Six Moves the Oklahoma City Thunder Should Make
The Oklahoma City Thunder are well-primed to make another serious run this season with the majority of last season’s players still under contract. That said, executive vice president and general manager Sam Presti is not one to stand pat. Surprise moves are his calling card; this season should be no different as he looks to improve the team. He’s certainly had months and months to analyze possible moves and scenarios.
Twelve players are under contract going into the 2011-12 season to the tune of approximately $53.3 million. Two little-used players have non-guaranteed contracts: Royal Ivey ($1.2M) and Robert Vaden ($788,872). Based on the salary cap under the new collective bargaining agreement, the Thunder may have around $5 million available for roster changes.
The remaining cap space will need to cover the signing of 24th draft pick Reggie Jackson ($993,700) and possibly Daequan Cook (the Thunder already extended him a qualifying offer of $3.1 million). That doesn’t leave many dollars left for a GM who greatly values cap space flexibility.
With just a few weeks to go before the Thunder’s Christmas Day season opener versus the Orlando Magic, we offer the following suggestions:
Extend Russell Westbrook’s contract
At the top of the Thunder’s to-do list is making sure their second-best player sticks around for a good, long while. Kevin Durant was presented with a multi-year contract at the stroke of midnight on July 1, 2010, the precise moment he became eligible for such an extension. Likewise, Westbrook’s rookie-scale contract would have been extended exactly one year later had the lockout not occurred. Instead, we expect an announcement confirming Westbrook’s contract extension – taking effect in the 2012-13 season – to hit on December 9th, the first day such event can occur.
Those who believe the coast-to-coast criticism cast upon Westbrook months ago spells separation from the team are mistaken. Presti, with his stay-together-grow-together mantra, has no designs on losing his starting point guard to restricted free agency next season. The 23-year-old heartily expressed his desire to stay with the team at season’s end. It would be awfully hard to replace the seemingly unstoppable ball-handler who averaged 21.9 points 8.2 assists last year (league-ranked fourth in total assists and third in total steals).
HOOPSWORLD was present when Presti shared a few days ago that he’s reached out to player representatives in advance of the signing period start date. He is still barred from discussing specific players. Westbrook is likely expecting a max deal; as talented as he is and as much as he means to the team, he’s not quite worth those figures yet. Presti will have to explain that his offer must allow ample room to extend contracts on Serge Ibaka and James Harden, perhaps Eric Maynor, next summer.
Sign Shane Battier
Battier, an unrestricted free agent, is a wanted man. Durant recently took to Twitter to express his desire for Battier to join OKC, even inquiring about his jersey size and preferred jersey number. Nick Collison followed suit with a luring-type message to him, as well. Fans are promising everything from an unlimited supply of Cookie Crisp cereal to Tim Duncan’s video game cheat codes should he commit to their team. Battier recently confirmed the “mad love” from Memphis, Miami, Houston and Oklahoma City.
The 33-year-old defensive specialist managed to both impress and frustrate Durant in the Western Conference semifinals last season. While his contributions on the defensive end generate the most attention, Battier can play offense. Last season he averaged 7.6 points, 2.3 assists and 1.2 three-pointers per game. He can help guide this team to the next level.
He fits the Thunder DNA and would certainly provide a respected veteran voice needed by the young team, plus he won’t complain about minutes or his role. Battier would be a positive influence with his humble leadership and high basketball IQ. Further, he would fill a real hole on the team by serving as a legitimate backup to Durant. Presti may look at other affordable small forwards, such as Grant Hill or even Tracy McGrady, but Battier is the ideal fit.
With ten seasons under his belt, he has entered missing-piece territory for contending teams. Battier has been denied a ring thus far; it’s a win-win gamble for both parties.
Battier earned $7.4 million in his sixth and final contract year last season; he should command around $5M/yr now and may take less to land with a contender. To maximize cap space, which is of utmost importance to Presti, and acquire Battier, the Thunder will probably need to…..
Eliminate Nate Robinson’s contract
Whether OKC trades Robinson or enters into a buyout of his $4.5 million contract, he should not be wearing Thunder blue this season. With Westbrook and back-up Eric Maynor manning the point guard position, along with draft pick Reggie Jackson, James Harden (who proved he can ably distribute the ball) and perhaps Ivey, now is the time to waive Robinson. Buyout rumors have been circulating for some time; it’s really been heating up over the past few days.
On the flip side, Robinson is surely anxious for a buyout so he can become an unrestricted free agent and sign with a team that will give him more minutes than he’ll ever play in Oklahoma City.
Robinson is a player who could possibly be considered under the amnesty provision. This seems unlikely as Presti would not get the maximum benefit, i.e. a buyout gives him more cash.
Re-sign Daequan Cook
Among all the Thunder players, Cook’s voice was probably the loudest and his presence the strongest around Oklahoma City in the offseason. The sharpshooter has not missed an opportunity to declare his wish to stay with his new team.
Cook only averaged 5.6 points, 1.7 rebounds and 0.5 assists in 13.9 average minutes during his first year with the Thunder. What matters, though, were his contributions in long-distance shooting. Cook helped push the team from a 25th ranking in both total three-pointers made (418) and percentage (.340) in 2009-10 to an 18th ranking in total threes (487) and 19th in percentage (.347) last season. Cook averaged 1.5 three-pointers per game (second only to Durant: 1.9 average threes at .350) and shot a team-high .422. His three-point shooting percentage was a far-and-away career high at a career-low average minutes.
Cook readily accepts his designated role without complaint. Even when he’s off his mark in shooting, his ability to spread the floor comes in handy. That valuable attribute was demonstrated many times in the postseason when Durant was double-teamed.
Land a defensive coach
The Thunder elected not to replace assistant coach Ron Adams with a like-coach after he departed for the Chicago Bulls in June, 2010. Under Adams in 2009-10, the Thunder players adopted and implemented his defensive principles, ranking ninth in the league in defense. Without him in 2010-11, their defense suffered measurably, dropping to a 15th ranking.
Defensive improvements were noted as the season progressed last year; however, in order to re-capture that once-strong identity, it would behoove them to find a defensive-minded coach or coordinator to strengthen the commitment. Obviously that won’t be easy. Perhaps they should have a look at assistant coach Steve Clifford of the Orlando Magic, a team that ranked third in defense last year or Dave Joerger of Memphis (ranked 9th last season).
Trade Byron Mullens
On paper, seven-foot Mullens looks like a potential winner. He’s quick and athletic, but his game hasn’t transferred to the big stage. On the roster for two years now, he’s appeared in a grand total of 26 games averaging 1.5 points and 1.3 rebounds in 5.3 minutes. Granted, that’s not a lot of playing time to show coach Scott Brooks why he needs to be given more minutes.
The Thunder is sitting pretty in the big man department with a now-healthy Kendrick Perkins, blossoming Serge Ibaka, gritty Nick Collison and dependable Nazr Mohammed. Cole Aldrich, entering his second year, has evidently bypassed Mullens in the depth chart. Aldrich may see more minutes this year in efforts to develop his game.
Mullens is set to earn $1.2 million this year. Not much money, but perhaps Presti can secure something in exchange; he needs to go so the roster isn’t maxed out (a Presti pet peeve). If Jackson, Cook and Battier sign, along with the twelve already under contract, they would be at the maximum 15 players. Another thought is packaging Robinson and Mullens for picks and a surprise addition.
Oklahoma City is fortunate to find itself picking up where last season ended with virtually the same roster. They require very little in the way upgrades or changes; experience on-court is what they need.