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Can the Thunder Find Their Missing Piece Before the Trade Deadline?

Oklahoma City went all in last offseason by acquiring Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. But with Andre Roberson out for the season, GM Sam Presti is back to work again in a much more complicated marketplace.

Getty Images/Ringer Illustration

Oklahoma City’s season changed on Sunday when Andre Roberson suffered a season-ending rupture of his left patellar tendon. Roberson can’t shoot a lick, but his elite defense was integral to the Thunder’s goal of making a run to the NBA Finals. Thunder coach Billy Donovan has been throwing darts ever since in search of answers: rookie Terrance Ferguson moved back into the starting lineup, then Josh Huestis took his spot, and young wing Alex Abrines saw an uptick in minutes as a reserve. The Thunder walloped the Warriors on Tuesday with Huestis starting, snapping their four-game skid, but over the course of a playoff series, they’ll need more.

Thunder general manager Sam Presti is almost always a major player at the trade deadline, and he has indeed been active in looking for a fix ahead of Thursday’s 3 p.m. ET buzzer, according to multiple league sources. As one executive put it: Presti knows that he needs to maximize his core of Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony. Both George and Anthony can be free agents this summer. George will almost certainly opt out of the final year of his contract, and the anxiety surrounding the idea that he will go home to Los Angeles will begin to set in. George hasn’t shied away from the possibility of leaving, saying just last month that he has “no regrets” about wanting to play for the Lakers when he requested a trade from the Pacers. Though he has more recently indicated publicly that Oklahoma City has grown on him, because of his relationship with Westbrook and Melo (and his love for fishing), those in league circles believe that his decision will come down to the team’s postseason performance.

The Thunder, as currently constituted, will likely come up short—unless they can replicate Tuesday’s success over a full series. There is no single move that will make them the Western Conference favorite, but they need to push for something to close the gap and increase their chances of keeping George to sustain success into the future. Their 20-point win over the Warriors, in Oakland, underlines how important it is to take advantage of their window.

Avery Bradley’s name keeps popping up as a top target for the Thunder, according to multiple league sources, and the Clippers have made the guard available after acquiring him in the Blake Griffin blockbuster. Bradley’s defense regressed this season in Detroit, but he’s been an elite perimeter defender in the playoffs, and has been one of the few players who can bother Stephen Curry and Chris Paul, the two point guards in between the Thunder and a trip to the Finals. Bradley’s ability as a cutter and a spot-up shooter would also be a natural fit in OKC, either alongside their stars in the starting unit or in more of a featured role coming off screens with the reserves.

The problem is it’s unclear whether the Thunder have anywhere close to what it takes to acquire Bradley. One deal that works financially and makes sense on paper would be Abrines and Ferguson for Bradley, but all indications are that the Thunder highly value Ferguson, a 19-year-old wing. Oklahoma City needs to get better now, but it can’t forget the future. The situation must be a tough balancing act for Presti: The Thunder would have to give something that makes a deal worth it for Los Angeles, especially considering Bradley has drawn interest from teams with more assets, like the Jazz. Unfortunately for the Thunder, the Stepien rule prevents them from dealing a first-round pick until 2022 at the earliest, because they already dealt their picks in 2018 (Enes Kanter deal in 2015) and 2020 (Jerami Grant deal in 2016).

Oklahoma City’s best hope is that the Clippers are infatuated with Abrines. For what it’s worth, the Clippers’ director of pro player personnel, Johnny Rogers, lived, played, and broadcasted in Spain for over two decades, and “loves Abrines,” according to a league executive. If the Clippers insist on dealing Bradley, an unrestricted free agent this summer, maybe Abrines and another piece will be as good as it gets.

A lack of draft assets could also keep them out of the mix for Marcus Smart. The Thunder have expressed interest in Smart, but the Celtics are seeking a 2018 first-rounder. Tyreke Evans remains an option for OKC, as reported last week on The Ringer, but the Grizzlies can do better. (ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski said on Tuesday morning that Boston, Denver, and Philadelphia are the “front-runners” for Evans.) The Thunder have also called the Magic about wing Jonathon Simmons, according to Yahoo Sports’ Chris Mannix. But multiple sources indicated that Simmons likely isn’t available, at least for anything the Thunder put on the table. Rodney Hood’s name has been tossed out as an option, but the Thunder likely don’t have the assets to get it done. And NBA.com’s David Aldridge mentioned Blazers forward Maurice Harkless, but with Harkless’s salary of $10.2 million, it’s difficult to construct a deal that works.

Presti’s options are limited, which makes it more probable that they’ll settle for something like Marco Belinelli and Dewayne Dedmon (or Ersan Ilyasova) from Atlanta. The Hawks haven’t had an easy time finding traction in deals for their many available players, according to league sources; the Thunder and the Pacers are two of the few intrigued teams. The Hawks had interest in Pacers forward T.J. Leaf before the 2017 draft, but dealing the rookie seems like too steep of a price for retreads. It’s unclear what the Thunder could offer, but perhaps the Hawks would be willing to take on salary (like Abrines and Kyle Singler, both of whom are on the books for next season), if the compensation is Oklahoma City’s 2022 first. Dedmon, a rim protector who can hit corner 3s, is intriguing as a possible upgrade over Patrick Patterson, who still hasn’t found his way. But Belinelli isn’t necessarily an upgrade over Abrines.

Then there’s Bulls guard Tony Allen, whom the Chicago Tribune’s K.C. Johnson said has drawn interest from Oklahoma City. The Grindfather indeed has an accomplished résumé, but that doesn’t mean he’ll be able to play like it anymore. The 36-year-old also suffered a setback last month while recovering from a nondisplaced left proximal fibula fracture.

Other players that the Thunder haven’t been linked to but could be worthwhile targets include: Courtney Lee (Knicks), Wilson Chandler (Nuggets), Joe Harris (Nets), Jeremy Lamb (Hornets), and Anthony Brown (Timberwolves).

Otherwise, they’ll need to resort to the buyout market. Allen and point guard Jameer Nelson, both of whom were dealt to Chicago in last week’s Nikola Mirotic trade, could be released. It’s been reported that Jazz guard Joe Johnson will be bought out if he’s not traded before the deadline, and two front-office sources have cited the Thunder as a leader for Johnson. When the Nets waived Johnson after the 2016 deadline, the Thunder were one of the teams to pursue the veteran. Even though Johnson, now 36, has regressed, he could still offer needed bench scoring.

The trade deadline might end up being a bust for the Thunder. Their targets appear either unattainable or underwhelming. But no matter what happens, the roster will be very pricey. The team’s payroll is currently $132 million, and, assuming a 34-year-old Anthony opts in, is projected at $115 million for next season even before George makes his decision. With the team’s payroll soaring into the luxury tax, it won’t be any easier to make additions moving forward.

But Presti already made his big decisions last summer by acquiring George and Anthony. If he’s unable to fill out the roster around them in the wake of Roberson’s injury, will all of his hard work go to waste?