. Of the pair, Mobley is the bigger concern since he’s missed time with injury in his young career. Adding Favors takes some of the physical burdens off the number three pick when Allen goes out. Their bruising style fits exactly what Favors brings to the table.

The Bulls on the other hand are extremely light on big man depth. Nikola Vucevic is having a tremendous season but when he sits, Tony Bradley is the back-up. Bradley is averaging 3.7 points and 4.4 rebounds in 13 minutes but they need a more physical presence inside. Additionally, Favors mid-range game gives Chicago a different look offensively as opposed to Bradley who lives in the paint. He is also a big screener, opening driving lanes for DeMar DeRozan and Zach LaVine.

What will the Oklahoma City Thunder do?

Oklahoma City is notorious for being secretive and moves rarely leak ahead of time. The Thunder are dealing with a situation very similar to last year and want to avoid a repeat. Presti intends to build through the draft and one imagines his strategy has not changed. If Oklahoma City is set on this strategy, it will be surprising if the roster remains intact. If I were a betting man, I would bet on Presti making at least two transactions at the deadline.

Who’s involved in those deals remains to be seen.

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