In yesterday’s post about Oklahoma City’s rebuilding plan, we looked at the foundation they’re building around Kevin Durant now and the value of their 2010 cap room.
But even with a solid foundation of young players, the questions that still need to be answered are: 1) what are their needs?; and 2) can they fill them with the cap room they’ve saved?
Can OKC beat “The Salary Cap Myth” in 2010?
There’s been a lot of anticipation for the 2010 off-season because there will certainly be a lot of talent available for rebuilding teams like OKC—Olympians LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, and Chris Bosh can all opt out of their contracts thus becoming unrestricted free agents. So with the cap room they will likely have available for the 2010 season, it’s hard not to think that OKC’s future is bright. Unfortunately, that’s not quite true.
The COSELLOUT blog had an excellent analysis of something called “The Salary Cap Myth”. Although fans and NBA front offices often assume that clearing massive amounts of salary cap room is automatically good for a team, history tells us otherwise. The reality is that the odds are generally stacked against teams trying to better themselves through free agency—between the 1997 and 2007 off-seasons, only nine free agents switched team, or less than one per year.
However, some might look at what happened this off-season—Baron Davis, Corey Maggette, and Elton Brand all opting out and changing teams along with Ron Artest being traded—and find reason for hope that they can obtain a free agent. But really, the only team that benefited from being under the cap to start the 2008 off-season was Philadelphia; Golden State and the LA Clippers essentially traded Davis for Maggette after they both opted out—it’s not as though either team planned to have a ton of cap room to pursue another team’s free agent this off-season.
But what makes OKC’s plan unique is that they will probably be looking to fill needs—likely offensive rebounding and inside scoring—through the 2010 free agent extravaganza instead of chasing some elusive savior. It’s also worth keeping in mind that as Durant gets stronger, his place in the NBA will be more at the small forward than shooting guard so they will need to add a shooting guard in the near future.
So given the odds, how realistic is it that OKC can get an impact free agent in 2010 to complement their young core and vault them back into playoff contention?
OKC’s options in 2010
Given their existing young core, what OKC will need right now is probably another play maker to set up Westbrook and Durant plus a post player to give them an inside out game and diversify their offense. There are a number of options available, though I wouldn’t get too excited about the really big names.
Amare Stoudemire, Chris Bosh and Tyson Chandler could be reasonable fits as well, but personally, I don’t see any of them changing teams. Tracy McGrady and LeBron James duplicate a lot of what Durant does and are better at it, so I don’t see either of them switching teams to play with Durant (unless Durant is unexpectedly traded). And I see no reason for Chandler to leave the magical play making ability of Chris Paul who made him look like a superstar in the playoffs.
Given that restricted free agents change teams considerably less than unrestricted free agents, the players that best fit OKC’s current foundation are Joe Johnson and Brad Miller. Those are feasible additions.
Joe Johnson has proved to be a smooth play-maker from the two or three spot who can also score. He would be the perfect guard in the back court next to Westbrook if he develops into a consistent scorer.
Brad Miller might be a surprise because of his injury history, but with Durant, Westbrook, and Green already in the fold and possibly Joe Johnson along with them, the team would be best served by a big man that can facilitate from the high post and run an offense predicated on motion and cuts to the basket, an offense in which Green would excel. Miller would be the perfect man for the job.
The team they field for the 2010-11 season could then look something like this:
Westbrook, Johnson, Durant, Green, Miller
Is that team a contender on paper? Probably not. And really, it’s not likely that they get any bigger names than Johnson or Miller and probably more unlikely they get both.
OKC could also look at 2009 free agency and consider stealing Carlos Boozer or Mehmet Okur away from the Jazz, both of whom could fill needs in the post, Okur perhaps a better fit in the high post. But again, both players would have to opt out of their contracts and all indications are that the Jazz are looking to keep both of them.
Conclusion: Waiting for 2010 is not enough, even with a good foundation
What I think this little thought experiment demonstrates is that OKC could find solid pieces to build a cohesive team in 2010. And given the foundation they’re building and the money they’ll have available, it’s possible that they might entice a player or two to leave their team. But it also demonstrates that this team will likely not become a contender if all they do is wait for 2010, consistent with Berri’s analysis and “The Salary Cap Myth”.
However, it’s worth keeping in mind that there are a number of other ways this team can improve. Assuming no major trades, they will have a high lottery pick and a late first round pick in the 2009 draft and likely a late lottery pick in 2010. Looking at the prospects available based on NBAdraft.net, they should have the opportunity to fill a lot of needs through the draft. They also just drafted a promising young forward in Serge Ibaka who they will watch develop overseas.
In addition, they have the expiring contracts of Chris Wilcox and Donyell Marshall as well as the recently acquired contracts of Desmond Mason and Joe Smith to trade this season, which could yield additional talent or draft picks. Given Sam Presti’s track record thus far, it seems unlikely that they would just let those contracts expire—some team looking for a playoff boost will want one of those players.
So with the young prospects they figure to add, they might only have to reinforce areas of need in 2010. In other words, there are a lot of variables at work for OKC and if even some of them play out well, this will be a very competitive team in the future even if things currently look bleak.
But what I like most about this team is that with the foundation they’ve already built, we can see that there is some sort of direction or underlying plan that could make this team competitive in the near future. It’s not like the haphazard conglomeration of talent that the Clippers put together in the 90’s—there’s a real team hidden in this 20-win squad.
What fans will have to remember is that it takes time to build a sustainable winner given all the rules in the NBA and not even 2010 can guarantee a quick fix. Teams need a plan, perhaps a fortunate trade or two, and patience to appropriately rebuild. From GM Sam Presti:
"When you rebuild a team in the NBA, it takes time,” Presti said. "Whether you move out some pieces or build through the draft, you must be patient. We recognize this. Sure, we have to massage certain things, but there has to be a common thread. You need to take care of today and sustain something for the future. We feel this is a good starting point.”
Far too often, teams will start rebuilding a team and then change course because they gamble on players who don’t reach their expected potential, they put together talent that doesn’t complement each other, or they just grow impatient and switch to win now mode.
To Sam Presti’s credit, it looks as though the team has avoided these three pitfalls thus far—they have directed all their energy toward developing their young players, they are clearly conscious of the need to put together complementary talent, and they have made it clear that winning is not their concern unless they can make it sustainable.
But perhaps the biggest question for OKC is how they plan to stack up with the other teams in the Western Conference that are building for the future, particularly the Golden State Warriors and Portland Trailblazers, both of which are very talented young teams.
Also interesting is that they’ve each taken different approaches to team building—the Warriors are explicitly building around a particular style of play whereas the Trailblazers are accumulating as much young talent as possible through the draft.
Which rebuilding strategy is the best? Which rebuilding team stands to benefit the most from 2010? We’ll have to wait and see. But for right now, OKC’s rebuilding process is as fascinating as it is sound and it looks like they’re moving in the right direction for their new fans.
Click here to see Part 1: Oklahoma City's Development Approach to Rebuilding: Can It Work.