In trading James Harden before the season began to fix their long-term salary situation, Oklahoma City clearly decided that the 2012-2013 season would be a transition year. Instead, they've replaced last season's Sixth Man of the Year while hardly missing a beat, with a 39-14 record at the All-Star break.
The Clippers and the Spurs have improved from last season while a potential rematch with the Heat still looms in the NBA Finals, but the Thunder don't seem likely to make any major moves in an effort to push themselves over the top this season. If they do make a deal, it will probably be something with the big picture in mind, like moving reserve PG Eric Maynor before he becomes a restricted free agent this off-season.
Trusting The Process
Ever since Sam Presti and Co. took over in 2007, the Thunder have always planned with one eye on the present and one eye on the future, even as they've become a title contender. In 2011, they took Reggie Jackson with the No. 24 pick not to fill an immediate need on the roster, but to fill one two years down the line, when Maynor would be a free agent. With Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka taking up so much of their cap space, the Thunder can't afford to overpay role players if they're going to stay under the luxury tax.
Maynor's slow recovery from an ACL injury accelerated Jackson's timetable, and he's fit in well as a backup at both guard positions this season. As a result, the Thunder have been aggressively shopping Maynor for future assets at the deadline. Before his injury, he was one of the best backup PG's in the NBA. However, given his slow start to the season, the question is whether Oklahoma City could get much more than a future second-round pick for him, which may not be worth much to a team already overflowing with young assets.
You can see a similar rationale behind a lot of their moves over the last few years. Jeremy Lamb, a talented young SG who came over as a part of the Harden deal, is set to fill in for Kevin Martin, who will be a free agent at the end of the season. DeAndre Liggins, a minimum-salary second-year player they picked up this off-season, could fill in for Thabo Sefolosha as the team's perimeter stopper down the road while Perry Jones III, whom they drafted at No. 28 this year, could eventually replace Nick Collison as a jack-of-all-trades big man coming off the bench.
No Room For An Upgrade
While Oklahoma City is far from a perfect basketball team, any upgrade they could find on the trade deadline is unlikely to be worth pushing them over the luxury tax limit. The looming penalties, which could cripple a small-market team financially, were why they dealt Harden in the first place. They've already got $66 million in salaries committed for next season and more than $50 million each in 2014 and 2015.
Since they can't take on much salary and don't have any "dead salaries" on their roster, any significant deal would force them to give up an important player on this year's team. Even their mid-level veterans, guys like Kendrick Perkins and Sefolosha, have a clearly defined role, so there's not much room for them to maneuver without affecting cohesion both on and off the floor.
Welcome To Loud City, SB Nation's Thunder blog, has an excellent series of thought pieces examining the pros and cons of almost any possible move they could make at this year's deadline.
Over the next few years, any improvement for the Thunder will have to come from within. The good news for Oklahoma City fans is that their best players -- Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka -- are are still under the age of 25 while their front-office has accumulated a huge stack of young assets -- Jackson, Liggins, Lamb, Jones as well as a future lottery pick from the Raptors -- that could end up paying dividends down the road.