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The Thunder’s Real Reward from the James Harden Trade

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The Oklahoma City Thunder’s trade of James Harden just days before the season started may be the most shocking trade of the last 20 years. I’ll admit that I wasn’t as big of an NBA fan early in my life as I am now, but I can’t ever remember a title contender dumping one of its key pieces so close to the beginning of the season.

Most Thunder fans were so fixated on the idea of losing Harden – who was much beloved and one of the faces of the franchise – that they paid almost no attention to what Oklahoma City got in return. By now, it’s obvious what the Thunder have in Kevin Martin. He’s a solid outside shooter and has filled in nicely for Harden’s scoring off the bench.

Rookie Jeremy Lamb also has gotten a chance to show flashes of talent, but has spent just as much time in the D-League as on the court for the Thunder. That may actually be better for him in the long run, since he’s getting the chance to actually play and hone his skills.

But the most interesting piece the Thunder received in their trade with Houston is neither of those players. It’s not a player at all; it’s the first-round draft pick of the Toronto Raptors.

The Rockets originally acquired that pick when they dealt Kyle Lowry in July, and then they turned it around to the Thunder a few months later. The pick is double protected, and since I didn’t fully understand what that meant when the trade happened, I’m going to assume most fans don’t know what it means either.

A “double protected” pick means both the team that traded away the pick and the team that traded for the pick get some form of protection. That level of protection does not change with the Rockets forwarding it to another team; the same protection simply travels with the pick.

This particular pick gives the Thunder a lottery-protected selection. That means OKC has to get a lottery selection (which means one of the top 14 picks) out of it. Since it’s the Raptors’ former pick, it depends on how they finish the season. So if the Raptors miraculously made the playoffs and didn’t qualify for a lottery pick, the pick the Thunder received would be deferred to a later year.

That likely won’t come into play, though, because the Raptors are objectively terrible. They currently have the worst record in basketball at 4-18, have lost five games in a row, and their last three losses came by an average of 23 points.

So this is great news for the Thunder, right? Toronto is going to completely tank, give OKC the No. 1 pick in the draft and make the Thunder even better, right? Well not so fast, because that’s where the other half of the pick protection comes in.

The Raptors have the protection of never having to give away the top pick in the draft, but their protection weakens from year to year. In the 2013 Draft, they won’t have to give the pick away if they finish with one of the top three picks. It would then get deferred to 2014, when they won’t have to give it away if they have one of the top two picks. It would get deferred again, and in 2015 they won’t have to give it away if it’s the top overall pick.

So it’s quite possible the Thunder won’t receive this Toronto pick for two or three years. Here’s how the double protection criteria break down:

– For the Thunder to get the pick in 2013, it has to fall between picks 4-14.

– To get it in 2014, the pick has to fall between 3-14.

– To get it in 2015, it has to be between 2-14.

– Once the pick qualifies for one of those ranges, the Thunder are forced to take it. Meaning if the Raptors suddenly have a stronger season and finish with pick 13, Oklahoma City can’t choose to defer the pick and hope for a better one the next year. Once a pick meets both requirements of the double protection, it has to be used.

At this point in the season, it seems unlikely the Raptors will finish better than one of the five worst teams in the league. The lottery is always impossible to predict, but it’s a very strong possibility the Raptors will finish with a pick in the top three, which would be protected and would mean the Thunder get nothing this season.

Then in the offseason, who knows what could happen? The Raptors could land a big free agent, or their top-three pick could turn into a franchise savior. Then what if they improve next season and finished with a pick outside the top 10?

That would likely give the Thunder a mediocre talent that needs to be groomed or a foreign player who won’t even see an NBA court for several years. That’s not what the Thunder need; they need help right now. Their title window is firmly open, but they need people who can contribute immediately.

That’s why the Thunder need to trade the pick for a proven veteran. In the long run, whatever player this Toronto pick turns out to be may be better than anything the Thunder get in return. But there’s no way of knowing that. It’s better to get a known quantity now than wait for an unknown amount of time for an unknown pick that can become an unknown player.

The most common name linked to a possible trade with the Thunder is Cleveland big man Anderson Varejão. Varejão is currently leading the NBA in rebounding with 14.9 per game – a full two boards better than anyone else in the NBA – while also averaging a career-high 14.8 points per game.

Varejão has been the only consistent contributor on the post-LeBron Cavaliers, and his numbers may be slightly inflated because he plays on such a bad team. He’s averaging six offensive rebounds per game, and he gets more opportunities because his teammates miss so many shots.

With that in mind, it would be difficult to imagine Varejão putting up those kinds of numbers for the Thunder. But the 6-foot-11, 260-pound Varejão is a great rebounding center, which is exactly what the Thunder need.

Center is by far OKC’s worst position, with Kendrick Perkins and Hasheem Thabeet the only true centers on the roster. The Thunder are 14th in the league in rebounding as a team. Perkins is averaging just 5.2 rebounds and 4.9 points per game, and any contribution out of Thabeet should be viewed as a gift from God.

Perkins hasn’t played as many minutes this season as Varejão, but that’s partially because Perkins has trouble keeping up with the Thunder’s team speed. Varejão isn’t going to win any sprints, but he’s definitely quicker and more athletic than Perkins, and he’s known for his hustle.

Perkins is also making $7.8 million this year, while Varejão is making a very affordable $8.3 million. So the upgrade in production would not come with a huge price tag either.

Varejão is aging – he turned 30 in September – and has had some injury issues in the past. His defensive presence also isn’t quite as commanding as Perkins’, but his addition would go a long way toward solving the Thunder’s largest remaining problem.

Now, it obviously takes two to tango. The Cavs may not be willing to deal Varejão, but Oklahoma City can offer a package that no other team in the NBA can. They’re a high-quality, championship-caliber team that can offer several attractive draft picks and a few young project players.

I doubt the Thunder would be willing to part with rookies Lamb or Perry Jones, but I could see them adding Reggie Jackson or DeAndre Liggins to any potential deal. An offer of Jackson, both picks acquired from the Rockets in the Harden trade and a possible added future pick in exchange for Varejão is a solid deal for both sides.

The Thunder get the great rebounder they’ve been after, the rebuilding Cavs get some young talent and high draft picks to build around and Varejão gets to play on a true contender for the first time since LeBron left Cleveland.

This really is Oklahoma City’s best option. Waiting around for the possibility of a high draft pick doesn’t make sense for the win-now Thunder. It does for the Cavs, who aren’t going to win any time soon and can afford to take chances. They have nothing to lose.

There are several avenues for the Thunder to take with this acquired trade, which gives general manager Sam Presti some options in how to proceed. But the Thunder have a potential second date with the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals in the future, and they need to be fully equipped when they get there.

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