Where Do The Thunder Go From Here?
The simple answer to the question posed in the title of this article is this: The Oklahoma City Thunder need to evaluate what went wrong for them in the NBA Finals so they can figure out how to win a championship next season.
The generally-accepted blueprint in building a successful NBA team is that it involves a process of progressing steps. Each season should reflect overall growth – by the number of wins and players’ performance and stats – from the prior season in a team’s quest of reaching the ultimate goal.
Given that train of thought, the Thunder franchise should win a ring in the 2012-13 season since their progression has been a textbook example. Obviously that’s no guarantee, but the Thunder is on an upward swing. Their star players have improved each season. As for the team, in 2008-09: a 23-59 record at .280 percentage, 2009-10: a first round appearance vs. the Los Angeles Lakers (.610 win/loss percentage), 2010-11: a Western Conference Finals appearance vs. the Dallas Mavericks (.671 win/loss), and 2011-12: an NBA Finals appearance vs. the Miami HEAT (.712 win/loss). Who knows if the theory will come to fruition, but rest assured the Thunder will do everything in their power to make it a reality.
The Miami series revealed the fact that Oklahoma City, even with home-court advantage, did not have what it takes to win an NBA championship. Fortunately, it doesn’t mean executive vice president and general manager Sam Presti should start second-guessing his decisions or consider a major re-tooling of the roster. In the Finals loss, it largely came down to the team lacking the required mental toughness and confidence to execute their game plan. Both of these can be attained if they accept the Finals experience as a lesson. Of course, the outstanding performance of Miami cannot be discounted.
While a Thunder roster shake-up isn’t in the cards, Presti will have to make certain decisions involving his players (including the disposition of contracts and extensions), the upcoming draft and free agency as he prepares the team for next season.
Let’s discuss what the Thunder may do during the offseason to take the next logical step…getting that championship ring.
As they say, timing is everything. Had we tackled this story the day after the Finals loss, we would have laid out compelling reasons why the re-signing of head coach Scott Brooks, whose contract expires June 30th, wasn’t necessarily a slam-dunk action. Instead we’ll recite what Presti said Sunday about Brooks in his end-of-the season press conference, calling completion of a contract extension “obviously, tops on our list.”
“Scotty is an integral part of our organization and critical to our success,” he began. “We value him greatly. We wouldn’t be in the situation that we’re in without him and his commitment to our organization and our players.”
On the topic of a new contract: “We’re looking forward to having those conversations in the coming days.”
What about the recent rumors suggesting Phil Jackson or Jeff Van Gundy could replace Brooks?
“To me, it’s rubbish,” Presti said.
It’s been an interesting thing with Brooks, the NBA’s Coach of the Year in 2010. In recent regular seasons, we don’t hear much about him while the team racks up the wins. However, in the glaring eye of the postseason, equal cries of criticisms and praises are plentiful, many times alternately, following games.
In recent exit interviews, players strongly professed their desire for Brooks to stay with the team. The coach has revealed nothing except to echo Presti’s words, saying the two parties would be sitting down soon to hash it out. Clearly the players respect him and respond to his coaching style. Rumors say Brooks wants a deal that includes a longer term and higher salary than the Thunder is willing to offer. We expect a deal will be reached and announced soon.
The NBA draft event has been very kind to the Thunder in recent years, but the days of Presti building through the draft are over. The team is, for the most part, built for years to come.
The organization, true to form, has been typically vague about their intentions in the draft this year.
“We have the 28th pick, and we’re going to look to see what’s there that we might be able to add to our team, whether it’s now or in the future,” said Presti on Sunday. “I wouldn’t say that we’re looking to move our draft pick. I’ve read that some places. If there’s a player on the board that we feel like fits our organization, fits our identity, we’ll draft him. If we feel like there’s a better way to use the draft pick, then we’ll look at that.”
The consensus thought is the pick is traded or sold. With OKC facing the issue of how to keep, i.e. pay, their core long-term, it’s a possibility they move the pick to eliminate having guaranteed rookie money on the books. In fact, this is a strong possibility.
Should they end up keeping the pick, however, they may consider their familiar formula of drafting a foreign player to keep overseas for continued development. A player who fits that bill, and may drop to No. 28, is France’s Evan Fournier. He’s a 6’7” offensive threat who can create his own shot on the perimeter. Only 19 years of age, he could develop into a Mike Dunleavy Jr.-type player.
In the event they decide to go conventional in the draft, a few names stand out as potential good fits should they remain available when the 28th pick comes around. Four-year Vanderbilt product, Jeff Taylor, 6’7”, makes sense for this team with his athletic prowess and defensive mentality. The Thunder may still be searching for that perfect player to sub for Durant when he needs some rest. Khris Middleton, a 6’7” shooting guard/small forward, has jumped into the first-round scene of late and brings coveted intangibles. Quincy Miller, a 6’9” small forward, intrigues, as well; DraftExpress.com calls him a “poor man’s Kevin Durant.”
The Thunder don’t figure to be active participants in free agency or trades in any significant way. The thing to remember about this team is that they will start the 2012-13 season with virtually the same players as last season. Twelve players have contracts through next season, including the entire starting lineup (Kevin Durant, Kendrick Perkins, Russell Westbrook, Thabo Sefolosha and Serge Ibaka) and the key second unit members (James Harden, Nick Collison and Eric Maynor) as well as Daequan Cook, Cole Aldrich, Reggie Jackson and Lazar Hayward. Given all of these certain contracts, it stands to reason that should they take lessons learned in the Finals to heart, they can compete for a title again.
Three players are eligible for rookie-deal extensions this summer: Harden, Ibaka and Maynor. It remains to be seen if these critical players will be extended as Presti isn’t talking beyond usual evasive GM-speak.
However, with players talking “sacrifice” and “dynasty” and how they can’t wait to return to OKC during recent exit interviews, we can’t help but think the united motivation to stay together at all costs bodes well for keeping the team intact.
Presti indicated he has yet to wrap his head around the impact of the new collective bargaining agreement on the organization. He recognized there will be challenges. On the subject of dipping into the luxury tax, he didn’t rule it out.
The status of the Thunder’s unrestricted free agents – Derek Fisher, Royal Ivey and Nazr Mohammed – is also unknown; contracts for all three were effective through the 2011-12 season only. With Maynor expected to return healthy and ready to reclaim his backup point guard role, in addition to both Reggie Jackson and Cole Aldrich developing, the UFAs may be saying their goodbyes. This would effectively end veteran voices in the locker room, save for Collison and Perkins.
Even with the Thunder’s successful run last season, one can’t necessarily expect the team to stand pat. There are certain areas that can be improved upon. For example, a traditional low-post scorer is, at times, an obvious need, and – as the Miami series revealed – OKC had no reliable way to minimize perimeter shooters knocking down shots. Remember all the uncontested three-pointers by Shane Battier and Mike Miller?
With committed salaries that exceed the salary cap next season, would the Thunder look at a player via the mid-level exception? Perhaps they sign an experienced veteran to expressly help in making a run next season with all the key players under contract.
There’s been a lot of speculation that the Thunder will use their amnesty clause on Kendrick Perkins; don’t bank on it. The Thunder greatly values his contributions and sees him as a big piece of the puzzle.
The Thunder may engage in small tinkering perhaps here and there, but the plan is to remain on their steady pace and hope that another year of seasoning will carry them to a title. Unlike many NBA teams, the offseason approach is really to do very little in the way of looking externally; “grow together and stay together” is their philosophy.
“I think it’s important for us going into next season that we have to turn the page,” said Presti. “We have to think big, but we have to build small.”
That’s it in a nutshell.
Presti believes the Thunder played their “best basketball” in the Western Conference Finals against the Spurs (4-2).
“I think we showed what we’re capable of, that level,” said Presti about the Spurs series. “Now it’s our job to capture that and make that a standard of performance as we go into next season.”
The players have all summer to think about what happened in the Finals, just as the Miami HEAT did the year before when they lost the title to the Dallas Mavericks. And we know how that turned out.