Photo Credits: Bill Streicher/USA Today Sports
The Oklahoma City Thunder have become the epicenter of rehabilitation projects.
To open the 2019-20 season, the Thunder caused a ruckus acquiring Chris Paul and a flurry of picks in exchange for Russell Westbrook. A once considered untradeable contract, Thunder GM Sam Presti recuperated Paul’s value to the tune of a first-round pick, a second-round pick, Ty Jerome, and a Ricky Rubio — an instrumental piece in the Aleksej Pokusevski trade.
Last season, the Thunder pushed for another project picking up 34-year-old Al Horford for Theo Maledon, a 2025 first-round pick, and tacked on contracts. Seven months later, Big Al’s two-year $54 million payload had been shipped alongside Moses Brown for Kemba Walker and the No. 16 Pick — later pivoting into two first-round selections.
Now, the Oklahoma City Thunder hit the regular season wielding two players over 30 in Derrick Favors and Mike Muscala while possessing 12 players until rookie-scale contracts. In all, only one player on payroll is making over $10 million, that player is Kemba Walker — he was bought out by the franchise last month.
As the Thunder look to tackle another season of an inevitable rebuild, the roster is prepped for a lump sum of development, and financial flexibility, keeping their streak of rehab gigs alive.
With the regular season rapidly approaching, the NBA’s market of overpaid contracts has simmered down, however, one has emerged from the pack, Houston Rockets guard John Wall.
Wall was traded to the Rockets in exchange for Russell Westbrook last season, however, at age 31, the Kentucky product has fallen out of Houston’s timeline. Wall outplayed expectations last season, posting 20.6 points, 3.2 rebounds, and 6.9 assists across 40 games, but based on the guard’s recent track record, placing 40 games was a benchmark in itself. This is as such because, since the 2016-17 season, Wall has played in 109 of 303 possible games (35.9%).
Though Wall proved he still had ample ability last season, his current standing in the depth chart pits him completely out of the rotation. With up-and-comers in Jalen Green and Kevin Porter Jr. headlining Clutch City’s post-Harden era, a respectable role for Wall simply is not there. Mix this with his aforementioned injury history, Rockets GM Rafael Stone would like Wall out sooner rather than later.
Under typical circumstances, playoff and championship contenders would be chomping at the bit for a player of John Wall’s stature, however, Wall’s throws a wrench in for most negotiations.
The Oklahoma City Thunder can be front-and-center at the offering table.
John Wall is set to make $44.3 million for the 2020-21 season, as for the Thunder, their payroll clocks in at $100.9 million; it’s closer to $62 million when you only take into account players on-roster. This sense of salary flexibility is unparalleled in the realm of the NBA as most contenders simply cannot afford to tack on the 31-year-old.
As a result of John Wall’s nasty contract, the Rockets will need to offload assets to take him off his hands. The kicker from this — the Rockets aren’t in the market to contend. They’re in asset-accumulation mode.
If the Rockets were to make a hypothetical deal, potential-filled players aren’t on the table. Picks become the only movable asset, but even that is a difficult sell.
The Rockets hold a plethora of picks in the recent future, but some carry more value than others. The franchises’ cream-of-the-crop selections stem from unprotected picks in 2022 and 2023, an unprotected 2026 Brooklyn Nets pick, and lightly-protected picks in 2024, 2025, and 2026. As for other first-round picks with less dazzle, the Rockets have the Nets’ unprotected picks in 2022 and 2024, a lottery-protected 2022 Heat pick, and an unprotected
If the Thunder make a deal, the Rockets’ protected picks in 2024, 2025, and 2026 should be the most appealing for Oklahoma City.
The reasoning for Sam Presti’s protected-pick attachment roots from the fact the Rockets’ picks in 2024, 2025, and 2026 are protected, but the picks convey to Oklahoma City if they fall out of protection range. The Rockets pick in 2024 pivots to the Thunder unless the selection slots from picks 1 to 4. In 2025, the Rockets pick may slide to the Thunder if it’s outside the top 10. In 2026 Rockets pick also hold a 1-4 protection.
From the Thunder’s perspective, bringing on a hefty contract in Wall would be well worth removing protections on some of the Rockets’ picks. The only hitch with the Thunder’s plan comes in the form of 10 guards being on the roster, but negotiating a buyout contract could be worthwhile for the sake of extra draft assets.
In the case of the Rockets, sending out picks in 2025 and 2026 may cause little wounds based on the team’s projected timeline, but keeping a safeguard on their picks would overweigh the salary troubles in the now. Though the duo of Kevin Porter Jr. and Jalen Green is expected to emerge by 2025, the Rockets entered last season with James Harden and Russell Westbrook — they ended with the second pick in the draft.
Overall, the Thunder making a move for John Wall is sensible from the perspective of obtaining picks before utilizing cap via buyout. However, the Rockets’ current phase makes moving off picks a fairly risky venture, especially with a team like Oklahoma City.
The Thunder may inquire, but the Rockets may want to write them off the list of candidates.