Posted August 23, 2013

Offseason Grades: Oklahoma City Thunder

2013 Offseason Grades, Ben Golliver, Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder, Russell Westbrook
Kevin Durant

Kevin Durant didn’t get much offseason help, but the Thunder will still be a contender. (Layne Murdoch Jr./NBAE via Getty Images)

The Point Forward will grade every team’s offseason over the next few weeks. Click here for the complete archive.

Additions: Ryan Gomes, Steven Adams (No. 12 in the 2013 draft), Andre Roberson (No. 26), Grant Jerrett (No. 40)

Losses: Kevin Martin, Ronnie Brewer

Other Moves: Re-signed Derek Fisher, drafted Alejandro Abrines (No. 32; expected to play overseas)

What Went Right: The Thunder have had a quiet summer, especially compared to many of their top Western Conference competition. That silence has made way for a few different schools of thought circling around a team that saw a brilliant 60-win season fall off a cliff when Russell Westbrook was lost to a season-ending knee injury during the playoffs.

The snap-takers see Oklahoma City’s taking a step back because 2012 James Harden became 2013 Kevin Martin who became 2014 Nobody Proven once Martin signed with the Timberwolves in free agency and the Thunder didn’t add a needle-moving replacement. The counter-arguers believe that Martin’s departure won’t affect the Thunder much thanks to growth from young superstars Kevin Durant and Westbrook and the budding potential of third-year guard Reggie Jackson and second-year guard Jeremy Lamb. The super-optimists are going so far as to posit that Jackson, who was superb in the playoffs during Westbrook’s absence, and Lamb might develop quickly enough to enable the Thunder to improve their regular-season record for the sixth consecutive year.

GIVE AND GO: What could keep the Thunder from contending?

Somewhat amazingly, it’s possible to reside in any of those three groups and still view the Thunder as conference favorites. That’s how good they were last year, when the led the NBA in point differential and possessed the No. 1 offense and No. 4 defense. Martin is the only one of Oklahoma City’s top nine rotation players who isn’t returning, and the body of work from the group of Durant, Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, Thabo Sefolosha, Kendrick Perkins and Nick Collisons over multiple seasons is large enough to believe that another 60-win season is a possibility.

In a strict offseason assessment, the Thunder don’t get credit for their preexisting talent. As such, the available additions represent slim pickings, as none are likely to be impact players in 2013-14 given the talent and depth already on hand. That said, I championed the Adams selection as the ideal marriage between a project and an organization with the patience and roster to wait on his development. The 20-year-old 7-footer is probably years away from fulfilling his potential, like most 20-year-old 7-footers, and there’s legitimate bust potential at play, like most 20-year-old 7-footers. That’s fine. Because of previous draft misses and Perkins’ career arc, center will be a position of need for the Thunder in years to come, and Adams seems to have some upside. From a big-picture perspective, he made more sense than any of the other players who were available when Oklahoma City was on the clock.

What Went Wrong: Put me in the camp that doesn’t believe Martin’s departure will be a back-breaker. The continued hand-wringing over Harden’s exit is warranted, but let’s not ignore the fact that the Thunder’s offensive efficiency improved in their first year without him. Acquiring Martin was a savvy way to plug the hole in a pinch, but the driving force was Durant’s obscene 50/40/90 shooting season, a performance that put him nearly side-by-side with LeBron James in most of the key advanced statistics. A player that good — especially one teamed with a healthy Westbrook — is going to find a way make things work, and work very well.

The overall stagnancy is what’s frustrating, even if the underlying reasons are clear. Oklahoma City is on pace to be a fraction over the 2014 luxury-tax line, but it seems inevitable that general manager Sam Presti will find a way to make sure that the Thunder are luxury-tax recipients rather than payers once again. That approach limited Presti’s options to the draft and minimum-type players this summer, and none of the newcomers or re-signed players represents a terrible move, even if Fisher’s reappearance will drive a meaningful portion of the Thunder fan base insane.

At this point, NBA observers are simply conditioned to expect more from the ownership groups of title contenders. Oklahoma City is firmly in the class of favorites, arguably the second-best team in the league behind the two-time defending champion Heat. While the benefits — now and later — of avoiding the luxury tax are obvious, there’s nothing worse than watching a brilliant executive like Presti and a generational talent like Durant try to conquer Miami with one hand tied behind their respective backs by ownership. Observers are left to scream, “Go for it!” while the check-cutters turn a deaf ear.

GRADE: D+. It’s possible to appreciate Oklahoma City’s long-term vision while also bemoaning its inability to add a meaningful piece to a team that should be playing in June. Part of the “thud” or “whiff” feeling that permeates the Thunder’s offseason could simply be the expectations game rearing its ugly head: Presti set the bar so high in the years leading up to the Harden trade and he’s yet to execute a signature move in its aftermath. Come on, Merlin, make us some more magic!

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