What's Next for OKC Thunder After 2013 Playoff Exit?
The Oklahoma City Thunder have some work to do.
After falling in the Western Conference semifinals to the Memphis Grizzlies, it's become clear that the Thunder aren't necessarily in the position they thought they were.
With a healthy Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City would have obviously been in better shape to make more noise, but even with him the Thunder were far from perfect.
Kevin Durant left everything he had on the floor, and he'll be the first to tell you that he has no regrets. But the Thunder can't remain complacent after what transpired during the postseason—they have to do something.
There has to be a next step.
*All stats for this article were compiled from Basketball-Reference, NBA.com and 82games.com unless otherwise noted.
Step 1: Breathe
Our first step to doing something is, well, doing nothing.
It's time for the Thunder to take a collective breath and understand that this wasn't the end of their world as they know it.
The postseason didn't play out as planned, but so what? Russell Westbrook was injured and Kevin Durant was exhausted. Those aren't normal circumstances. Serge Ibaka failing right before our eyes doesn't fall under "normal," either. If only I could say the same for Kendrick Perkins.
Oklahoma City is still a young team with a promising core in place. The James Harden trade will continue to be questioned leading into next season, but it's time to move on from that.
The Thunder are going to be just fine. They're still one of the best teams in the Western Conference and they're still going to be a contender next season. Is there room for improvement? Absolutely, but we could say the same of every team in the NBA (the Miami Heat included).
And so, this is no time to panic or blow things up. The sooner the Thunder realize this (if they haven't already), the better.
Step 2: Get Russell Westbrook Healthy
Russell Westbrook needs to get healthy, no two ways about it. The Thunder aren't a legitimate contender without him.
The message? Proceed with caution.
Oklahoma City needs Westbrook to be Westbrook. No substitute or half-version of himself will do. It needs the same explosive, serial shooting, top-five point guard it had for almost all of this year.
If that means he heed Derrick Rose's advice and take his time coming back, then so be it.
Russ said he talked to Derrick Rose a couple days after his injury. Said Rose told him to "take his time" and "listen to his body."— Royce Young (@dailythunder) May 16, 2013
Just so long as he doesn't follow Rose's exact timetable (he won't).
Step 3: Realize What You Have in Scotty
There's no need to get rid of Scott Brooks.
After riding Kevin Durant essentially into the ground, Brooks is bound to come under fire. That seat of his is going to get even hotter as his critics have more and more time to reflect.
What must be understood is that Brooks has done a masterful job with this team. His rotations during the playoffs are subject to the wrath of skeptics, but what choice did he have? The Thunder didn't plan for Westbrook to go down—he was the most durable of anyone on the team until recently.
Brooks has the respect of his players, specifically Durant. That's more important than anything.
"Scotty is my guy for life, no matter what," Durant said last summer (via NESN.com). And for now, he needs to be Oklahoma City's coach, too. No matter what.
Step 4: Find That 3rd Scorer
Is OKC's third scorer Kevin Martin?
Maybe, but maybe not.
Martin is an unrestricted free agent. Though he's due to make less than the $12.4 million he earned this season, the Thunder have more than $66 million on the books not including him for next year. Oklahoma City didn't break the luxury-tax bank open for James Harden, and it's unlikely it changes its stance for a second-tier player like Martin.
The (usually) sharpshooting veteran has previously said he was willing to take less to stay in Oklahoma City, but how much less has yet to be determined.
Martin had a terrific regular season, averaging 14 points on 45.0 percent shooting (42.6 percent from deep), before basically disappearing in the playoffs. He posted 14 points on 38 percent shooting from the floor through 11 playoff games and wasn't able to replace any of Russell Westbrook's offense for Kevin Durant.
If Martin elects to sign elsewhere or the Thunder decide to move on, finding his replacement isn't going to be easy. Again, Oklahoma is restricted with what it can do financially.
A sign-and-trade with another team and prospective free agent is a possibility, but whom do the Thunder give up? And if they elect to simply sign someone, few—if any—bargain-bin players will satisfy their requirements.
Should the Thunder be unable to retain Martin or strike free-agency gold, where do they go? Is Jeremy Lamb ready to step up? Perry Jones III, perhaps? Both? This is a pressing issue that Oklahoma City must address. Like, now.
Step 5: Then Find a Low-Post Scorer Who Can Play Some D
Serge Ibaka isn't going anywhere, nor should he. Kendrick Perkins, on the other hand...
Perkins had a horrid postseason. Like, historically bad.
He closed out the playoffs averaging just 2.2 points and 3.7 rebounds on 27 percent shooting. Which is where the history came in. Perkins is the only player in NBA history to close out his postseason logging at least 19 minutes a night through 10 or more games and average fewer than three points on under 30 percent shooting.
Congratulations, Kendrick—you're in a class all your own (though Jason Kidd is on pace to join you). Of course, Perkins is in for defensive purposes, so this is all irrelevant—just like he was on defense.
Oklahoma City's defense actually allowed more points per 100 possessions with him on the court during the postseason. And just for kicks, the Thunder offense was 17.2 points per 100 possessions better with him off the court.
What the Thunder need is a big man who can play at their pace and protect the rim like they're supposed to. They also need someone who is offensively savvy. In other words, someone who is not Perkins.
Ibaka emerged as a consistent source of offense during the regular season (career-high 13.2 points per game), but he doesn't have much of a back-to-the-basket game. A big with more refined low-post sets would open up lanes for Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook even more, while also creating more three-point opportunities for Oklahoma City's wings.
Perkins' contract will prove difficult—if not impossible—to move, though. He's owed roughly $17.5 million over the next two seasons. The Thunder obviously don't have to trade him, but signing a capable big man for pennies on the dollar isn't much of a realistic option.
Regardless of what it takes, however, the Thunder must correct their Kendrick Perkins problem.
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