Despite the first round playoff exit, Oklahoma City Thunder fans will never forget this season.
After the events of July 4th, and subsequently August 4th, the state of Oklahoma made Russell Westbrook a god. We worshiped him, just as the organization did everything it could to serve him. And what more could have been done for him than putting him in position to win a scoring crown, to average a triple-double, and almost certainly to win MVP?
This 2016-2017 season was The Year of The Brodie: signed, sealed, delivered.
Was it perfect? Of course not. But it’s flaws were exactly what made it so beautiful, like a doomed romance from some sappy romantic comedy. There was no “happily ever after” waiting at the end of the road, making the furious fight against fate all the more admirable.
Let’s get real though. This should never, CAN NEVER, happen again.
The same reason why we loved this season–Westbrook making up for a mismatched, ill-fitting team with no identity by carrying a superhuman load on his own shoulders–is exactly why it can’t be repeated.
So where do we go from here?
Because of Royce Young‘s reporting, and because duh, we know this was a “year of discovery” and that the front office has been stockpiling film and data to figure out the best way to complement Westbrook with the roster.
There’s a high likelihood that GM Sam Presti is going to be active all summer, and by the time next season tips-off the team should look quite different than what we saw Tuesday night. Here are five questions he’s going to have to answer:
1. What should the Thunder do with Andre Roberson?
There’s no question that Roberson is one of the elite on-ball defenders in the entire NBA, and will likely be rewarded by being named to the All-NBA Defensive first team. There’s also no question that he shot 3/21 from the free throw line in this playoff series, and 24.6% from three on the season. He’s as indispensable on one end of the floor as he is damaging on the other.
Does that formula equal a nice fat paycheck this summer? As a restricted free agent, teams around the league will have the chance to offer him big bucks if they think he deserves it. And all it takes is one. If that offer does come and the Thunder have to weigh his value against an already full salary sheet, can they really afford to just let him walk?
Letting him go for nothing in return sounds bad, worse when people say “for $__ million you could’ve gotten a great free agent!” but a bird in hand is worth two in the bush. Are there any free agents out there who 1) have an elite skill, 2) are a better fit around Westbrook, 3) are at the same price range, and 4) will sign with OKC? (still a nasty misconception but some players may buy into it)
Key date: June 30th. The final day other teams can extend a qualifying offer to restricted free agents.
2. Where oh where can you find available Three-and-D guys?
The ideal candidate for a Russell Westbrook teammate is obvious: a player who can space the floor on offense, play great defense, and give great energy. But bona fide three-and-D guys don’t just grow on trees. If a team has one, they aren’t likely to part with him easily, especially in the modern NBA where teams want to hoard as many as possible.
Hoarding them is exactly what we should be trying to do, but it won’t be nearly as easy as fans might think. Which leads us to our next question…
3. What will be done with the #21 pick in the draft?
Somehow find a competent three-and-D player that preferably won’t need 4-5 years to develop into a usable piece, and that also hasn’t been taken by the previous 20 teams. Seems easy enough, right? (Anyone got Justin Jackson’s phone number?)
One alternative, normally, would be trying to package this pick with existing assets for a really solid piece. However, due to the rule that you can’t trade first-round picks in consecutive drafts, that option is not available before the draft. There could still be an opportunity after the draft ends and the pick becomes an actual player, which is something to keep an eye out for even though it has never happened under the Presti administration.
Key date: June 22nd. Draft Day.
4. Should the Thunder re-sign Taj Gibson?
Unlike Roberson’s situation, Gibson is an unrestricted free agent this summer. Initial indications have been that he wasn’t going to re-sign with the team, though I wonder if his stellar performance in these playoffs changed any minds.
On one hand, Gibson seems like a player that certainly fits with Westbrook, both in playing style as well as mentality. On the other, being 32 years old not only means that his “prime window” doesn’t match up with the rest of the team, but also that he could be expecting a contract exceeding his current deal near $9 million. That’s a tough decision, but out of sheer necessity for a little bit of cap breathing room I would guess he is not pursued by OKC on the open market.
Key date: July 1st. That’s when NBA free agency begins, though commonly players like Gibson will not sign until the bigger contracts are decided on first, so I’d assume a week or two after this date.
5. Who are the most valuable trade assets?
I’d be shocked if there isn’t at least one trade made before next November. It has to happen, right? The money just doesn’t add up. Between Westbrook’s $28.5 million, Adams’ $22.4 million, Oladipo’s $21 million, and Kanter’s $17.8 million, that’s a lot of cheddar. $89.7 million to be exact, of a projected soft cap of $102 million and luxury tax threshold of $122 million, leaving little room at all to fill out the roster. One’s gotta go.
The most obvious candidate is Kanter, especially after his inability to find the floor in this latest playoff series. His strength as a scorer was not only totally erased by the obvious defensive shading to his left shoulder (right hand), but also diminished by him becoming a black hole and forgetting that he’s allowed to pass out of the low block. Rebounding, his other bankable trait, manifested itself in nine rebounds in 45 minutes of play. If that rate was adjusted for the minutes he averaged during the season, his rebounding average would been 4.26 rpg, instead of his actual regular season number of 6.7 rpg.
I would caution those who are expecting a huge haul for Kanter simply because he has a nice stat line in the basic box score and is 24 years old. My concern is that in a league where every team wants smaller more versatile players, his value might not be as high as we’d like. But again, all it takes is one.
At the same time, players like Alex Abrines and Domantas Sabonis have far more value because of their specific skill sets and multiple years left on cheap rookie deals, but our desire to trade them shouldn’t be as high. That’s, uh, the exact definition of value.
Now that Presti’s agenda has been laid out for the summer, it’s time to get to work. If he can perform near as well in the offseason as Westbrook did during the actual season, Thunder fans can expect one hell of a team next year.
I can’t wait.