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The Beat: Anthony Slater On The Thunder


Anthony Slater

Nobody knows NBA teams better than beat writers, save for those who draw paychecks with an NBA owner’s signature on them. The reporters who are with the teams they cover every day gain an intimate knowledge of the players, coaches and executives they write about and develop sources who help them break news and stay on top of rumors.

We at Hoops Rumors will be chatting with beat writers from around the league and sharing their responses to give you a better perspective on how and why teams make some of their most significant moves. Last time, we spoke with John Reid of The Times Picayune about the Pelicans. Click here to see all of the previous editions of this series.

Today, we gain insight on the Thunder from Anthony Slater of The Oklahoman. You can follow Anthony on Twitter at @anthonyVslater, and check out his stories right here.

Hoops Rumors: Kevin Durant seems like such a low-key guy. How do you think he’s going to handle all the questions he’ll face about his future this season as next summer’s free agency approaches?

Anthony Slater: Proactively. He’s already laid some of the ground work. At summer camp with Team USA, Durant told reporters that if sourced stories didn’t come from him, his best friend and manager Charlie Bell or his agent Rich Kleiman, then they aren’t true. Then he announced a partnership with The Players Tribune, giving him a potential outlet to handle circulating rumors and his eventual decision. That, of course, won’t stop the free agency stories from surrounding his entire season. There’s no way to avoid it. Every major market the Thunder visit, media packs will be awaiting Durant with these questions. I expect him to answer all inquiries with a “I’m focused on this season, I’ll worry about free agency when it gets here” type of approach.

Hoops Rumors: What gave the Thunder the confidence to entrust this most critical of seasons to Billy Donovan, a rookie NBA head coach?
Anthony Slater: Sam Presti loves Donovan. Raves about him. In past offseasons, he’s even hired a few guys off of Donovan’s previous staffs. I think this is a move the Thunder GM would have preferred to make a couple years ago, but Scott Brooks had a longer contract and the excuse of injuries. This May, with that health excuse still there, Presti finally decided to pull the trigger. He views Donovan as long-term fit with this organization and, I think, felt giving Durant a taste of that would help keep him here, not hurt it. Plus, to help his transition, Presti hired Monty Williams and Mo Cheeks to his staff. That’s two former NBA head coaches who both have great relationships with Durant and Russell Westbrook.
Hoops Rumors: Does a legitimate chance exist that the Thunder will sign Dion Waiters to an extension before the deadline this fall, or are both sides content to see if he can bounce back this season before making any long-term commitments?
Anthony Slater: No. I’m not sure the Thunder has even presented Waiters with the idea. Before committing to him long-term, I think OKC wants to see how he fits into a stacked lineup with better playmakers around him. How will he handle limited shots? Less minutes on some nights? Can he play better defense? Can he improve his efficiency? Waiters, due for an offseason payday, needs to show Presti and other GMs he’s willing to accept a secondary role. Because he’ll never be a star in this league. If he doesn’t, I’d guess the Thunder will use that freed up money next summer to bring over Spanish sharpshooter Alex Abrines, a 2013 draft-and-stash shooting guard prospect that they love.
Hoops Rumors: With Enes Kanter, Steven Adams and Serge Ibaka all on the interior, plus the occasions that Durant will play as a small-ball power forward and whatever playing time Nick Collison and Mitch McGary get, do the Thunder have enough minutes at the four and the five to keep everyone happy?
Anthony Slater: Besides the health of Durant, that’s one of the key questions this season. It’s a loaded frontcourt rotation and, in theory, a good problem to have. Each of the options has varying and useful skill sets. But you do have to wonder how a few of them will handle the time share. Will Kanter, a newly minted $17MM per year man, accept a bench role? Will an increasingly confident McGary be frustrated if he’s still a fringe rotation guy? If McGary does get those added minutes in his second year, will a 12-year vet like Collison happily slide to the back of the line? They are all saying the right things. But it’s preseason. Not mid-February.
Hoops Rumors: The anticipation over Durant’s 2016 free agency has largely obscured the specter of Russell Westbrook’s ability to become a free agent in 2017. Do you think Westbrook is more likely or less likely than Durant is to sign elsewhere when he gets the opportunity?
Anthony Slater: One may be linked to the other. If KD signs back for the long term, inking a five-year deal, you’d have to assume he’s been assured by Westbrook — one of his best friends — that the superstar partnership will remain in OKC for the foreseeable future. But if Durant leaves, then Westbrook may look around, realize his shot at a title with the Thunder has disappeared and follow his friend out the door. Or it’s possible that Durant does a LeBron James-type one-plus-one contract this summer, giving himself an opt out after the 2017 season and the duo enters free agency together and reassesses from there. That’s what I’d expect to happen.
Hoops Rumors: The top of the Western Conference seemed to grow even stronger this summer, with the Spurs signing LaMarcus Aldridge and David West, the Rockets trading for Ty Lawson and the Clippers adding Paul Pierce and Lance Stephenson. Should the Thunder have made a bold move to distinguish themselves from the pack, or are they better served to ride it out as just one of a handful of contenders?
Anthony Slater: The Thunder’s bold move came this past February. When they realized the Reggie Jackson situation had become toxic, they moved him in a mega-deal to land Enes Kanter, Kyle Singler and D.J. Augustin. That gave them Kanter’s and Singler’s restricted free agency rights. Already over the cap, they would’ve only had around $5MM to go out and spend in free agency, which wouldn’t have landed much in this inflated market. So they retained Singler and Kanter, even though they were forced to overpay, instead of going after the bargain bin of leftovers.

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