Even after the Los Angeles Lakers rapidly ascended into the NBA's contending ranks, the Oklahoma City Thunder still hold a favorable position in the Western Conference. Not only are the Thunder the most proven commodity in the conference as well as the reigning champions, but they stand to improve without adding any significant pieces.
Every passing day makes the Thunder that much better, and almost as importantly: that much healthier.
Oklahoma City has been lucky enough to dodge major injuries to its star players thus far, but Eric Maynor played just nine games last season thanks to an anterior crucial ligament tear. That loss wasn't at all insubstantial. Derek Fisher was able to occasionally play fairly average basketball as OKC's backup point.
Maynor is a significantly better playmaker and at this point, even a better three-point shooter. Returning Maynor to such a successful roster bodes well for the Thunder in the season to come, and should help close the gap in offensive efficiency between the starters and reserves.
But regardless of that utility, Maynor's future in Oklahoma City is growing to be a tougher and tougher sell. Considering the prevalence of analysis concerning the Thunder's finances, OKC's reservation should be obvious: If the franchise's ability to retain both Serge Ibaka and James Harden is already in question, wouldn't a non-essential piece like Maynor likely be the odd man out?
As capable as Maynor is, he's far too replaceable for the Thunder to retain him at any price. That leaves his Thunder future predominantly hinging on two factors:
- Market value — Maynor will be a restricted free agent next summer, and it seems safe to say that OKC will tender his $3.4 million qualifying offer. But in cases like this one—where a talented reserve could potentially be ready for a greater responsibility in a bigger role—it can be unexpectedly tricky for incumbent teams to justify matching offers that well exceed a player's previous value. Maynor simply doesn't hold the same value to OKC that he would to another team more desperately in need of his services, and with the finances already pinched, an offer sheet could hit a Thunder team with its hands tied.
- Reggie Jackson's development — The Thunder's 2011 first-round selection hardly looked ready for NBA action during the limited minutes he received last season. But Jackson nonetheless has the potential to develop into a capable spark plug scorer. It could prove difficult to fully evaluate his game given that the coming season isn't likely to bring much more playing time for Jackson. If he can give Scott Brooks and his staff any preliminary indication of his evolution as a player, that may be enough for OKC to let Maynor walk without regret.