Sam Presti’s killer summer continued on Wednesday night. The Oklahoma City Thunder general manager agreed to terms with restricted free agent swingman Andre Roberson on a three-year, $30 million deal, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, bringing back one of the league’s best perimeter defenders to work on the wing alongside incumbent league MVP Russell Westbrook and newly acquired All-Star Paul George for an awfully cozy price.
Woj reports that taking a three-year deal rather than adding a fourth was Roberson’s idea, perhaps to allow him to re-enter free agency (this time, hitting the unrestricted market) at age 28, with several years of his athletic prime still to come. That early re-entry could help Roberson — whose new deal includes no player or team options in any season, according to Sam Amick of USA TODAY Sports — recoup some lost earnings on what actually represents a discount from the four-year, $48 million contract extension that Fred Katz of the Norman Transcript has reported the former Colorado forward turned down just before the start of the season.
Not being able to blow past Solomon Hill money on his way to the bank certainly wasn’t what Roberson had in mind back in October, and especially not after a season in which he made the All-Defensive Second Team and tied for fifth in Defensive Player of the Year voting. Last summer, though, most of the league was flush with cash after the massive spike in the salary cap due to the influx of revenue from the league’s new $24 billion broadcast rights deal, and teams spent like crazy as a result. This summer, the cap rose by only about $5 million. Far fewer teams had major financial flexibility, helping create a “frigid” market for restricted free agents like Roberson.
Some of the teams who spent freely last summer found themselves flirting with the luxury tax, and not in a position to feel comfortable lavishing an eight-figure deal on a 6-foot-7 forward who can check everybody from jitterbug point guards to power forwards. Other teams’ lack of flexibility, and Roberson’s resulting losses, are OKC’s gain. (It’s worth noting, too, that a guaranteed $30 million isn’t necessarily anything to sneeze at for a late first-round pick whose rookie deal has paid him a total of just under $6 million to date.)
Roberson’s limited offensive game — his inability to create offense off the dribble, to space the floor, to reliably knock down jumpers or to make free throws — can make using him, and valuing him as a building block, difficult. Attempts to expand his game last season didn’t totally pan out; on a Thunder team starved for any supplementary offense next to Westbrook after the departure of Kevin Durant, Roberson wound up taking nearly as many 3-pointers last season (184) as he had in his three-year NBA career to that point (203), and cashed them in at just a 24.5 percent clip. If defenses can get away with either ignoring him completely or intentionally fouling him without fear of reprisal, even a DPOY-caliber stopper can be tough to rely on in the season’s most pivotal moments.
Oklahoma City lived with it, though, in large part because Roberson’s defensive impact outweighed his diminishing returns on the other end of the court. The Thunder gave up 4.6 fewer points per 100 possessions with him on the floor than off it, equivalent to the difference between a top-five defense and a bottom-five unit last season.
Now, with George around to give Oklahoma City another top-flight creator and shooter, new stretch power forward Patrick Patterson in the mix to space the floor and soak up shots, and an expected increase in the role of second-year Spanish shooter Alex Abrines, Roberson won’t be asked to generate as much, and instead will be able to focus even more diligently on dampening opponents’ top options — which he does about as effectively as any wing in the league. (Plus, more shooting on the floor could allow Donovan to selectively deploy Roberson as more of a functional power forward or center on offense, screening and rolling and wreaking havoc, as he did with significant success in the 2016 postseason.)
A Thunder defense that finished last season 11th among 30 NBA teams in points allowed per possession should be even better with George and Roberson on hand to stop opponents at the point of attack. When opponents go small and try to spread OKC out, head coach Billy Donovan now has some intriguing options for downsizing; playing Patterson and super-athletic power forward Jerami Grant as small-ball fives, with Roberson and George on the wing, would allow the Thunder to run out four like-size defenders with the length, strength and quickness to switch screens, share assignments and stifle opponents’ actions.
After adding George and Patterson, the Thunder would’ve been better next season no matter what happened with Roberson, but bringing him back helps solidify OKC’s offseason as perhaps the strongest in the NBA. (Well, outside of Golden State bringing back Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston while adding shooters Omri Casspi and Nick Young, anyway.) It does, however, make the Thunder more expensive in a way that could mean more roster moves are coming. From Bobby Marks of ESPN.com:
The Andre Roberson three-year $30M contract not puts Oklahoma City with $125.1M in salary. The Thunder are now $5.8M over the luxury with an early tax bill of $8.9M. The Thunder will have the entire season to reduce (or add) salary.
If the Thunder retain their core players for 2018-19, early projections could see Oklahoma City payroll jump to $150M based on a max contract for Russell Westbrook and Paul George. The Thunder would be a repeater tax team in 2018-19 if they finish in the tax during the current season (2017-18). Oklahoma City were a luxury tax team in 2014-15 and 2015-16.
It seems a reasonable assumption that Thunder ownership won’t want to pay the tax for the third time in four years and put the team in line for the extra-stiff repeater penalties; it’ll be interesting to see how OKC can duck the tax without compromising its chances to compete for a top-tier playoff spot out West. If this offseason’s proven anything, though, is that Presti and company are capable of getting creative in pursuit of what they want, and of getting what they need to thrive at a friendly price.
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