Playoff appearance or no, the clock is ticking and the pressure is building on the Oklahoma City Thunder. They need one more spirited run at a championship before Kevin Durant hits free agency next summer.
For the past three seasons, untimely injuries hindered the title hopes of one of the most talented teams in basketball. Whether it's Russell Westbrook's torn meniscus in 2013, Serge Ibaka's quad in 2014 or the cavalcade of bad breaks the club experienced this season, OKC is always close, but no cigar.
Next season could very well be the Thunder's last shot at hoisting the Larry O'Brien trophy with the current core intact. Durant will be a free agent during the summer of 2016, and while Oklahoma City has a good shot at retaining its best player, the potential departure of the reigning MVP should give the team a greater sense of urgency.
SB Nation's Tom Ziller talked about the task at hand for general manager Sam Presti:
Thunder GM Sam Presti doesn't have to do anything. OKC is already a contender for the 2015-16 championship without making any moves, provided Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka are healthy for opening night. While there's no guarantee a title would keep KD in OKC, that has to be the goal (as it is every year). There's just a hard deadline this time. Either way, you want a championship to convince him to stay, or you want to squeeze one out of him before he leaves. So, while the Thunder are already great when healthy, the team really faces a mandate to do everything in its power to be the greatest.
Presti typically used the draft and mid-level free agents to build this Thunder team.
|Building The Thunder|
|Durant||Draft, No. 2 overall (2007)|
|Westbrook||Draft, No. 4 overall (2008)|
|Ibaka||Draft, No. 24 overall (2008)|
|Adams||Draft, No. 12 overall (2013)|
|Roberson||Draft, No. 26 overall (2013)||Acquired on draft day from GSW|
|Collison||Draft, No. 12 overall (2003)|
|Jones III||Draft, No. 28 overall (2012)|
|McGary||Draft, No. 21 overall (2014)|
|Morrow||Free Agent||3 years, $10 million|
But he exhibited some rare aggression around this season's trade deadline, keeping a short-handed roster competitive in a deep Western Conference by acquiring Dion Waiters and Enes Kanter with future picks.
The club will need Presti to display that same fire this summer, as the team needs to re-sign Kanter and address smaller, but equally glaring, needs. The problem: OKC is on the books for a $78.2 million payroll next season, $12 million over the projected $66 million salary cap, and that doesn't even include Kanter's new deal.
With financial restrictions and a need to capitalize on the team's closing championship window, this will be the toughest test of Presti's career. Fortunately, there are only a couple of things on his checklist.
Re-Sign Enes Kanter
Presti's top priority this summer should be re-signing Kanter, who has played a pivotal offensive role with the team's other options sidelined. In 24 games, the Turkish Tower is averaging 18 points and 10.8 rebounds while shooting 55.7 percent from the field. Prior to his arrival, the team never had a pivot man average double digits in scoring.
The 22-year-old's potential return would raise OKC's ceiling and give the Thunder a scary offensive attack. On top of Kanter's low-post presence, the team would have a four-time scoring champion in Durant, the NBA's current points-per-game leader in Westbrook and an emerging floor-spacing big man in Ibaka. Opposing defenses will be forced to pick their poison every night.
Kanter would also join Ibaka, Steven Adams, Mitch McGary and Nick Collison to form one of the deepest frontcourts in basketball. Each member of the Thunder's "Five Horsemen" brings something different to the table.
|The Five Horsemen of Oklahoma City|
|Name||Minutes Per Game||Field-Goal Percentage||Points Per Game||Rebounds Per Game||Blocks Per Game|
Kanter is an athletic big man who can score around the basket or from mid-range. According to Basketball-Reference.com, he is shooting 66.2 percent at the rim and 40 percent from within 10 to 16 feet this season.
Meanwhile, Ibaka is one of the game's premier shot-blockers, leading the league in total swats the past four seasons and averaging 2.4 rejections this year. Adams is a tough, physical defender who is holding opponents to 44.1 percent shooting. McGary's youthful exuberance is a burst of energy off the bench, while Collison is a cagey veteran who does all the little things.
With Ibaka and Adams especially, the Thunder can conceal Kanter's defensive shortcomings by pairing him with one of their two best stoppers. The team has a defensive rating of 110.4 with Kanter on the court, as opposed to 104.2 when he takes a seat, per NBA.com.
The trick for Presti will be retaining Kanter's services for the right price. According to Larry Coon's collective bargaining agreement FAQ, the big man is entitled to a contract worth 25 percent of the salary cap, which means he could make up to $16.5 million annually. That's a bit much for a one-dimensional center.
On the bright side, Kanter seems content with his new surroundings. When asked about sticking around in Oklahoma City long term, he had this to say, per Anthony Slater of The Oklahoman: "I hope so. It's an amazing place. I don't know how to explain it." It may not be Kansas, but Kanter has found the Yellow Brick Road.
According to Slater, the Thunder plan on retaining their prized big man, and it helps that they can match any competitor after OKC extends its qualifying offer.
However, if Kanter's price tag proves too rich for OKC's small-market pockets, the Thunder will be hard-pressed to find an offensive-minded center who can fill his shoes.
The Thunder's barrage of injuries has brought the need for increased depth to the forefront. With the uncertainty surrounding Durant's bum wheel, the team would be wise to find a capable backup at small forward.
So far, the options behind KD this season have left much to be desired.
Perry Jones got off to a hot start, averaging 15 points in his first five games, but cooled off dramatically after suffering a knee contusion in early November. Kyle Singler, acquired in the Kanter trade, has been a disappointment since joining the team. He's averaging 3.8 points per game and shooting a ho-hum 33.7 percent from the field.
Sharpshooter Anthony Morrow may be the team's best current option behind Durant. But at 6'5", he lacks ideal height for the small forward position, and his defensive rating of 109 is tied for second-worst of players presently on the Thunder roster.
That means the team will have to look elsewhere to find a caddy for KD.
To free up some shopping space, Presti could trade Jones and/or fellow seldom-used youngster Jeremy Lamb elsewhere. If the Thunder move both without taking salary back, the club would save a little over $5 million. A rebuilding team like the Los Angeles Lakers would be a good spot for the 22-year-old Lamb and 23-year-old Jones to restart their careers.
A couple of intriguing free-agent options for OKC to consider include Mike Dunleavy Jr. and Danny Green. Dunleavy is a well-traveled veteran with a career 37.6 percent mark from three. Green is also an accomplished outside shooter, and he comes with a championship pedigree from his time with the San Antonio Spurs.
|Stats For Potential Thunder Free-Agent Targets|
|Name||Points Per Game||Rebounds Per Game||Field-Goal Percentage||Three-Point Percentage|
If the team hangs on to its first-round pick, which is top-18 protected, it could look to the draft to improve the bench. Someone like Kentucky's Devin Booker, who NBADraft.net compares to Gordon Hayward and Klay Thompson, could be a nice choice.
Once the offseason begins, the excuses end for the Oklahoma City Thunder.
The nightmare season the team just endured will be a thing of the past, and the focus shifts to making the most of next year. With Kevin Durant set to hit the open market in the summer of 2016, it is imperative the club lives up to its potential.
The Thunder don't have far to go to realize their championship dreams, but sometimes, those last few inches are the hardest to scale in a franchise's climb to the top.