Offseason Outline: Oklahoma City Thunder
Here’s a look at what’s in store for the Thunder this offseason after their second-round loss to the Grizzlies.
• What’s the biggest priority for Oklahoma City this offseason?
Deciding the fate of the supporting cast.
We can spread fault for OKC’s early playoff bow to any number of relevant parties, but without Russell Westbrook around to draw the attention of defenses, the Thunder role players were exposed. It’s not entirely fair to judge those players based on how they perform in a Westbrook-less context, but defeat begets explanation, and explanation begets blame. Such is the way of the sporting world. In claiming players such as Kevin Martin and Kendrick Perkins held the Thunder back, though, you also have to acknowledge that they were put in a situation where it would have been difficult to do anything else. They — along with Nick Collison, Reggie Jackson et al. — are role players for a reason, and their limitations didn’t disappear the moment that Westbrook went down and their roles were overstretched.
Still, the offseason presents the best time for roster reflection and renovation, and general manager Sam Presti should have ample opportunity for both. Martin will be a free agent, and with that status comes an interesting dilemma: What is Martin’s efficient offense worth to the Thunder, and can it be replaced via the mid-level exception? It’s tough to know at this point what a mid-level exception might buy on the open market, but Presti will fish for possible replacements, likely consider bringing Martin back if the price is right and surely evaluate the progress of 21-year-old guard Jeremy Lamb as a possible replacement.
Perkins introduces his own predicament. The Thunder could amnesty him and wipe his $9 million salary for next season and $9.7 million for 2014-15 off the books. That could absolve the Thunder of a potential luxury tax payment, though it wouldn’t allow them to slide under the cap and they’d still be required to pay Perkins in full.
• How can the Thunder improve this offseason? Through free agency? The draft? Trade?
Potentially all of the above. The means of improvement are more limited in free agency, but the mid-level exception could give OKC a chance to land a more balanced bench contributor than Martin. This year’s crop is light on players who can create their own shot while contributing meaningfully to a team defense, but there are some interesting possibilities (J.J. Redick, Carl Landry, O.J. Mayo) should the Thunder look to move on from Martin. The draft should offer a chance to pick up an additional rotation player, as the James Harden deal scored OKC a pick in the late lottery — tentatively penciled in at No. 12. That pick could land the Thunder a spot contributor, be it a ball handler to step into whatever leftover minutes might be had behind Westbrook and Jackson, or a big man to play a bit while developing on the back burner.
The Thunder also have their fair share of tradable assets. Jackson, Nick Collison, Thabo Sefolosha, Lamb, Perry Jones III and DeAndre Liggins all provide nice value on small, portable contracts. Jackson could conceivably be replaced through the draft. Sefolosha could be expendable if OKC has eyes on another three-and-D type in free agency. Collison would be a tough loss but might net good value from a team that understands his defensive utility. Lamb, Jones and Liggins could be parlayed into players capable of contributing more immediately, though, to be fair, neither Lamb nor Jones has gotten a healthy amount of NBA playing time yet. The point being: The Thunder have a surprising amount of good, low-level assets for possible use in a trade.
• Where does the much-maligned Scott Brooks fit into the Thunder’s plans?
No matter what you think of Brooks’ coaching work to date, he’s under contract for three more seasons and doesn’t figure — or deserve — to be in any immediate jeopardy. Nevertheless, he has a long summer ahead of re-evaluating how the Thunder operate, as Oklahoma City seemed badly in need of a contingency for the second straight season. Things go well when the stars are available and clicking, but Brooks could certainly do a better job of preparing his team to weather cold stretches or potential injuries. The best means for doing so: some structural offensive help to aid Westbrook and Kevin Durant, plus reinforcements to bear the scoring load when only one (or none) of those stars is on the floor. Talent and simple execution have gotten the Thunder rather far, but the next step in their collective evolution starts with Brooks.