Top 5 Priorities for Oklahoma City Thunder This Offseason
Talk about a season filled with twists and turns at every corner.
The Oklahoma City Thunder entered the 2013-14 campaign as one of the overwhelming favorites in the Western Conference. Six analysts in ESPN's preseason forecast predicted that OKC would advance to the NBA Finals, leaving it trailing only the Los Angeles Clippers (14 votes).
But that was before Russell Westbrook's injury problems.
Recovery from a torn meniscus suffered in the 2013 postseason pushed back the start of his season, and arthroscopic surgery midway through the year knocked him back out of action. The normally durable point guard ended up missing 36 games in total, though his absence did allow Kevin Durant to continue developing into an all-around stud.
No player in the NBA had a better season than the Durantula, who averaged a league-high 32 points, along with 6.9 rebounds and 5.1 assists per game, while coming close to joining the 50-40-90 club for the second year in a row. Setting records throughout the campaign, Durant was quite the spectacle from Game 1 through the end of OKC's season.
But when Westbrook returned, the two superstars had trouble jelling, and the result was an early exit from the postseason, as the Thunder fell in six games to the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference Finals. Obviously, that's not exactly what Oklahoma City was hoping for heading into the season.
It doesn't really make up for the disappointment, but at least OKC gets a few extra weeks to think about its biggest offseason needs.
Figuring out the Scott Brooks Situation
Remember when Scott Brooks was viewed as one of the more promising coaches in the NBA? Can you think back to the time when he was supposed to be one of the crucial cogs in the OKC organization, an underrated asset who could help spur Durant and Westbrook on to greatness?
It was a long time ago, or at least it seems that way after the Thunder bowed out of the playoffs far earlier than anyone expected.
During the middle of the series against the Memphis Grizzlies, ESPN analyst and Grantland founder Bill Simmons went on The Herd with Colin Cowheard and explained the following about the hot seats around the Association, via Erik Horne of NewsOK.com:
If you and I were Steve Kerr, we would wait until this Round 1 ended,. If the Rockets lose Round 1, (Kevin) McHale’s not coming back. Golden State loses Round 1 to the Clippers, I don’t think Mark Jackson is coming back. If Oklahoma City doesn’t make it out of Round 1 against Memphis for some reason, I don’t think Scott Brooks comes back.
Simmons isn't the only one who had such feelings either. Even Westbrook's brother chimed in, tweeting, "We need a new coach ASAP like rocky!!!!!!"
Though there wasn't exactly a mob calling for Brooks' head at any point during their struggles against the vaunted Memphis defense, there weren't exactly signs of security either. His penchant for stubbornness was on full display during the Round 1 fiasco, as he refused to change his lineups...or even call offensive plays.
Quite frankly, it was surprising when the Thunder ran anything in the half-court set, not just when they ran an effective play.
There are some coaches—Erik Spoelstra, Gregg Popovich and Rick Carlisle, among others—who make their star players look even better. But Durant and Westbrook's knack for creating something out of nothing helps Brooks fall into another category: coaches who are allowed to survive thanks to their star players.
We can call those guys the Vinny Del Negro All-Stars.
At this point, it's readily apparent that the "give the ball to Player X and get out of the way" strategy isn't going to work throughout the postseason festivities.
Over the offseason, the Thunder must decide between one of two options. They can either cut ties with Brooks completely, bringing in a fresh face and plenty more creativity, or they can remodel the staff to surround him with assistant coaches who actually make up for his glaring weaknesses.
Re-Establishing the Westbrook-Durant Dynamic
In the past, the dynamic between Westbrook and Durant has had virtually no problems.
Even when the point guard got a bit too trigger-happy, his MVP-caliber teammate was plenty happy to provide support. There were never any complaints escaping from K.D.'s mouth, as he stood by Westbrook through the good times and the bad.
And with both of these dynamic offensive contributors sharing the court, there were a lot of good times.
Until Patrick Beverley came along.
When the two point guards collided during last year's postseason series between the Thunder and Houston Rockets, Westbrook emerged with a torn meniscus, an injury that finally forced him to miss a game for the first time in his professional career.
You know the rest, but to recap, he returned early in the regular season, the Thunder thrived with him back, he underwent arthroscopic surgery, Durant excelled in his absence and the team struggled when he made his next return to health.
Instead of ceding opportunities to Durant, who was flat-out rolling throughout the season, Westbrook remained the same player he's always been—a gunner with absolutely no conscience, one who can shoot his team into a game as easily as he can shoot it out of one.
As Grant Hughes wrote for Bleacher Report, this is OK over the course of a season but not during a playoff series:
The problem, though, is Westbrook's "giveth and taketh away" makeup is only guaranteed to net the Thunder a positive return over the large sample of a season. In any one game, he can completely submarine his team's chances to win.
If he offers up one of his poorer efforts (like the one he turned in on Tuesday), it'll be his last of the year, and the Thunder will be cooked.
So if you're looking for somebody to dig OKC out of its hole, don't count on Westbrook. He's just as likely to keep digging until he hits bedrock.
Throughout the offseason, the Thunder must continue evaluating the dynamic between these two superstars. The current one just didn't work this year, and Westbrook has to be able to recognize when he should play second fiddle rather than attempt to sit in the first chair.
Do the postseason struggles necessitate a personnel shift?
Absolutely not. They just make it perfectly clear that mental changes are strongly advised.
Add a Post Presence
- Memphis Grizzlies, 17.5 percent
- Portland Trail Blazers, 11.4 percent
- Houston Rockets, 10.8 percent
- Golden State Warriors, 10.5 percent
- Los Angeles Clippers, 8.9 percent
- San Antonio Spurs, 8.8 percent
- Dallas Mavericks, 8.6 percent
- Oklahoma City Thunder, 5.7 percent
According to Synergy Sports (subscription required), the Thunder scored 0.88 points per possession in post-up situations during the 2013-14 campaign, which ranked ninth throughout the NBA.
Well, it gets less impressive when you realize the team used post-up plays on only 5.7 percent of its trips down the court, which is a ridiculously low number. Here's how the Thunder stacked up against the rest of the playoff field in the Western Conference:
A lack of reliance on back-to-the-basket play is fine, but the Thunder take that to an extreme. And when there's such a proclivity for winning with jump-shooting contributions, there's also the potential for prolonged slumps, which teams can't afford when trying to string together 16 postseason wins.
Durant, who ranked No. 9 in the NBA by scoring 1.07 points per possession in the post, used those plays 9 percent of the time, and he was easily the most consistent player in this area.
Serge Ibaka (0.84 and 6.4 percent), Kendrick Perkins (0.68 and 14.9 percent), Nick Collison (0.25 and 2.2 percent) and Steven Adams (0.87 and 12.1 percent) certainly weren't very valuable with their backs to the basket despite comprising the vast majority of the frontcourt rotation.
This has to change if for no other reason than adding a new element to a relatively stale Thunder offense. And yes, an offense featuring Westbrook and Durant can be stale.
One option is relying on improvement from Adams, an extremely raw big man who showed promise during his first season in the Association. The 20-year-old 7-footer could carve out a much larger spot in the rotation—thereby decreasing Perkins' time on the court—if he could figure out just a few go-to moves during the offseason.
Signing a veteran big man with some semblance of offensive talent would be beneficial as well, though that shouldn't be the first priority for OKC.
Develop Another Scorer
The Thunder know that Durant and Westbrook can score, but where else are they going to get points from?
Serge Ibaka has continued to excel as a pick-and-pop player, sure. However, if we learned anything from Westbrook's lengthy absence during the regular season, it was that the Congolese big man still hadn't developed into a go-to player. He's not going to create his own looks, and the games in which he records 20 points or more are few and far between.
Instead, it was Reggie Jackson who blossomed.
The combo guard finished the season averaging 13.1 points per game on 44 percent shooting from the field, 33.9 percent beyond the arc and 89.3 percent at the charity stripe. Those are respectable numbers, especially because Jackson would explode every once in a while, as he did by dropping 32 points in Game 4 against the Grizzlies.
But can he be relied upon as a standout scorer? Nope, not really.
Perhaps he'll continue developing until he's one of the best tertiary options in basketball. Perhaps it's Ibaka who will finally make the offensive leap (though it seems foolish to count on that at this point in the power forward's career). Maybe Jeremy Lamb will free himself from the bench and put his scoring potential to good use.
Of course, the Thunder could also draft a score-first player with NBA readiness or pick up a veteran from the free-agent pool, one who's capable of putting up points in bunches.
Regardless, Oklahoma City must pick up another reliable scorer because the load that Durant had to shoulder when Westbrook was injured was absolutely ridiculous. We'll never know for sure, but it's easy to assume his regular-season burden had a significant hand in his postseason struggles.
What happens if Westbrook goes down again? What happens if—gasp—Durant is actually injured for a lengthy portion of the season?
The Thunder don't have answers other than forcing the other star to shoulder even more responsibility.
That has to change.
Find Another Backup Point Guard
The Thunder could certainly use more depth on the wings and in the frontcourt, but neither of those is completely necessary. Finding another backup point guard, however, is.
During the postseason, OKC started Westbrook with Jackson and Derek Fisher coming off the bench to spell him. Problem is, Jackson is better suited as an off-ball guard, and Fisher is almost certainly going to end up retiring after the season.
"Once the Oklahoma City Thunder's season ends, Fisher will have a willingness to listen to coaching, front office and broadcasting possibilities," Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski wrote shortly after Mike D'Antoni resigned from his position as the head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers. "As for the Lakers' coaching job, it holds tremendous appeal to him, sources with knowledge of his thinking told Yahoo Sports on Wednesday night."
That doesn't sound much like a player who will be suiting up in a jersey during the 2014-15 season. A suit, maybe, but not a jersey. On top of that, Fisher's not even under contract.
So heading into the offseason, the Thunder have Westbrook and exactly zero other true point guards on the books. Jackson can obviously play at the 1, but finding another player at the position should be the top priority, at least in terms of personnel.
With their draft pick falling at No. 29, they could easily target someone like Elfrid Payton (Louisiana-Lafayette), Shabazz Napier (Connecticut) or Deonte Burton (Nevada). But if general manager Sam Presti wants more experience, there will be plenty of floor generals hitting the open market this summer as well.
The Thunder's quest to find another point guard probably won't make as many headlines as the other marquee needs, but it's important nonetheless.