After having a few very disappointing seasons in a row, the Oklahoma City Thunder, thanks in part to both maturation and head coach Scott Brooks, turned it all around in the 2009-2010 season.
They improved their win total by 27 games (23 to 50) and made the playoffs for the first time since 2005.
Even though the Thunder (No. 8 seed) were outed by the No. 1 seed Lakers in the first round, their chemistry was visibly getting better and they looked ready to improve on their success.
Last season the Thunder improved their record by five games (55-27), which was good enough to earn them the No. 4 seed in the Western Conference Playoffs.
After winning two difficult, hard fought series against the Denver Nuggets in the first round and the Memphis Grizzlies in the second round, the Thunder came up short against the eventual NBA Champion Dallas Mavericks in the Western Conference Finals.
That brings us to the present day, with the NBA lockout terrorizing players, owners and the fans. While the lockout has been in effect, Kevin Durant hasn't stopped working on his game and showcasing his abilities across the country. He's ready to play. He's ready to win.
The Thunder have grown up in front of our eyes over the last few seasons, and even though they are still a young team, the time to start winning is now.
They've proved they're good enough to make it that far; they just need a little push to get over the hump. That's why when the lockout is finally over, free agency will be an important issue to address.
Many believe that the Thunder are already good enough to win and that they just needed some experience on their side. While this may be true, adding a free agent that can contribute to your team is never a bad thing.
This is why the Thunder need to take a look at the following 11 players.
I've divided the free agents into three tiers. Peja Stojakovic is our first candidate in Tier One (and the only foreign player, otherwise this would be known as Tier One Imports).
The criteria to be listed in Tier One is as follows:
- You have to be a veteran who brings some sort of leadership qualities to the table.
- You have to be easily obtainable (no restricted free agents).
- You have to be affordable.
- You have to have been mentioned before when regarding who the Thunder should take a look at.
That brings us to Peja. Peja fits every criteria that Tier One has to offer. He also fits the one glaring weakness that the Thunder have, which really isn't that glaring at all: a backup for Kevin Durant.
With James Harden hopefully moving into the starting lineup, the Thunder will have to find a backup for Kevin Durant and find somebody who can replace Harden's bench scoring.
Currently, the Thunder would be using Thabo Sefolosha as Durant's primary backup. This wouldn't be a big deal, but that leaves a gaping hole in the bench's scoring production.
Oklahoma City's most recent draft pick, Reggie Jackson, is the most likely heir apparent to James Harden's role, but with the lockout canceling Summer League and without any team camps or practices, Jackson is going to be inexperienced and in for a shock if he goes into his first NBA game cold.
With Peja in the lineup, the Thunder would receive veteran leadership off the bench that should spark the second-string offense.
The obvious sex appeal of Peja is his ability to shoot from deep. He is a career 40 percent three-point shooter, and he would provide some much needed help from deep on the bench.
The Thunder would still be able to use Thabo as a defensive specialist when needed, because Peja would likely only get about 15 minutes per game backing up Durant.
Peja and Thabo would be a combo small forward backup: one defensive specialist, one offensive specialist.
I, for one, get really excited when I hear and think about the Thunder signing Tracy McGrady.
I know, I know, I must be a masochist. I'm very aware of McGrady's age and his plethora of injuries, but I also saw him play in 72 games last season, the most he's played in since his 2004-2005 season in Houston.
In 23.4 minutes per game in Detroit last season, McGrady averaged eight points per game, 3.5 rebounds per game and 3.5 assists per game. While these numbers aren't spectacular, McGrady certainly looked better than he has for the last few seasons.
Why not take a shot on McGrady now? The Thunder would be able to play McGrady 20 minutes per game off the bench and he would fill all their needs.
His versatility is almost unmatched. He's a shooting guard at heart, but his 6'8" frame allows him to play small forward (what the Thunder really need) and he actually played some point guard for Detroit.
I was always a McGrady fan, and if he actually is returning to form then he needs to get out of Detroit fast. Detroit has just turned into a black hole.
With championship hopes and aspirations, the Thunder may be the best fit for McGrady.
Grant Hill rounds out the Tier One targets, and he would likely be the best fit and contributor for the young Thunder squad.
Like the last two candidates, Hill would provide some much needed veteran leadership, but unlike the last two candidates, Hill has been a more consistent source of production.
I love the idea of getting Grant Hill in a Thunder jersey, the only problem being that Hill would have to take a major hit to his minutes per game average.
Hill has stayed in great shape (largely due in part to the remarkable Phoenix training staff) and even at age 38 (last season) he was averaging 30 minutes per game.
As a primary backup to Kevin Durant, Hill would be playing 20 minutes per game at the most, and that's assuming that Durant plays some spot minutes at shooting guard while Hill is at small forward, which is actually kind of cool to think about.
Hill is the least obtainable of any of the Tier One guys, but the things he could bring to the Thunder would be exactly what they need to gain control of the West and contend for a championship.
Grant Hill is the guy that they need to target; let's just hope they can get him.
Now that we've gone over the Tier One guys, it's on to Tier Two!
Here is the criteria to get a free agent into the Tier Two category:
- Young, athletic scorers that would be a great addition to the bench.
- Less obtainable than Tier One guys.
- Less talked about (for the Thunder) than the Tier One guys.
So, Tier Two is more or less the exact opposite of Tier One, and Nick Young is our first Tier Two candidate and also the first restricted free agent of the list.
This means that the Thunder would have to outbid the Wizards in order to steal him away. While Young proved to be a valuable scorer for the Wizards, he's not exactly "must-keep material." Jordan Crawford showed that he will likely be a better combo guard for the Wizards in the long run, and getting rid of Young gives the Wizards a better opportunity to sign a worthy free agent in the future.
Even though Young has only proven himself to be a successful scorer in the league so far, he would fit the Thunder's mold of young and gifted athletes who are developing into high-caliber players.
He would be Harden's primary backup, which would make it easier to have Sefolosha play behind Durant.
There are two problems that come with trying to acquire a player like Young, though: He may want more money than he deserves or than the Thunder are willing to pay; he may get disgruntled at the amount of minutes he's playing.
Young had the ability to get over 30 minutes of playing time per game in Washington due to their lack of depth and stars, but that will be a different story in Oklahoma City.
If he could be acquired at the right price and be happy with his minutes, though, Young would be a great sixth man candidate. He would be the Thunder's version of Jason Terry.
James Jones isn't exactly young, and he isn't exactly super athletic, but he is less obtainable than he might seem, which puts him in the Tier Two category.
Jones only averaged 5.9 points per game last season in Miami, but he was one of many specialty players for the Heat. Like Peja, Jones's specialty happens to be three-point shooting. Unlike Peja, though, Jones is more athletic and plays better defense.
While averaging less than 20 minutes per game, Jones took advantage of his time spent on the court. He averaged 3.5 threes shot per game and he shot an impressive 43 percent from deep.
His superior shooting ability makes him a bigger version of Daequan Cook, and if the Thunder were unable to re-sign Cook, Jones would be a great replacement and a great asset to their bench.
I'm actually surprised there haven't been more rumblings about James Jones and the possibility of him being a free agent the Thunder might want to look at. Aside from his shooting ability, his size and experience would be of great value to the Thunder.
The problem with Jones, though, is the option of having to overpay him for what would likely be minimal contribution.
Even though he is an unrestricted free agent, he will likely sign back with the Heat unless he can get a great offer from another team.
Shannon Brown is an unrestricted free agent, and once the lockout ends I'm sure he'll be a hot commodity for plenty of teams around the NBA.
This makes him possibly the least obtainable player on this entire list, but the thought of having the uber-athletic guard anchoring the Thunder's bench production is too much to pass up.
Like Nick Young, the presence of a player like Brown as a shooting guard would open up the possibility of Sefolosha being Durant's primary backup.
By having a scoring shooting guard on the bench, a lot of pressure gets taken off of Reggie Jackson to be the scoring combo guard that the Thunder need him to be. This would make the transition a lot easier on both Jackson and the Thunder as a whole.
Brown, who was due to make $2.37 million next year had he opted to renew his contract with the Lakers, can likely expect to make a little more than that if and when a team offers him a new deal.
This is the primary concern for the Thunder trying to acquire him. They don't want to get in a situation where they overpay a sixth man type of player who they may just need to get rid of once Jackson gets situated.
Otherwise, it would be really nice to see Shannon Brown in a Thunder jersey next season.
Williams is one of many promising youngsters that is currently playing for Golden State.
He's another restricted free agent, so that alone would make it more difficult for the Thunder to acquire him via free agency, but the Warriors may not want to get into a bidding war with a team just to keep Williams around.
At 6'6", Williams is an undersized small forward who has the ability to also play shooting guard if given the opportunity. This is an ideal kind of player for the Thunder's bench. He would be able to back up both Durant and Harden.
Williams plays and actually kind of looks like James Harden. He's a great outside shooter that has a knack for driving the ball.
His versatility would be a great addition to any team, and being only 24 years old, his peak has yet to come.
He would improve greatly under Scott Brooks in Oklahoma City. He would be a great replacement starter if Harden or Durant were ever to go down with injury.
Welcome to Tier Three! Or, as I like to call it:
The Tier That No Thunder Fan Wants to Talk About Because Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins Will Develop and Be Great, Damnit!
The criteria for being a member of the Tier Three crew is relatively simple:
- Be an undervalued power forward or center.
- Be good enough to provide production and depth, but still are able to draw a lot of criticism from Thunder fans.
That brings us to our first candidate: Troy Murphy. Murphy had some great years in both Golden State and Indiana, but last season was just abysmal for the veteran power forward.
As an unrestricted free agent, Murphy will be looking to move forward in his career in a new city, and hopefully that will be Oklahoma City.
I know most Thunder fans will be skeptical of this decision because the Thunder are already set with Serge Ibaka, Nick Collison, Kendrick Perkins and Nazr Mohammed, but Murphy brings something different to the table.
Murphy is a career 39 percent three-point shooter. His 6'11" frame allows him to get his shot off with relative ease, and that's something that the Thunder don't have with their frontcourt.
He could easily provide scoring and leadership of the Thunder bench, and they should be able to pick him up at a decent price.
There's no reason they shouldn't make a move and try to get Murphy when the lockout is over. I'm thinking a two-year contract for $3 million should do the trick.
Now for something completely different. Whereas Murphy would bring three-point shooting and a good mid-range jumper, Nene would bring intensity, defense and a much needed low-post game.
The problem with getting Nene is that they would have to start him at center, which means that they would have to find a team they could trade Perkins off to, hopefully for something valuable in return.
Maybe a trade that looks like this: Kendrick Perkins to the Miami Heat for Mike Miller, Eddie House.
I know that Perkins wasn't ever fully healthy while he was playing with the Thunder last season (or so he says), but let's face it, Kendrick Perkins is a great defender but he was merely a product of a superior frontcourt in Boston.
Perkins thrived there as the defensive intimidator and garbage collector because he had Kevin Garnett's interior offense to help him out.
Serge Ibaka isn't there yet. He has developed a nice mid-range jumper and is still great defensively, but he just doesn't have the skill set to be an inside threat. That makes the Thunder's frontcourt mostly useless when playing half-court offense.
While maybe not as great a defender as Perkins, Nene definitely isn't a slouch on the defensive end, and comparing the two on offense makes Nene seem like Kareem.
Nene isn't going to be cheap, but if Sam Presti is willing to pay Perkins $36 million over the span of four seasons, Nene should rake in a similar contract.
Not to mention, Perkins was arrested recently for fighting and public intoxication. While this seems normal for athletes nowadays, it's not really something Sam Presti would smile down upon.
But think of the possibilities if it did work out!
Obviously, the Thunder wouldn't want to offer $8 million for a guy who has played in only 82 games after being in the league for three years. That's the biggest and likely only issue with this scenario.
If Oden ever does stay healthy, though, the guy is going to be a really great center. He's a great defender with a back to the basket game, and he's still young!
Before Portland gave him the qualifying offer, I was really excited to see how much it was going to cost to take a gamble on him, but I don't imagine it's worth it anymore.
What Oden really needs to do is go play for Phoenix. The aforementioned Grant Hill has missed three games in the last three years while playing for Phoenix. He's 38 and has been riddled with injuries throughout his career.
Something in Phoenix is magical, and Oden needs to find it.
Whoa! A surprise tier! Yes, this is Tier Awesome, and there can only be one player residing within its boundaries: Jeff Green.
The idea that the Thunder could take Perkins away from Boston (destroying their chemistry) and then take Jeff Green right back the next season is mind-blowing. It's easily the best thing that any Thunder fan could dream of, but it's super unlikely.
All Thunder fans love Jeff Green, but he needed to go. He was playing power forward, which is out of position for him, and he was getting manhandled. The Thunder couldn't have him start at small forward because Durant has that position locked up as long as he is on the roster.
He belongs at small forward, though, and he is good enough to be a starter in the league. While it was sad to see him go, he's found a good home in Boston where he's able to be taught by one of the best small forwards in the game, Paul Pierce. When Pierce retires, Green will have a starting job locked up for quite awhile.
But what happens if Oklahoma City matches Boston's qualifying offer? What happens if Jeff Green misses his best friends in Oklahoma City and he really wants to win a championship there?
Will the Broingtons be back in business?
One can only hope. Green would have to be okay with being a sixth man, and while he could probably get 25 minutes per game (more if the opportunity presented itself), he may not want that.
That's understandable, though. Green deserves 30-plus minutes per night. Unfortunately for the Thunder, they just can't give that to him given their roster.