Bill Simmons created waves in New Zealand recently by posing a trade for Steven Adams on two of his podcasts. A fervent Boston Celtics supporter, Simmons tweeted that the Celtics had enough cap space to take Adams on in a trade. This was massive news in New Zealand where Adams is the prodigal son as far as basketball is concerned. As upset as New Zealanders were, the Oklahoma City Thunder need to make the best decision for the future of the franchise.
Adams is about to enter the third year of his four year 100 million dollar contract. When this deal was signed in 2016 the NBA’s salary cap had spiked to unexpected levels, leaving teams with tonnes of cash. The Thunder at the time had just controversially lost Kevin Durant to the Golden State Warriors. They had also traded away Serge Ibaka, who had also been a cornerstone of the team. With money to burn they spent it on Adams. their best young player, coming off a massive playoffs.
Adams has been worth every cent of his deal so far. He has provided similar value as far as win shares went when compared to other top centers in the league. Win Shares is used to show how a player has contributed to a teams season when it comes to wins. Adams played the most minutes of any center this year. As far as centers go, this season Adams ranked second in steals, second in offensive rebounds, tenth in total rebounds and seventh in win shares.
Though Adams flagged in the Playoffs performance wise, the Thunder were 9.9 points better when he was on the floor in the regular season. Diving a little deeper, the things that don’t show up on the stat sheet are where Adams excels. He is always top 10 in the league for loose balls recovered, boxing out on rebounds and for setting screens. He is also usually one of only a few centers regularly contesting three pointers out on the perimeter.
Unfortunately the Thunder are in a position where their glue guy Adams may need to be shipped out of town. Russell Westbrook is the third highest paid player in the league, and Paul George rounds out the top ten. As they have built the rest of the team, their payroll has ballooned out to a league high 146 million. In a lot of cases this high payroll wouldn’t be a problem. With the Thunder having exited in the first round the past three years, management aren’t keen to have such a massive tax bill for a team that isn’t contending for a championship. Being over the salary cap, they can only reduce salary by trading to a team that is under the cap. They may even need to attach positive assets to sweeten the deal for the team they trade with.
Sub-par replacement options
Hypothetically if the Thunder were to trade Adams, they would reduce their payroll and luxury tax bill. But as they would still be over the cap, they would only have limited money to spend on Adams replacement. The mid level exception is given to teams who are over the cap, this is around 5.7 million. If the Thunder trade Adams they would have to use this 5.7 million to sign another center. Again, as they may need to attach other assets to dump Adams contract the only other way they could improve the team is by using that 5.7 million. It may take Terrance Ferguson or Hamidou Diallo as sweeteners to move Adams. With both Adams and Diallo moved they could only replace them using their exception or by signing players on minimum contracts.
The Thunder may think that getting off Adams salary would help them by saving on tax payments. But Adams is the glue that holds the team together, his value cant be quantified by purely looking at counting stats. They would surely be a worse team without him, especially on defense. Also there isn’t a player on the open market that could replicate what Adams does. The Thunder are better off to run it back this year and hope that a healthy squad is enough to get them out of the first round.