Thunder rumors: Former All-Star center could land in Oklahoma City to add heft

Nikola Vucevic, Chicago Bulls and Brook Lopez, Milwaukee Bucks
Nikola Vucevic, Chicago Bulls and Brook Lopez, Milwaukee Bucks / Stacy Revere/GettyImages

The Oklahoma City Thunder certainly don't look like a team with a lot of weaknesses. 48 games into the season, the Thunder have the second-best record in the Western Conference at 33-15, a game back of the Minnesota Timberwolves. Their +7.8 net rating is the best in the West and second-best in the entire league.

All-Star starter Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is a legitimate MVP candidate, and he is surrounded by a deep roster of long, skilled players who can fill just about any role that head coach Mark Daigneault asks of them. The Thunder are young, athletic and versatile, and they are a legitimate title contender already.

The Thunder do have a weakness

If you are looking for a weakness on the roster, however, you'll want to guide your eyes to the column that lists players and their weight. The Thunder may be long but they are relatively light in the shorts. Luguentz Dort, their starting shooting guard, is the heaviest player in the starting lineup at just 220 pounds. Chet Holmgren, the starting center, is listed at just 208 pounds.

The rest of the roster doesn't bring much heft, either. The only rotation player heavier than Dort is backup big Jaylin Williams, and he is a mere 240 pounds and stands 6'9" tall. Holmgren is the only full-time rotation player who is taller than 6'9". The Thunder are long, and they have positional size int he backcourt and on the wing, but they are not big.

That's not necessarily a glaring issue. The Thunder's lack of heft hasn't prevented them from having the league's fifth-best defense. Opponents shoot just 51 percent from 2-point range against them, second-lowest in the league, and Holmgren and company hold opponents to just 63.3 percent from 0-3 feet, the lowest number in the entire NBA.

Where it does come around to hurt the Thunder is on the glass. The Thunder grab just 21.1 percent of available offensive rebounds, 28th in the league; part of that is size and personnel, part of it is scheme. On the defensive end, however, they only grab 72.1 percent of defensive rebounds, 29th in the league and a number they surely want to improve.

The Thunder don't have a player to stick in the rotation to help them clean the glass, so if they wanted to add a center with size and rebounding ability, they would likely need to do so via the trade market. That led to a recent idea that the Thunder could target Chicago Bulls center Nikola Vucevic on the trade market.

Could the Thunder trade for Nikola Vucevic?

The Chicago Bulls are floundering in a dark ocean of mediocrity, flailing wildly and thus far refusing to grab onto the lifeline that is a rebuild to save itself. That commitment to winning 40 games at all costs led them to re-sign veteran center Nikola Vucevic last summer, a decision that looks even worse now than it did at the time.

The Bulls are going nowhere, Vucevic is now 33 years old, and his efficiency has cratered playing with Chicago's mishmash lineups. Is "Vuc" playing worse this season due to age or injury? Or is it simply the environment, and he could be expected to play better in a new setting?

That's an important question for the Thunder or any team interested in Vucevic to ask and answer before sending out matching salary to bring him in. There is no question that Vuc would help on the glass; he is averaging double-digit rebounds for the 10th time in his career, and his total rebound percentage of 17.4 is in the Top 20 in the NBA (Josh Giddey leads the Thunder at 14.2).

Even assuming that Vucevic would help the rebounding and would likely shoot better playing in the Thunder's system, he has never been a good defender and is essentially a 6'10" turnstile on that end at this point in his career. He is also making $20 million per season this year and for two more after it, years in which he could decline even further than he has this season.

The plus-side to trading for Vucevic is that he would likely be free or close to it; they could match his salary with Davis Bertans and another small contract and potentially not need to include much more, perhaps a second-round pick. He could be Holmgren's backup coming in for rebounding and to run pick-and-pop actions with Cason Wallace or Josh Giddey.

Is the prospect of having Vucevic on the roster and in a limited role worth the financial commitment? Probably not, especially as it extends out for two more seasons and would severely limit the Thunder's flexibility in the future. It's valuable to identify a need and then canvass the league for players who meet that need, but the limitations of a player like Vucevic at this point in his career mean paying more than a nominal amount of salary for his services doesn't make sense for the Thunder, now or moving forward.

Perhaps Chet Holmgren just needs to get a little bit fatter, as the best player in the league believes.