Solving Problems: Kevin Durant Needs A Backup
There are just a handful of NBA teams that can legitimately claim their present roster is in very good shape going into the 2011-12 season. The Oklahoma City Thunder sits firmly on that short list. Of course, tweaks and possible upgrades are never far from the mind of any team’s general manager.
In the case of this particular team, Sam Presti (Thunder’s executive vice president and general manager) has continually demonstrated no hesitance in pulling surprise trades and free agent signings in efforts to push the team to the next level. And these surprise, even risky at times, moves are not limited to trade and free agent acquisitions; some of his draft picks were risky as well. For instance, picking another guard, Reggie Jackson, in June’s NBA draft left many scratching their heads.
While the Thunder’s postseason run improbably led to an appearance in the Western Conference Finals last season, specific holes were revealed that Presti will look to fill.
The obvious, and foremost, weakness is the inexperience of this team. Lack of experience is not the only weakness, but it’s clearly an issue. The 4-1 elimination by the Mavericks in the WCF acutely demonstrated that fact. Late-game execution and adjustments, rather the lack thereof, killed their chances to move on.
Last year’s 55-27 record indicates the Thunder’s baptism-by-fire approach is working well; however, it’s going to take more to get them to the Finals this season. Expect continued on-court growth as the young players mature; however, there are certain moves to consider that may aid now.
Nine of the ten rotation players are locked in, contract-wise, for next season. In total, the Thunder owes approximately $53.6M in 2011-12 salary. We would be remiss by not mentioning the fact that, without a labor deal, the wiggle room factor is undetermined. Last season the salary cap was $58M; of course, that figure is unknown for the upcoming season.
One thing is certain, Presti will retain ample funds for future re-signings of the core group (Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, James Harden) and perhaps others.
Russell Westbrook Isn’t Going Anywhere
Let’s get that out of the way first. Had the lockout not transpired, Presti would have appeared at Westbrook’s doorstep on July 1st presenting him with a lucrative long-term contract extension. And he surely would have signed.
There’s been no shortage of pundit’s trade scenarios involving Westbrook following the mass criticism hurled his way during and after the postseason. Yes, he turns the ball over too much, tends to shoot first over passing and can’t always keep the offense moving. These things can be addressed as he matures in his position of floor general.
The Thunder is not focused on getting rid of their second-best scorer who, at age 22, has an undefined ceiling. He hasn’t missed a single game in his three-year NBA career. He averaged 21.9 points, 8.2 assists, 1.9 steals and 4.6 rebounds last season and was league-ranked eighth in Player Efficiency.
Free Agency Options
Oklahoma City filled a huge deficiency last February when Kendrick Perkins and Nazr Mohammed (the latter signed a one-year contract extension on June 29th) were acquired to shore up the low post. This allowed Serge Ibaka and James Harden to blossom. Harden played exceptionally well on both ends of the floor during the playoffs; this sparked speculation that his reserve role days are over.
When the Thunder shipped Jeff Green to the Boston Celtics, they lost a legitimate small forward to back up Durant (who ranked seventh in the league in total minutes played last season). Daequan Cook played limited minutes at the three position, but he hardly qualifies as the solution here. Plus his status as a restricted free agent (with a qualifying offer of $3.1M) means he may or may not return. Make no mistake, there’s no doubt that Cook’s three-point’s expertise was a welcomed addition.
A solid answer to the backup three is unrestricted free agent Shane Battier. At 33 years of age and ten years’ NBA experience under his belt, he could be that missing piece. With Battier in a Thunder uniform, it really presents a win-win situation for both sides.
For Battier, he gets a chance to finish out his career with a contending team. He played the least number of minutes in his career (24.2 mpg) during his 23 games in Memphis Grizzlies last year. Battier’s not the type to get riled up over lost minutes, but Rudy Gay’s return will affect his playing time should he re-sign with Memphis.
For the Thunder, Battier is affordable – maybe in the $8M-$9M range for two years – which is an ideal free agent salary number for the Thunder. He’s a veteran leader with playoff experience who can ably mentor this team. Like OKC’s Thabo Sefolosha, Battier is a lockdown perimeter defender; unlike Sefolosha, Battier is also a solid offensive contributor with an ability to knock down the open threes.
At his core, Battier is a teacher. Think of what he can bring to every member of this young roster. To top it off, he’s a Presti-kind-of-guy, i.e. a level-headed teammate who possesses strong character.
Other unrestricted free agent swingmen OKC may consider include Grant Hill, Caron Butler or Mike Dunleavy. However, Hill probably wants to live out his last year or two with Phoenix. Dallas will try like crazy to keep Butler, and Dunleavy’s injury history is a concern.
Another intriguing possibility is Tayshaun Prince.
Interestingly, Prince has close to the same physical prototype as Durant. He’s 6’9”, 215 lbs with a 7’2” wingspan. At 31 years old, he’s kept the same skinny-type frame for years – something critics hound Durant about – and remains a viable factor on both ends (14.1 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 2.8 apg last season in Detroit). Durant, now 22, is 6’10”, 215 lbs with a 7’4.75” wingspan.
Prince is coming off a hefty multi-year contract with the Detroit Pistons; his final year paid him over $11M. Like Battier, the Thunder players would greatly benefit from Prince’s experience and knowledge. But would he agree to come off the bench with less playing time and a whole lot less salary?
Strangely enough, murmurs on the possibility of restricted free agent Jeff Green returning to the fold in a bench role have been heard. That’s not going to happen; the numbers don’t work.
No Real Trade Options
Trade rumors have been plentiful over the summer, mostly involving a disruption of key members of the core. There’s no reason to tear apart a young team that was one playoff round away from a Finals appearance.
At this point, expendable players appear to be Nate Robinson, Royal Ivey, Byron Mullens and Robert Vaden.
Robinson has another year left on his contract ($4.5M). It is likely Oklahoma City keeps him as a third PG option (while rookie Jackson develops, perhaps in the D-League) before focusing on a trade partner for his expiring contract. Ivey ($1.2M) and Vaden ($788,872) have non-guaranteed contracts.
It’s hard to pinpoint the Thunder’s plans for Byron Mullens. He’s appeared in just 26 games over two years, yet they picked up his option ($1.3M) that goes through the 2012-13 season.
Cole Aldrich, also extended two more seasons, had difficulty in translating his game to the big stage, but the Thunder sees real potential. Mohammed may well have been re-signed for another year to work with second-year Cole Aldrich in addition to backing up Perkins.
Sefolosha’s contributions fell nearly across the board last season, but his salary structure ($3.3M in 2011-12, $3.6M in 2012-13 and $3.9M in 2013-14) won’t yield much in the way of return. As mentioned, Harden should take the starting reins over Sefolosha; we suspect that may push him into becoming that defensive threat again.
Presti has convinced the masses that his strategy is to build a team that can grow together and stay together. In other words, don’t expect a blockbuster free agent signing or trade. The best course of action is to pick up a veteran wing player like Battier.