Five Questions: Oklahoma City Thunder
For the Oklahoma City, to say that the next few weeks could be franchise altering is no exaggeration. Let’s look at some of the questions that general manager Sam Presti has on his docket (not pictured: bottle of premium tequila beside said docket).
1. How Do They Convince Kevin Durant To Stay?
A Google search of “Kevin Durant free agency” brings up 1.9 million results in less than a second. We won’t take a stick to the corpse of Secretariat about what Durant should or shouldn’t do, but we can look at what the Thunder will do as their franchise’s cornerstone makes the biggest decision on his nine year career so far.
Presti already has the wheels in motion, going against the “bring the band back” grain—moving defensive stalwart Serge Ibaka for young swingman Victor Oladipo, Ersan Ilyasova, and rookie Domantas Sabonis shocked the NBA and completely shifted the team’s dynamic:
With Durant’s free agency here, and Westbrook’s right around the corner, there simply wasn’t the loot to go around for Ibaka. The Thunder opted to upgrade on the perimeter, while banking on the internal development of Steven Adams and Durant’s evolution as Draymond 4.0 as enough to offset the loss of Serge’s unique combination of skills. Toss in that Oladipo and Durant hail from D.C, and seemed to have formed a bond of mutual admiration a few years ago, and that the athletic trio of Westbrook, Oladipo, and Durant have a combined wingspan of almost 21 feet; add 6-foot-7 Andre Roberson’s 83 inches of wingspan to the mix and you’ve got four rangy fast twitch athletes who can switch everything.
If Durant stays, the 24-year-old Oladipo gives the Thunder the third ball handler they’ve been searching for since the Harden trade. Think Dion Waiters turbocharged on jet fuel: Oladipo can guard either backcourt spot, is one hell of a rebounder and passer, and visions of Russell Westbrook, Oladipo, and Kevin Durant poaching passing lanes and flying down in transition should make 29 other coaches wake up in cold sweats. Andre Roberson shined in his hybrid power forward role, and with Josh Huestis still in the waiting in the wings, the OKC roster is chock full of length, youth, and athleticism.
The Thunder won’t hesitate to open up the vaults for KD. They offer continuity, familiarity, the most loot, a bright, adaptable coach, a top-tier teammate in Westbrook, AND a deep, versatile roster. No one knows what Durant will do, but Presti has positioned the Thunder in the pole position for the superstar’s continued service.
2. What Do They Do If Kevin Durant Leaves?
If Kevin Durant decides to move on to less Thundery pastures, well, things get a bit dicier. Next summer, Westbrook hits the free agent market, and Victor Oladipo, Steven Adams, and Roberson will all be up for tremendous raises. The Oladipo acquisition would take some of the sting out Durant taking off. A lineup featuring Westbrook, Oladipo, and Steven Adams certainly isn’t a terrible fallback. It’s unlikely any big names will be left by the time Durant announces his decision, but expect Presti to reach out to a Nic Batum or Eric Gordon.
Thunder fans would prefer Durant to cap space, but with the money cleared if he dips, and the contract of Enes Kanter, is it farfetched that adding another mid-to-good sized name next summer doesn’t convince Westbrook to stay as king of the hill on Oklahoma City?
Either way, there are worse things than going into the 2016-2017 season with Russ-Oladipo-Roberson-Kanter-Adams as your starters.
3. How can The Thunder Fix The Shooting?
Adding Oladipo takes some of the ball handling pressure off of Durant and Westbrook, and per Basketball-Reference, OKC hummed along offensively, finishing second in both points per game and offensive rating. But here’s a dirty little secret: a team with Kevin Durant and one of the league’s premiere three-point shooting big men in Serge Ibaka was actually pretty crap from the three point line. Kevin Durant can go shot for shot with anyone, but with or without KD, coach Billy Donovan has to find away to churn out more points from outside of 23.75 feet.
The Thunder were a mediocre 17th in three-pointers made, attempted, and percentage. Basically, Oklahoma City operated as an elite offense, but had a three-point shooting profile more in line with the 22nd ranked Suns or 28th ranked offense of the Jazz.
Poor shooting from downtown was ultimately the Thunder’s undoing: they won the battle of the boards and turnovers, and actually outscored Golden State in their seven game series, 750-743.
But the Warriors made 45 more threes, outscoring the Thunder by a whopping 135 points over those seven games. The margin for error is shaved down to minuscule when you’re letting the other squad put up almost 20 more points a night from behind the three-point line.
Donovan has to figure out how to incorporate sniper Anthony Morrow into the rotation. Morrow is one of the top tier three-point specialists, capable of lubricating high level offenses if used correctly (a la Steve Novak for the 2011-12 Knicks). Maybe with a year under under Donovan,Morrow will have a better handle on the Thunder’s defensive principles; he posted a net -3.2 on/off rating in the regular season, which plummeted to -8.0 in the playoffs. Morrow can flat out shoot it, but there’s a reason that he’s on his sixth team since 2008.
Hopefully, a year of experience for the rest of the roster leads to more comfort in the offense for all of Oklahoma City perimeter guys. Cameron Payne should be more confident in his shot in his sophomore year, and the coaching staff has high hopes that Andre Roberson’s post season flourish (he drained 47.8 percent of his threes in his last eight playoff games) are the fruition of his incremental year-to-year improvement.
Maybe most importantly, Donovan convincing Westbrook to rein in his dagger three theatrics would be great. It’s probably not a good idea for your worst three-point shooter (29.6 percent) to finish second on the team in attempts (341). I’m all in on “Let Westbrook be Westbrook,” but there’s no reason it can’t be “Let Westbrook Be Westbrook But With Less Dagger Threes.”
It would be fascinating to see Westbrook go the Dywane Wade route: after taking 727 threes from 2009-2011, Wade basically removed the three ball from his repertoire, taking a combined 300 in the next five seasons.
Westbrook said he sat and watched all of his technicals to change his attitude last summer. Maybe this summer he watches every one of his frustrating early shot clock threes.
4. How Will Donovan Handle His Bevy Of Big Men?
With the acquisition of Ersan Ilyasova and Domantas Sabonis, the frontcourt rotation is now bursting at the seams with eight guys looking for minutes at the 4 and 5 (okay, seven, Nazr Mohammed is a glorified garbage time sponge…alright, six, Nick Collison is old as hell).
Now that Ibaka’s gone, who’s getting the lion’s share of minutes at power forward? Will it be Enes Kanter, the big money offensive machine who can’t stop a run-on sentence? Will Mitch McGary finally shed the pounds, put down the bong, and give Oklahoma City quality court time? Will Donovan go all-in on small ball, with Ilyasova, Josh Huestis, and Durant manning the power forward position?
Kanter has been a good soldier, not making a peep coming off the bench, and it’s likely that Donovan starts training camp giving Kanter every chance to earn that spot. If his defense isn’t at least passable, Ilyasova as a floor stretching 4 is an option; his last season was a disappointment, but as recently as 2013, he shot 44 percent from downtown and snatched seven boards a game.
All of that figures to be frosting on the cake if Durant re-signs; KD’s star turn at power forward during the playoffs has OKC fans salivating at the thought of a Russ-Oladipo-Roberson-Durant-Adams lineup going toe-to-toe with the Warriors’ Death Lineup. Donovan wouldn’t want to subject Durant to nightly pounding at PF, but knowing that Durant can be a game disrupting defender in spurts is a nice security blanket.
5. What Do They Do With Dion Waiters?
Dion Waiters turned heads with his playoff performance by turning down his swag. Known for his bravado, bone-headed shot selection, and not much else, when the playoffs came around he was suddenly a model of restraint. His defense was outstanding, he picked his spots to attack, and gave the OKC faithful hope that they finally found THE GUY everyone said the Thunder needed.
But when the dust settled, what exactly did Under Control Dion look like? Stout defense, eight points per game throughout the playoffs, and 2.7 points on 16 percent shooting (11 percent from three) in Oklahoma City’s 0-3 slide to snuff their season.
Waiters has his uses. Teams need people other than their stars to generate offense, and while you’d rather more efficiency than Dion provides, it is what it is.
But the rising cap means more teams will be flush with big bucks than there will be big names to take it, and the prevailing thought is that some team will toss a fat contract offer, step-back jumpers be damned.
Will Sam Presti be willing to spend loot on Waiters Island? All depends on what Kevin Durant does, and what the market for Waiters shakes out to.
If Durant says sayonara, keeping Waiters makes some sense. He’s young, athletic, tough, and Presti can find tape of Dion in the Spring of 2014, when he spent month and a half averaging almost 20-3-4 on 45 percent shooting. The average starter will be making about $15 million in 2017; would five years, $64 million be too much for a 25-30 minute a game back up like Waiters? Yeah, probably, but with no Durant, may as well keep Downhill Dion (I call bull, Basketball-Reference, no one calls him that).
If Kevin Durant comes back to run for the ring with Russell Westbrook again? Well, Waiters can always make his money and himself a fan favorite for his hometown 76ers!
These are just some of the questions that surround the Oklahoma City Thunder as they embark on the most important off season in their franchise history.
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