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Where Do The Thunder Go From Here?
Posted By Susan Bible On May 25, 2013 @ 12:14 pm In Main Page,NBA | No Comments
Oklahoma City Thunder general manager Sam Presti said it best to gathered reporters last week: “We feel like we had a great season with a disappointing ending.”
With a 60-22 record in the 2012-13 regular season and the number one seed in the Western Conference, the Thunder appeared poised for another successful postseason run. Despite some problem areas – offensive rebounding, turnovers – things were going their way as they entered the first round of the playoffs against the Houston Rockets.
Team leader and All-Star Kevin Durant had just been welcomed as the sixth member – joining Steve Nash, Larry Bird, Mark Price, Dirk Nowitzki and Reggie Miller – of the prestigious “50-40-90 Club” (which represents a player who averaged at least .500 in field goals, .400 in three-pointers and .900 in free throws). Defensive-minded Serge Ibaka and Thabo Sefolosha had markedly improved their offensive game. All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook silenced critics with his ever-maturing game. Newcomer Kevin Martin was a nice addition – no James Harden, of course – and had accepted his unaccustomed bench role well.
In Game 2 vs. Houston, the unthinkable happened. Westbrook suffered a season-ending knee injury; with a 2-0 series lead, the Thunder was suddenly charged with figuring out how to win subsequent playoff games without him. And they needed to figure it out quick. The mission proved too tough; after beating the Rockets 4-2, the Memphis Grizzlies abruptly ended their title bid in the second round, 4-1.
Presti hit the nail on the head with his season-ending statement. It’s easy to simply attribute the postseason disappointment on the loss of Westbrook. Without him on the floor, the players were asked to elevate their game to somehow make up for his regular season averages of 23.2 points, 7.4 assists, 5.2 rebounds, 1.8 assists and 1.2 three-pointers. Despite a valiant attempt by Durant – which dwindled toward the end of the second round due to pure exhaustion– and not-so-valiant by others, the task proved too daunting.
Had Westbrook not been injured, would the Thunder be competing for the Western Conference title right now? Would they be bound for a repeat performance in the NBA Finals? We’ll never know, but it’s safe to say there were valid doubts the Thunder would be victorious in a Finals rematch versus presumed-Eastern-Conference-Winner-Miami given their current 0-6 record.
The great news is that Westbrook should return by the start of next seasons’ training camp. With a now-shortened postseason, the Thunder has time to analyze potential offseason moves. The biggest questions surround Kevin Martin (re-signing?), Kendrick Perkins (amnesty?) and the NBA Draft (three picks). The consensus holes of the team are a low-post scoring threat, a scorer off the bench and a reliable three-point specialist; perhaps they won’t have to look too far to fill these needs. Will the draft and internal options do the trick?
Players Under Contract/Cap Room
For the 2013-14 season, the Thunder owes the following dollars: Kevin Durant ($17,832,627), Russell Westbrook ($14,693,906), Serge Ibaka ($12,350,000), Kendrick Perkins ($8,977,437), Thabo Sefolosha ($3,900,000), Nick Collison ($2,585,668), Jeremy Lamb ($2,111,160), Reggie Jackson ($1,260,360), Perry Jones III ($1,082,520) to the tune of $64,793,678 in total.
The non-guaranteed salary players include Daniel Orton ($916,099) and DeAndre Liggins ($884,293), and Hasheem Thabeet’s $1,200,000 is partially guaranteed. It would be nice if they found a way to keep Liggins. His defense was impressive in the playoffs, and he revealed offensive skills that stand a good chance of improving.
Players who have expiring contracts include Kevin Martin, Ronnie Brewer and Derek Fisher; all of these players will become unrestricted free agents this summer.
Presti recognizes the Thunder will eventually become taxpayers to keep the core in place. To enter that territory now though is not in the game plan. Should the luxury tax equal the same as this year’s number of $70.3 million, there’s room to add around $4 million in salaries without getting penalized. They also have a $3.3 million mid-level exception available; leaving it alone may fit their mold. With two first-round picks and one second-round pick in the upcoming draft, and related salaries to be paid accordingly, the Thunder aren’t going to have a lot of cash to make much offseason noise.
One of the more curious unknowns going into the offseason surrounds Martin’s future with the team. If he expects the Thunder to offer anywhere near the $12.4 million salary he earned this season, he’ll be sorely disappointed. They can’t even afford half of that number, unless they’ve already decided to become taxpayers. Not sure they would venture into luxury tax territory for a 30-year old player with an injury history and a somewhat inconsistent showing in Oklahoma City.
The decided silver lining from the Westbrook injury was witnessing how much Jackson has developed. He revealed unexpected maturity and solid numbers in the playoffs (13.9 points, 4.9 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 1.2 three-pointers at .479 field goal percentage in 33.5 minutes). He even showed flashes of Westbrook-type playing; certainly it’s clear why the organization believes in him. With such potential, look for Jackson’s role to expand next season…perhaps in a sixth man role.
The future of Jeremy Lamb and Perry Jones III with this squad is still fuzzy. The two saw minimal playing time, though Lamb appears to possess great promise as an offensive wonder. This offseason will be important to both players. Lamb may grow into a special player.
How many times have we heard the name “Kendrick Perkins” and the word “amnesty” used in the same sentence this season? Too many to count.
This is what Presti said last week in his season-ending press conference on the topic: “The amnesty clause is not something we have deeply considered as an organization. The majority of the teams that have used it have done so when they were under the salary cap or when they have exceeded the luxury tax to a degree in which the player’s salary is less expensive than that of the luxury tax penalty itself. We do not fall into either dynamic, therefore it has not been something deeply explored by our organization.”
Presti recited this same concept in all sorts of different ways. It sounds like they are not interested in wasting time even considering it. Of course, Presti is the master of surprise, but the general thinking is the Thunder will not amnesty Perk. It would amount to paying $19 million to just make him disappear. True, his offensive game is practically nil and he is overpaid, but the defensive presence he brings – definitely against certain post players – remains valuable. It wouldn’t be too wise to tie his total worth by his shocking -0.7 PER (Player Efficiency Rating) in the playoffs; what he does for this team isn’t close to being measured on the stat sheet. It wasn’t by accident that OKC was ranked fourth in defense or won 60 games this season. He’s an intimidator under the rim who sets great screens and brings leadership, physicality and the voice of experience. He’s always talking to his younger teammates, and they listen. Ideally, they would have that perfect low-post scoring center who does it all, but those type of players are few and far between, especially for a team that has little salary available. Perhaps they use Perk in different ways next season. Maybe limit his minutes, go small more frequently with Ibaka or Collison handling the middle or change his role to challenge specific opponents. Besides, like Presti said, the numbers don’t work to amnesty.
The NBA Draft has been very kind to the Thunder over the past few years. This June they will have many decisions to make with the 12th overall selection (as part of the James Harden trade), the 29th pick and the 32nd pick. Not bad for a team that grabbed more wins than any other team in the Western Conference. These picks give Oklahoma City great options; they could trade up, pick the best available players or go the stash-n-grow route with the late picks. Conventional wisdom dictates choosing the best player; in the Thunder’s case, it should be the best big player, though it bears pointing out this team hasn’t had the best luck with that strategy (think Byron Mullens or Cole Aldrich). Still, this seems like the best option with the twelfth pick, which would pay a manageable $2 million salary.
Don’t forget, Nick Collison was a No. 12 pick. Names such as 7’0’ Kelly Olynyk, 7’0” Cody Zeller, 7’0” Mason Plumlee seem like good possible fits, or even 6’11” Gorgui Dieng or 7’2” Rudy Gobert. Start grooming the big man now for the future.
Don’t look for the Thunder to be heavy-hitters in free agency this summer. They could go ahead and pay the tax and/or use the MLE to secure an experienced free agent in the $4-$5 million range. A three-point specialist like Kyle Korver (who earned $5 million with the Atlanta Hawks this season) would slide in nicely. Marco Belinelli (earned nearly $2 million with the Chicago Bulls)? For that matter, would Kevin Martin take a huge decrease in salary to return to a contender? Or do they look at a big with a cheap price tag, such as a Chris Andersen or Ronny Turiaf type? This is when a crystal ball would be handy; the Thunder’s intentions are simply unknown.
Many are quick to point the finger at head coach Scott Brooks for the playoff shortcomings, but don’t expect any changes on that front. Brooks is under contract for three more years; he is genuinely well-liked and well-respected by the players and front office. His in-game adjustments and stubbornness in sticking to established rotations irk his critics, though he did show some willingness to shake things up in the Memphis series.
Here’s the thing: the most critical players on this team haven’t even hit their prime yet. Durant, Westbrook, Ibaka and Jackson are less than 25 years old. They will keep improving and building chemistry together. Those who follow this team understand the franchise is all about keeping the core together, growing together and finding the right supplemental pieces. The Harden trade was a curve ball, but they are moving on. Long-term sustainability – Presti’s favored word when describing the Thunder vision going forward – remains the focus. Bench scoring and a player who excels in low-post put-backs are the missing pieces. They have a few months now to get it done.
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