What’s Next For The Thunder?
It has been right at one month since the Oklahoma City Thunder was last spotted on a basketball court. A repeat NBA Finals appearance was not in the cards this season thanks to a 4-1 thrashing by the Memphis Grizzlies in the second round of the playoffs. For the first time in this young franchise’s history, they experienced the devastating effects of a season-ending injury to a key player. When starting point guard Russell Westbrook went down in the first round, so did their title hopes.
So the offseason came early this year for the Thunder. The next couple months will be fraught with decision-making and strategizing with a goal of strengthening the team for another run next season. Clearly, there are certain areas that need attention; low-post scoring and three-point shooting come to mind. Let’s take a look at possible moves the Thunder could make in the offseason.
The Thunder is sitting pretty with three draft picks at their disposal. Credit general manager Sam Presti for his diligence in amassing draft picks through all his wheeling and dealing. They have two first-round picks (No. 12 and No. 29) and one second-rounder (No. 32). The draft intentions of this club are under lock and key (package? trade up? pick-and-stash?); the twelfth pick gives them fairly strong options.
Despite the Thunder having the highest Offensive Rating among all teams, they are not content to keep the status quo. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook were the league’s leading scoring duo – obviously, a great factor – but they need help in the post. The Memphis series revealed once again that OKC needs more than Kendrick Perkins in the middle. Last season, the Thunder ranked in the bottom ten in scoring both at the rim and within ten feet from the basket. They were ranked 25th in offensive rebounds.
By the looks of the draftee prospects Oklahoma City has brought in for workouts already, they seem to be thinking big. A big man, that is. Of course, with an unpredictable draft order such is the case this year, it’s anyone’s guess as to who will be available by the time the twelfth pick rolls around. Players such as Cody Zeller, Steven Adams, Gorgui Dieng, Kelly Olynyk and Mason Plumlee seem viable candidates – each has made pre-draft visits to Oklahoma City.
Two-year Indiana product Zeller, 7’0, possesses NBA-ready tools, such as a developed offensive game – including proficiency in getting to the foul line – athleticism and unwavering energy. He has uncanny body control for a player his size, and his basketball IQ is high. The consensus concern is his present physicality; can he add necessary bulk and hold down opponents? Zeller (who averaged 16.5 points, 8.1 rebounds and 1.3 blocks last year) has an easy-going nature and a work-hard mentality which fits the Thunder mold nicely.
Kelly Olynyk is another seven-footer who weighs about the same (234 lbs.) as Zeller. Ask most local fans who they’d like Presti to draft, and you’ll likely hear Olynyk’s name. They know the 2012-13 West Coast Conference Player of the Year took Gonzaga to a 32-3 record and to their first-ever No. 1 ranking. Olynyk averaged 18.1 points, 7.3 rebounds and 1.1 blocks per game last season, shooting 63 percent from the field. He’s another offensive devotee; his versatility on that end makes him unique. OKC will appreciate his soft touch and fearless attitude. The tenaciousness he displayed in reshaping his body to legitimately play the center position makes him an intriguing prospect.
Gorgui Dieng, the 6’11 center who anchored Louisville’s top-ranked defense, paid a visit to Oklahoma City recently. Many believe the 23-year-old with a crazy 7’3.5” wingspan has attracted the Thunder’s interest. Maryland center Alex Len, 7’0, can’t work out yet due to injury, but reports indicate the projected top five pick met with the team recently. Could OKC be planning a surprise attack to land Len on draft night? French forward Mouhammadou Jaiteh (6-foot-10, 249 pounds) came to town as well. He’s an 18-year-old project player that Presti may view as a good No. 32 pick to stash.
Seven-footers Mason Plumlee and Steven Adams – see a trend here? – are two others who have potential. Adams looks to have a better edge in contributing immediately. Plumlee logged 17.1 points/9.9 rebounds last year at Duke, and Adams recorded 7.2 points/6.3 rebounds in his lone year at Pittsburgh. Adams, 19, weighs 255 pounds and has an insane 7’4.5” wingspan.
With the Thunder’s unimpressive track record in drafting bigs, they may opt to focus on a scorer with one of those picks to alleviate some of the scoring pressure hoisted upon Durant and Westbrook night after night. After all, they brought in SF Shabazz Muhammad, SG Tim Hardaway Jr., PG Ray McCallum and SG Vander Blue for pre-draft workouts. Combo guard C.J. McCollum, 6’3, from Lehigh could be an inspired pick should he remain available at No. 12.
The Thunder has their Big Three locked up for the next few seasons in Durant, Westbrook and Serge Ibaka; those three contracts equal a payout of nearly $45 million next year. Add the remaining contracts to that figure, and Oklahoma City has around $4 million available for free agency this year without becoming luxury taxpayers. They will also have to pay whoever they draft. There is a $3.3 million mid-level exception available which will likely remain untouched for future needs. Expiring contracts include Kevin Martin, Ronnie Brewer and Derek Fisher; unless Martin agrees to accept a mere fraction of his last seasons’ $12.4 million salary, don’t expect his return.
All of these facts appear to suggest a quiet free agency season for the Thunder, save for possibly one signing. One target would be a three-point specialist such as unrestricted free agent Kyle Korver who earned $5 million last year. Maybe Marco Belinelli (nearly $2 million) or even Matt Barnes who earned $854,389 last season and seeks a pay raise.
True to form, the Thunder has revealed nothing as far as any trade considerations nor have an abundance of trade rumors surfaced.
Should they go the big man route with their top draft pick, they may acquire a veteran-but-still-serviceable guard. One name that could make sense is the Minnesota Timberwolves’ J.J. Barea. Reports suggest the Wolves may look to rid themselves of Barea or Luke Ridnour by draft night. Interestingly, Barea has long been a thorn in the Thunder’s backside with his elevated play when facing this team – so much so, in fact, that it makes perfect sense. To accomplish this, perhaps the Thunder offers Jeremy Lamb (the Wolves need a shooting guard, and Lamb has terrific potential), Perry Jones III and Hasheem Thabeet (OKC still owes him a partial guaranteed).
These three contracts are the only ones seemingly expendable. It doesn’t seem plausible they would attempt to move defensive guru Thabo Sefolosha or Nick Collison and certainly not now-critical Reggie Jackson. Not sure who would take on Perkins’ nearly $19 million contract. So that leaves Lamb, Jones and Thabeet available for trades, yet Lamb certainly seems poised to step into a bigger role in Oklahoma City. In such case, don’t expect big trade news…unless a draft pick or two were thrown in.
No Thunder article is complete of late without delving into the likelihood of the team using their amnesty provision on Perkins. With such a large payout owed in an amnesty situation, it seems doubtful to pay a player such money to just quietly go away. Perhaps after next season, but not now. In fact, Presti has insisted this scenario is not up for consideration. Perkins still bodies up well against other guys, sets masterful screens and is a true mentor to his teammates. Further, he will be invaluable to the inevitable big that figures to be acquired in the offseason.