OKLAHOMA CITY — Oklahoma City is scheduled to go 21st come June 22’s NBA Draft. But there’s a chance it may never make its pick.
The Thunder could end up trading out of the first round altogether, holding onto their first-rounder just in case someone high on their draft board slips to them but then dealing it come their time to select. They would hope to bring back a future first-rounder and a 2017 second in the hypothetical exchange.
Of course, the NBA doesn’t allow teams to go two years without a first-round pick, and the Thunder have already dealt their 2018 first-rounder to Utah and another future first-rounder to Philadelphia. So, if OKC decided to flip its first-rounder, it would likely have to come to a deal in principle before making the pick and then select on behalf of its trade partner come its turn, a not unusual procedure. The trade would be consummated some time after the selection.
Why is this a possibility? It comes back to money.
The Thunder currently sit about $10 million away from the luxury tax threshold, and that doesn’t include forward Jeramy Grant’s $1.5 million team option or them wanting to re-sign free-agent wing Andre Roberson, who could command an eight-figure salary. It doesn't account for the salary of the No. 21 pick, either.
Rookie-scale contracts will increase with the implementation of the new collective bargaining agreement, which kicks in for next season. The 21st pick could now make as much as $1.8 million in year one of his deal. And because of that, one reasonable way for the Thunder to save a bit of cash so that they can either fall short of the luxury tax or not pay quite as much in tax payments would be to fill out the roster with a cheaper option than the No. 21 pick.
The Thunder have implemented clever draft strategies to help with immediate finances before. They drafted first-round forward Josh Huestis in 2014 with a prearrangement that he would sign a D-League contract right away instead of an NBA one. The Thunder would sign him to a rookie-scale contract the following season, when he would begin to count against their cap.
Trading a 2017 first-rounder doesn’t mean giving away a pick and never getting it back. The Thunder would likely want a future first-rounder in return. They’d want a second-rounder, too. And second-round picks could be the best way for them to fill out a roster to avoid the tax.
Minimum salaries are not all created equal. They’re based on how long a player has been in the league. Thus, a second-round rookie has the cheapest minimum salary possible. And when it comes to going up against the tax, second-rounders are even cheaper than undrafted free agents, exactly why the Thunder, who do not currently own a second-round pick this year, could be even more likely to slip into round two.
If a team signs an undrafted free agent, it has to worry about something called a "tax variance." It would still pay the cheapest possible minimum deal for that player. And that money would count against the cap just the same. But the undrafted free agent’s contract would actually count as slightly more against the tax. It’s a weird CBA quirk, and one that could encourage the Thunder to fill out the back of their roster with a 2017 second-round pick or a second-rounder from past years, like 2015 second-round selection Dakari Johnson, who dominated the D-League with the OKC Blue this past season.
It all ties into the same theme: Thunder finances. And if the Thunder aren’t sure if they’ll be able to unload greater salaries on their roster come draft time, one route to save dollars could be eschewing the 2017 first-round pick altogether. It’s not a given. And if a player the Thunder truly value falls there, it’s not a move they’ll make. But it’s an option for a team that has a history of getting creative on draft night.
• Moving on: The Nets have hired now former OKC Blue assistant Travon Bryant as assistant player development coach, Brooklyn announced Thursday. Bryant coached with the Blue for the last two seasons.