To start this season, the Oklahoma City Thunder have been about Russell Westbrook mania and that’s pretty much it. Behind his triple-double averages of 38.7 points, 12.3 rebounds and 11.7 assists per game, they’ve gotten off to a 3-0 start.
It’s given us the introduction to the Russ’ against-the-world season that we wanted, although it comes with plenty of questions regarding how unsustainable this kind of reliance on one player is to winning games.
This level of reliance won’t change, but Thunder GM Sam Presti is already showing us that the team will. This isn’t the final makeup of what Presti wants his team to look like in the post-Kevin Durant era, prompting the possibility for him to make moves to improve however he can.
One move has taken place already. In a trade to damage the team’s perimeter shooting and frontcourt spacing, even more, the Thunder have traded Ersan Ilyasova and a 2020 first-round pick (protected 1-20) to the Philadelphia 76ers for Jerami Grant.
At first glance, it’s puzzling. A few glances later, it’s still rather puzzling from a basketball standpoint. A lack of perimeter shooting is the biggest problem they face while relying so heavily on Westbrook to make their offense go (he accounts for 58.7 percent of their entire output with his own scoring and points created by assists).
Andre Roberson is practically a complete nonfactor from three, and even newly acquired scorer Victor Oladipo isn’t an overly effective perimeter shooter.
If it wasn’t already the priority of opponents to swarm Westbrook in the paint and force him to finish and pass through major traffic, they could do so with even less caution when they aren’t worried about leaving their man open at the arc.
Now, they’ve sent away a sound shooter in Ilyasova, who can space the floor next to an interior center like Steve Adams or a scorer like Enes Kanter, who only took 2.9 percent of his shots from three last season and excels closer to the basket and on the offensive glass.
Meanwhile, Grant can’t shoot. It’s really that simple. He made 84 threes over the last two seasons since entering the NBA at a 27.8 percent rate, taking 42 percent of all his field goal attempts within two feet of the basket. His dunks are great when there’s a clear lane to the basket, or he can tear away in transition, but he’s hardly going to do anything for the Thunder’s offense outside of that. Significant improvement from range is hard to anticipate for the time being when looking at his track record so far.
In Grant’s defense, he is a terrific athlete, possessing ideal size for a small forward (or small-ball four — he spent 41 percent of his minutes at power forward in 2015-16) at 6’8″ with a wingspan a touch over 7’2″. He’s a capable defender who can guard both forward positions, and his aggressive block rate is certainly impressive. An average of 2.2 blocks per 36 minutes last season is rare for a combo forward, and he’s at it again this year with four total blocks in only 41 minutes.
In fact, last year’s numbers are particularly noteworthy for Grant. His block percentage of 4.7 ranked eighth overall in the NBA, and no other forwards (including centers who sometimes played at the four) even made the top 20. Then again, at the same time, a tendency to go for too many blocks can cause him to sacrifice good positioning or the chance to box out successfully for a rebound.
All these physical, defensive attributes fit the young, explosive profile of this Thunder team. Grant can contribute in this regard, and there may be room for some development (he’s still only 22). He seems suitable for OKC’s character. Right up until you remember they need shooting, that is.
This worrying element of his game is made worse by the fact that his no-spacing skill set cost the Thunder a sound stretch 4 in order to acquire him in the first place.
If Grant is on the floor at the same time as guys like Roberson and Adams, the Thunder will have three non-factors from three at once. Yes, Grant can serve as a small-ball four after the loss of that option with Durant, but the shooting issue is unavoidable. It’s not the way today’s game is heading, and the pressure on Westbrook is high enough already.
Beyond the blatant technical issues, though, there is clear reasoning to why the Thunder went after Grant and dealt away a stretch big and protected first-round pick to do so.
It coincides with their decision to solidify themselves as a young, athletic team after securing Oladipo and Adams with new long-term extensions this week. And from a financial standpoint, the Grant trade also makes sense.
Going forward, the Thunder’s cap situation is largely set after locking up these extensions, with Oladipo’s deal, in particular, coming in at a good price. ESPN’s Zach Lowe reported back in late July that Oladipo was looking for max money with his next contract, so his four-year, $84 million extension coming in around $21 million under the max is a financial win.
However, thanks to guaranteeing Oladipo, Adams, and obviously Westbrook to large contracts now, these three players along with Kanter will account for $87.7 million (85 percent) of the team’s 2017-18 salary cap. Playing the market for stars in 2017 free agency and landing someone like Blake Griffin (which was already a pipe dream given his value and attachment to L.A.) is out of reach.
On the other hand, though, the immediate benefit of the Ilyasova-for-Grant trade means the Thunder have cleared Ilyasova’s $8.4 million salary for Grant’s $980,431, gifting them $7.1 million in cap space to help accommodate a notable contract.
It’s easy to draw the conclusion of what we may see next: another trade.
The first idea that comes to mind is targeting Rudy Gay. Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical reported on the day of the Grant trade that the Thunder have “maintained a strong interest in making a deal” for Gay. The Kings were already “seriously engaged” (per Woj) in talks for a Gay-Cameron Payne trade until the Thunder point guard broke his foot in September, so to see the teams revisit some kind of deal isn’t unthinkable by any means.
If not Gay with Payne still off the table, perhaps someone else Presti has his eye on to help usher in the post-Durant era. While Grant may be a short-term answer if a trade isn’t going to happen, for the time being, he’s hardly the best combo forward solution for the future.
I won’t go into the weaknesses of Gay now, from his fairly pedestrian three-point shooting to his sometimes unwise shot selection. But he can score, play between both forward spots, and take some pressure to create away from Westbrook. Gay is off to a great start after five games this season, averaging 23.8 points per game on 51.2 percent shooting (41.7 percent with one make from three), with a 25.6 PER. Some of his defensive intensity (inconsistency is always a concern here), including 1.2 steals and blocks per game, is another indication of Gay playing some of his best basketball.
With a reasonable salary of $13.3 million, his pay will be far easier to accommodate for the Thunder now that they have $7.1 million to play with, also meaning they won’t need to send as much away in return for the clearly disgruntled King.
It’s going to be hard to make sense of acquiring Grant from a purely basketball standpoint. The Thunder have only made things harder for Westbrook by damaging the already weak spacing around him, and Grant’s limited skill set wasn’t exactly one they needed to pursue.
However, if this leads to another move and the Thunder benefit from the improved salary cap situation, perhaps some positives from this trade will come to fruition. It will just take some time for that to happen.