Offseason Outlook: Oklahoma City Thunder

Guaranteed Contracts


  • None

Non-Guaranteed Contracts

Free Agents / Cap Holds

Draft Picks

  • 1st Round (12th overall)
  • 1st Round (29th overall)
  • 2nd Round (32nd overall)

Cap Outlook

  • Guaranteed Salary: $65,293,678
  • Options: $0
  • Non-Guaranteed Salary: $2,500,392
  • Cap Holds: $20,800,4862
  • Total: $88,594,556

With the 2013 NBA Finals set to get underway, the Heat are once again representing the East, but this time around, Miami will be playing the team the Thunder eliminated from the playoffs a year ago. In the '13 postseason, Oklahoma City didn't even get a chance to face the Spurs in the Western Finals, having been knocked out a round earlier by the Grizzlies. While it's easy to blame Russell Westbrook's knee injury for OKC's disappointing early exit, one also has to wonder if the Thunder erred in trading James Harden just a few days before the regular season began.

It's easy to jump to conclusions on the Harden trade based on what we saw happen on the court this season – which includes Harden's ascent to stardom in Houston – but there are plenty of other factors to consider. For one, the Thunder appeared willing to extend Harden last offseason, albeit not for the maximum. Had OKC relented and signed Harden to the max, the team's salary commitments for next season would have been approaching $80MM with further additions still required to fill out the roster. For a franchise without the deep pockets of clubs like the Lakers, Knicks, and Nets, diving that far into tax territory in a year when penalties for taxpayers become more punitive simply wasn't palatable.

Had the team re-signed Harden, there were other ways it could have attempted to cut costs — perhaps Serge Ibaka wouldn't have received his four-year extension, or perhaps the team would have amnestied Kendrick Perkins this summer. Considering tax penalties aren't levied until the very end of the season, the Thunder could have even gone into 2013/14 with everyone under contract and tried to make a blockbuster trade or two at the deadline to reduce costs.

In each one of those scenarios though, the team would have either lost a key player, lost trade leverage, or made a financial commitment beyond what ownership was comfortable with. In a no-win situation, the Thunder chose what they viewed as the best available solution, trading Harden early, maintaining some leverage and getting the best package they could.

The jury's still out on whether the Harden package OKC received from Houston will pan out, but this offseason may go a long way toward determing its value. Kevin Martin was servicable in his role as sixth man in 2012/13, but will be an unrestricted free agent this summer. While Martin has expressed a desire to return, having seemingly geniunely enjoyed playing for a contending team for the first time in his career, the Thunder don't have a ton of cap flexibility. Therefore it's possible Martin's stint in OKC will be a one-and-done affair.

Presumably, the Thunder were hoping that Jeremy Lamb would eventually be able to step into that role as a scoring two guard, previously held by Harden and Martin. After being drafted in the lottery a year ago, Lamb hardly saw any NBA playing time during his rookie season, but I don't think that necessarily means he's a future bust. The Thunder simply didn't have enough minutes to go around to get Lamb, Perry Jones III, and all its other young players into the lineup on a regular basis. As we saw with Reggie Jackson, who emerged late in his sophomore season, scoring double-digit points in his final nine playoff games, OKC is very patient with its prospects, bringing them along slowly until they're absolutely ready to contribute.

The Thunder figures to add another young player to their roster in this year's lottery, with the team holding the No. 12 pick. Recent mock drafts have Oklahoma City leaning toward a big man, unless C.J. McCollum is still available when the club's pick rolls around. Either way, bringing another young prospect aboard should make the team's roster very intriguing.

Westbrook, Ibaka, and Kevin Durant certainly aren't getting too old yet (Westbrook and Durant turn 25 this fall, while Ibaka turns 24), so it would be easy enough to spend the next several years trying to find the right mix of veterans to complement them. But as we saw during LeBron James' stint in Cleveland, that approach can be expensive, and isn't always effective. Continuing to stockpile draft picks and young players is a better way of ensuring that the team's success is sustainable.

By the time the team's current Big Three approaches free agency, players like Jackson, Lamb, Jones, and this year's lottery pick should be entering their primes. That would not only create incentive for OKC's stars to stick around, but would give the Thunder a safety net if one or two of those stars leave — unlike the Cavs, the Thunder wouldn't have to enter a full-fledged rebuild in that scenario, since the club continues to bring in young talent rather than going all-in during a two- or three-year window.

Of course, it's possible that the all-in approach is still one Sam Presti and the Thunder office will employ. With those young players in the fold, and a future Mavs' first-round pick still under control, OKC has the assets necessary to trade for a good veteran player. If the team feels it's just one piece away from a title as the 2014 trade deadline approaches, it could use some of those assets to land that piece. But based on the way Presti has built the roster so far, it would be surprising if he backed himself into a corner, compromising the long-term outlook he has taken so far.

Additionally, the team's current salary commitments make adding too much veteran talent (and salary) a little tricky. If the Thunder bring back all their players on guaranteed contracts, along with the No. 12 pick, the club will have to fill out the roster with minimum-salary players to avoid going over the tax line. As such, I have to wonder if the Thunder will seriously consider amnestying Perkins, despite its denials. Clearing his $9MM from the books would ensure that the team could use its full mid-level and bi-annual exceptions (or bring back Martin) without going into tax territory. Perkins' salary would still have to be paid, but using that extra money to replace him with a more productive role player may make more sense than putting it toward tax payments.

While it may seem as if the Thunder need to make a major move this summer in order to return to title contention, the team isn't as far away as this year's postseason outcome made it appear. It's very possible that a healthy Westbrook could have made the difference against the Grizzlies and, subsequently, against the Spurs. With Durant, Westbrook, and Ibaka just now entering their mid-20s, it's hard to imagine the club taking a significant step backward, even if Martin doesn't return. A tweak here and there will be necessary, but if at least one of Jackson, Lamb, or Jones is ready to step up and assume a larger role, I expect to see OKC right back near the top of the Western Conference standings in 2013/14.

Additional notes:

  • Only one team (the Heat) has more amnesty-eligible players than the Thunder, who could still clear Durant, Perkins, Nick Collison, or Thabo Sefolosha from their books. Collison and Sefolosha remain reasonably productive and are inexpensive, while Durant obviously isn't going anywhere, which leaves Perkins as the most logical candidate.
  • The Thunder will be facing decisions this offseason on third-year options for Lamb ($2.2MM) and Jones ($1.13MM), and a fourth-year option for Jackson ($2.2MM). I'd be shocked if the team declined any of them.
  • If Martin is out of the Thunder's price range, I'd still expect the team to be able to find a veteran scoring two guard at a reasonable rate. We saw most of that those guys sign for the MLE or less last summer, and there are plenty available this summer.

Cap footnotes:

  1. Thabeet's, Orton's, and Liggins' contract would become fully guaranteed for the season if they're not waived on or before January 7th, 2014.
  2. Martin's cap hold will be worth the maximum salary for a player with his experience (7-9 years). That amount is not yet known — the number listed was 2012/13's max salary, so it figures to be a little higher than that.

Storytellers Contracts and Sham Sports were used in the creation of this post.

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