NBA Offseason: 5 Things the Future Holds for the Oklahoma City Thunder
The agony of defeat often surpasses the joy of winning.
After a loss in Game 2 (albeit a controversial one), Oklahoma City's first and only home loss of this postseason, the Thunder began a four-game losing streak that was their longest since 2009 and ended their landmark season in bittersweet disappointment. Many people see this second-place finish as a stepping stone to becoming a championship team, but I have my doubts.
General manager Sam Presti has done an excellent job building this team, but it remains to be seen how long the core of the Thunder remains intact in the long-term future.
Plus, with the Orlando Magic plucking OKC's Assistant GM Rob Hennigan as their new general manager, it appears that teams are either copying the Oklahoma City way or looking at players, coaches and personnel people from the Thunder to bring to their team.
This offseason is very important for the Thunder, as it could either lead to the makings of a dynasty, or the beginning of the end of Oklahoma City's reign as a championship contender. The five things the future holds for Oklahoma City will be the biggest challenges the young Thunder franchise has ever had to face.
No. 1: Scott Brooks Making a Decision on His Future This Week
With his contract ending on June 30, Scott Brooks suddenly has some time in the spotlight, albeit not the way Oklahoma City fans would have wanted.
Yahoo Sports! Adrian Wojnarowski has reported that Brooks rejected a three-year, $11 million contract, as he is looking for a fourth year. Though contract negotiations have forced coaching changes before, Brooks leaving such a talented squad and Oklahoma City leting him go seems highly unlikely.
Yet, there's also a report from ESPN's Marc Stein stating that OKC, just to be safe, is looking at coaches like Jeff Van Gundy and Phil Jackson to possibly fill the void should Brooks look elsewhere, possibly even Orlando since Rob Hennigan is there now.
Brooks, however, is the perfect coach for this team with all his players having gone through with him, and losing him would possibly be devastating to Oklahoma City—and possibly his own legacy as a coach.
No. 2: 4th-Year Player Decisions and the Development of Other Young Players
James Harden and his beard became a sensation in the postseason until his beard became the only part of his body that showed up in the NBA Finals besides Game 2.
Meanwhile, Serge Ibaka's presence helped immensely against Miami, until the Heat drained threes like crazy and forced the Thunder to play small and allow Miami's strength on the perimeter to drive for buckets.
Along with backup point guard Eric Maynor, who was lost for the season in January due to an ACL injury, both players enter the year in which they can begin to negotiate a contract extension beyond their rookie year.
However, with Russell Westbrook beginning his near-max contract, making Durant and Westbrook make more than $29 million combined next season.
With the team now over the cap at over $63 million and dangerously close to the luxury tax at about $70 million, there is almost no way Oklahoma City can keep both Harden and Ibaka, let alone Maynor, since he will be looking for a starting gig sooner or later.
Harden's massive disappearing act doesn't change the fact that he's a tremendous scorer who would be a very good No. 2 option on a lot of teams and a potential No. 1 on some.
Both Harden and Ibaka would make anywhere from $10 million to $15 million on the open market on long-term deals given their youth and room to grow, so does Oklahoma City keep them for this year to make another run at a title or look to trade them for value before they lose them for nothing?
Do they commit to one by offering a contract extension this summer, as that could cause soom ill feelings toward the organization for one of them.
Beyond that, shooter Daequan Cook enters the last year of his contract, and Thabo Sefolosha has two years left on his deal.
So, maybe the only other young players with potential long-term futures are now potential fourth-string point guard Reggie Jackson now a second-year player and potential second-string center Cole Aldrich, who's now a third-year player.
With both of them being first-round picks who have yet to be traded, unlike Rodrigue Beaubois, Eric Bledsoe and Quincy Pondexter, it's important to figure out by this time next year what they can contribute to the team, if anything.
No. 3: Can Westbrook and Durant Co-Exist?
Yeah, I know I might sound like Skip Bayless, but even the biggest Russell Westbrook/Thunder fan has to have some trepidation about future championships when Westbrook is taking away scoring opportunities from Kevin Durant as the team's current point guard.
The lack of Eric Maynor's presence, while seemingly meaningless for most of the season, forces Scott Brooks in a tough position: Either let Westbrook waste possessions at times with turnovers and ill-advised pull-up jump shots or have little-to-no offense outside of Kevin Durant.
Brooks' decision in Game 4 to have Westbrook on the bench when Durant was on the bench as well was highly criticized, as it forced James Harden to be productive, which he wasn't.
Maynor is back for next year, as of now. Hopefully, Derek Fisher can come back as well, but Westbrook is not a traditional point guard. Lineups with him as the shooting guard and Harden at the 3 with Durant at the 4 worked very well in this postseason but were not used against Miami due to rebounding issues and LeBron James' ability to dominate KD at times.
Westbrook needs to develop a consistent pick-and-roll game with Serge Ibaka or whatever scoring big man the Thunder can get because him going by himself against two or three players in the paint has to become much less of an occurence.
While "pure point guard" doesn't come up with the name Russell Westbrook, a case can be made he's in a class below Chris Paul and Deron Williams with players like Derrick Rose and Rajon Rondo as one of the best players playing the position.
In the end, Westbrook is possibly the third-best athlete in basketball behind LeBron James and Durant, and this quote from an SI.com article by Chris Mannix illustrates that Westbrook is ready to grow up and become a championship-caliber point guard.
"We told each other to embrace this feeling and remember this feeling," Westbrook said. "We kind of looked around and just [said] we've got to get better. We have got to be the guys that come back and push everybody next season. We have got to get better, before we can find a way to get back here."
With him and Durant entering their fifth year together, expect them to develop even better chemistry and Westbrook to have less of a burden with the Thunder's other point guards getting more involved in the rotation next season. Plus, he will be able to play and defend multiple positions with added depth next year.
No. 4: Being the Target of the Rest of the Western Conference
Remember that in the conference semifinals against the Lakers, the Thunder could have lost Game 1 and Game 4 and been down 3-1 instead of up 3-1.
Add to that a Denver team ready to get fully healthy and past the Carmelo era, a Houston Rockets team with a lot of assets, a Maverick team hoping to get Deron Williams, the Clippers, and any other young teams that want to build the Oklahoma City way (Minnesota, Sacramento, Golden State, etc.) and competition for the top spot in the West could heat up very quickly.
Plus, now that all these teams have film of what the Heat were able to do to Oklahoma City, you better believe they will have a much better game plan for them.
The Western Conference has always been the tougher of the two, but were it not for injury plagued teams like Minnesota and Houston at the end of last season, there could have been ten or eleven playoff caliber teams fighting until the end of the season.
Oklahoma City might be so busy wanting desperately to get back to the finals and win that they either forget about the troubles they had against Western Conference foes in the postseason or can't predict and prepare for which teams that will make a run at a Western Conference title.
The Thunder have risen from the ashes of 3-29 to be the team to beat in the West, but the bullseye on their chest could be a lot of pressure that this once unflappable young team starts to feel all of a sudden.
No. 5: What to Do with the Mid-Level Exception and Going for Veteran Additions
The mid-level exception is now $5 million for a duration of four years for teams that are over the cap either before or after the signing but did not pay luxury tax in the previous season, which includes Oklahoma City.
With Nazr Mohammed, Derek Fisher and Royal Ivey becoming free agents, these players could be third-stringers at their position at best. With that in mind, do they want to come back, and how much would Oklahoma City be willing to play any of these players?
Seeing how Miami had veteran players like Shane Battier (who considered Oklahoma City) and Mike Miller make valued contributions to win games in the series as other pieces paired with the Big Three, there's no question Oklahoma City needs to find similar performers.
But Fisher's presence, for all his ability to make big shots and provide veteran leadership, his defense is ugly, at best, due to his lack of speed, and with him getting blocked by D-Wade after LeBron's cramp, it showed how little Fish has left in the tank.
With Jason Terry, Steve Nash, Elton Brand, Rashard Lewis and other free agents possible additions to look at, Oklahoma City's young stars will have to recruit these players and convince them there are wide-open shooting opportunities like Miami's role players had.