The Oklahoma City Thunder don't have many flaws.
The Thunder finished the regular season second in the Western Conference, racking up a 59-23 record, the fifth consecutive season they've won at a 50-win pace or better. Now, they trail the San Antonio Spurs three games to two heading into Saturday night's Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals.
We've wondered about Oklahoma City's supporting cast all season. After watching the Spurs bench outscore that of the Thunder 55-26 in a 117-89 Game 5 loss, those concerns have become even more apparent.
There aren't many of them, and clearly, they are not backbreaking, but OKC will have some issues heading into the offseason between the few troubles already plaguing the team and the ones that will add up with expiring contracts.
But there are relatively intuitive solutions to these problems, and knowing general manager Sam Presti, he'll find a way to fill those holes.
Once July comes, Thabo Sefolosha becomes a free agent. So does Caron Butler. And Derek Fisher may pull a Jason Kidd and coach a New York team (this time it would be the Knicks) or at least retire after 18 seasons in the NBA.
Meanwhile, the Thunder have a couple guys who will be on the final year of their contracts next season.
Both Kendrick Perkins ($9.4 million) and Nick Collison ($2.2 million) have expiring deals, and that Perkins deal could end up being a real asset down the line. But this team is pretty intact for the future.
|2014 Oklahoma City Thunder Free Agents|
With all those guys under contract for the long run, the Thunder will find themselves over the cap heading into this offseason. Oklahoma City has about $69 million on the books for next year, and though the salary cap is expected to rise for 2014-15, a massive jump from the current $58.7 million figure would still keep the Thunder way over it.
One number to watch will be the luxury tax threshold, which the Thunder probably don't want to pass. That figure this year was $71.7 million. It will rise with the salary cap, but OKC is inching dangerously close to going into the tax.
As Darnell Mayberry of The Oklahoman notes, that's a problem the Thunder are well aware of:
Restricting the Thunder's flexibility, though, will be rising salaries on current contracts of Westbrook, Durant, Perkins and the remaining players still on smaller, more affordable rookie scale contracts.
The Thunder also has a more pressing deal to try to get done with Reggie Jackson, a rising star who is eligible for an extension on July 1. Jackson's future salary is a big unknown at the moment.
The Thunder will have their chances to continue making runs with this group. And as long as the superstars are in Oklahoma, people will want to play with them. Why the heck would anyone not?
But regardless of how the rest of this Spurs series plays out, the Thunder need to fix some of the holes in their current roster before next season begins, and a team that sits over the cap won't have the most options.
The Thunder, who own the 29th pick in the 2014 draft, have holes, but first, they need to figure out exactly how they can address those voids. A team with their cap situation may not be able to sign many guys outright, but that doesn't mean there aren't other ways. Oklahoma City does have some assets.
Finally, after years of saying, "Perkins is overpaid on an albatross of a deal," he becomes an actual asset. You can use an expiring $9.4 million deal to make the money work in plenty of high-stakes trades, and an expensive expiring contract can appeal to teams looking for cap space in 2015. They could also dangle Reggie Jackson, who is scheduled to be a restricted free agent during the summer of 2015, as bait in any potential deal.
Oklahoma City has three trade exceptions, and though the ones from Ryan Gomes and Patrick Patterson are each worth only six figures, the Kevin Martin trade exception is at $6.5 million, though OKC would have to use it by July 11.
Oklahoma City does actually have ways to sign free agents. The Thunder have both the biannual exception and the non-taxpayer's mid-level exception.
That means OKC can use those exceptions to sign free agents for deals up to $2.02 million (using the biannual exception) and $5.15 million (using the mid-level exception), respectively. That doesn't mean they have to offer all of that money to one guy. Teams have the option of splitting the mid-level exception between multiple players.
So, the Thunder can make moves. Now, they just need to figure out which deficiencies to address.
Oklahoma City could use some shooters, and a perimeter defender wouldn't hurt, either.
The Thunder have really struggled spacing the floor this year, and part of that has been due to how poor they've been from the corners. OKC ranked just 28th in three-point percentage from the corners during the regular season (subscription required), and with their two main corner-three threats in Butler and Sefolosha hitting the open market, the Thunder need to find some replacements.
That doesn't necessarily mean Oklahoma City needs to use its mid-level exception on one guy who can hit 22-footers from the corners, but it does mean looking for a floor-spacer should be a priority when it tries to put together its rotation for next season.
The Thunder could still re-sign Sefolosha, who has a cap hold for $7.4 million, or Butler, whose cap hold is $1.2 million. Still, they would need to add some firepower on the perimeter when Durant and Westbrook aren't in the game. And the Thunder need to find some help down low, too.
If there's one thing we're learning during this playoff run, it's that Steven Adams can be the center of the future for this team. Averaging 7.7 points, 8.2 rebounds and 2.9 blocks per 36 minutes during the postseason, he's been all over the court. And he's a wonderful defensive complement to Ibaka, as well.
But Adams isn't a scorer, and the Thunder still need a big man not named Ibaka who can put the ball in the hoop. Collison doesn't do that. Neither does Perkins, and acquiring a big man who can score on his own (especially one who could play both the 4 and the 5) would do wonders for the Oklahoma City offense.
General manager Sam Presti has a history of being pretty conservative on the trade market.
He's made some non-draft-day trades of consequence over the years (the Jeff Green-for-Perkins swap and obviously the Harden trade, which was forced for salary reasons and not basketball ones). But mainly, he hasn't sought out some deals you can argue should have happened.
Presti couldn't quite pull off a 2009 deal for Tyson Chandler after Oklahoma City's team doctor advised the organization to reject the trade because of a potential toe injury. Presti has also held onto the Perkins contract for all these years. In the simplest terms, the GM has been somewhat risk averse.
“We just haven't considered using the [amnesty] provision,” Presti told Darnell Mayberry in May, 2013. “I wouldn't necessarily directly attribute that to any player on our team. Every team looks at the amnesty provision different based on their different circumstances. But it's not something that we've really explored.”
That sums up Presti's mentality pretty well. He hasn't really been one for change.
Now, that's not necessarily a bad thing. Presti has clearly been one of the savviest general managers in the NBA since he took over as GM of the Seattle SuperSonics in 2007 (especially as a drafter), and any person could argue that one of the reasons the Thunder are so good is their familiarity with one another. Therefore, we may want to keep away from predicting Presti to pull off some big deal this offseason.
Still, there are some modest but intuitive moves Presti can make once the year ends, like releasing Hasheem Thabeet, whose $1.25 million is not guaranteed for next year, to make more room below the luxury tax line. And that would help the Thunder give one of their exceptions to any number of players on the open market.
Other potentially cheap free-agent bigs include Boris Diaw, Josh McRoberts, Kris Humphries, Jordan Hill, Patrick Patterson, Mike Scott, DeJuan Blair, Elton Brand, Chris Andersen, Jermaine O'Neal and Emeka Okafor.
But it doesn't end there. OKC has that mid-level exception, which it could use on someone who may be willing to take a little less money to play for a winner. And yes, that is a direct reference to Spencer Hawes, who shot 41.6 percent from three this past season and could help solve parts of the three-point and big-man scoring issues.
The Thunder could also try the mid-level exception on a wing to replace the potential losses of Butler and Sefolosha.
Maybe a "3 & D" guy like Trevor Ariza would be willing to take a little less to play for a winner, though Ariza has shown a propensity to explode during contract years only to regress once he gets a new deal. P.J. Tucker could be an MLE guy who would play that role, and Tucker, like Ariza, is an assassin from the corners.
Realistically, the Thunder aren't getting immediate help with the second-to-last pick in the first round of the draft, but we can expect some improvement from guys already on the roster. Jackson will get a year better, though he could be one of those "assets" OKC wants to use in a trade. Jeremy Lamb will also grow with another season.
If those two guys can provide more than they have this season, that could end up being the most important improvement for the Thunder over the offseason. And if OKC is able to fill those two small needs—a big who can score along with a few wings to help on defense and provide some shooting off the bench—the Thunder should be in even better shape than they already are.
Fred Katz averaged almost one point per game in fifth grade, but he maintains his per-36-minute numbers were astonishing. Find more of his work at RotoWire.com, WashingtonPost.com or on ESPN's TrueHoop Network at ClipperBlog.com. Follow him on Twitter at @FredKatz.