The Oklahoma City Thunder will enter the offseason needing to put the finishing touches on an extraordinary roster. The team has the talent to once again be title contenders, but adding depth on the perimeter will safeguard them from another injury-riddled campaign.
Oklahoma City finished the regular season with a record of 45-37 and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2008-09.
On paper, the Thunder have nearly everything you would want in a potential NBA champion. They have elite scorers (Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook), rim protectors (Serge Ibaka, Steven Adams), a mercurial sixth man (Dion Waiters), perimeter defense (Andre Roberson), outside shooting (Anthony Morrow) and blue-collar lunch-pail guys (Nick Collison, Mitch McGary).
They just need a clean bill of health.
Regardless of who the team signs or drafts this summer, OKC's biggest addition will be the return of Durant after numerous foot surgeries ruined his 2014-15 campaign. If Durant is back to elite form, he has enough talent around him to make a title run. If his foot continues to be a problem, it will lower the Thunder's ceiling.
In essence, it's a do-or-die year for both Durant and the Thunder before the reigning MVP hits free agency next summer.
|OKC Thunder Depth Chart|
|C||(Enes Kanter)||Steven Adams|
|PF||Serge Ibaka||Nick Collison||Mitch McGary|
|SF||Kevin Durant||(Kyle Singler)||Perry Jones III|
|SG||Andre Roberson||Dion Waiters||Anthony Morrow/Jeremy Lamb|
|PG||Russell Westbrook||D.J. Augustin|
When you look at the depth chart above, you'll see the team doesn't have many needs to address this offseason. The players in parentheses represent the club's free agents, with center Enes Kanter being the most important of the two.
Since joining the team on Feb. 19, Kanter has averaged 18.7 points and 11 rebounds per game. He has more double-doubles (17) in his 26 games with the Thunder than in the 49 games he played with the Utah Jazz earlier this season (14). More importantly, he has built a rapport with Westbrook and has become the Jerry Rice to the point guard's Joe Montana.
To be clear, re-signing Kanter is less of a need and more of a luxury. The team has survived in the past without a scoring presence down low, and Kanter's lackluster defense has led to a net rating of minus-0.7 when he's on the floor.
The cost to bring back Kanter will also be expensive, as he could make up to $16 million annually on his next deal. Fortunately, the team can exceed the cap to re-sign him because they have his Bird rights With the market limited on big men with Kanter's offensive skills, it's not like the club can just sign anyone to fill that void.
The Thunder could be in the market for a new coach, too. According to Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski, the team will evaluate Scott Brooks' future in the coming weeks. If the franchise opts to move on, a change in leadership could open up opportunities for seldom-used prospects such as Jeremy Lamb and Perry Jones.
Beyond Kanter's contract situation and Brooks' uncertain fate, OKC has other needs to address, as well.
Backup Small Forward
Prior to this season, the Thunder have ignored the backup small forward position because Durant had been so durable and always assumed the lion's share of the minutes. That strategy backfired in a big way this year, and with KD's health a question mark, this summer would be the perfect time to atone for past sins.
Oklahoma City's biggest concern regarding the small forward position is Durant's recovery from the bone graft surgery he underwent in March. Fortunately for the Thunder brass and the team's fans, ESPN.com injury expert Stephania Bell believes KD will return to form next season:
In an article published in the American Journal of Sports Medicine in 2011 looking at bone-grafting procedures performed on re-fractures or non-unions of the fifth metatarsal in 21 elite college and professional athletes, the success rate for return to prior level of competition was 100 percent.
However, even if Durant is back to normal, the team still needs to protect themselves and their star forward by finding a suitable backup.
Kyle Singler is a free agent this summer, and his 3.7 points per game in a Thunder uniform isn't an encouraging sign for his return. Meanwhile, even on a roster ravaged by injuries, Perry Jones can't seem to get any playing time; the big man from Baylor hasn't logged more than seven minutes per game since January.
With a projected 2015-16 payroll of $78.2 million, the Thunder won't have a lot of money to throw around at free agents. Luckily, there are some intriguing mid-level wings available on the open market.
The Chicago Bulls' Mike Dunleavy Jr. and San Antonio Spurs' Danny Green would both be excellent fits in Oklahoma City. Dunleavy has experience as both a starter and reserve, starting 553 of 902 games he's played during his 12 years in the pros. At 6'9", he has the size to play either forward position.
Green has mostly played shooting guard during his five-year career but could be passable at the 3 as well. He's a good shooter with underrated defensive chops. He finished the regular season with a defensive rating of 100.5, which was 16th-best in the NBA, and posted a career-high 1.1 blocks per game.
A couple of other names for OKC to consider are Chase Budinger and Dorell Wright. Budinger has struggled with injuries throughout his career, but possesses a good deep stroke and superb athleticism when he's healthy. Meanwhile, the Thunder chased after Wright as a free agent two years ago and would be wise to do so again this summer.
Backup Point Guard
Technically, the Thunder already have a backup point guard under contract for next season in D.J. Augustin, but this is an area the team should consider upgrading.
Augustin got off to a fast start after coming over from the Detroit Pistons in the Kanter trade, averaging 10.8 points in his first eight games in Oklahoma City. Since then, he's scored in double figures just three times in 20 outings and hasn't contributed more than eight points in a contest since March 29.
On top of that, he's struggled to find the range on his jumper lately, knocking down just 26.3 percent of his threes during the month of April.
There's also the issue of Augustin's defense, or lack thereof. His defensive rating of 110 is the second-worst among players on the current Thunder roster, and the chart below shows opponents don't have a ton of trouble shooting with the former Texas Longhorn guarding them:
|The Defensive Woes of D.J. Augustin|
|Distance||Defended Field-Goal Percentage||Normal||Differential|
|Less Than 6 ft.||74.1||59.1||+15|
|Less Than 10 ft.||63.9||53.2||+10.7|
|Greater Than 15 ft.||35.4||36.6||-1.2|
Oklahoma City could look for a better alternative in free agency, then look to move Augustin afterward. Traditionally, the squad has preferred floor generals who can pair with Westbrook in a two-point-guard set like Augustin has and Reggie Jackson had before him.
The Charlotte Hornets' Mo Williams is a veteran scorer who can run point or play off the ball. He's averaged 13.4 points per game during his 12 years in the NBA and holds a 37.9 percent career mark from three. His career defensive rating of 110 leaves much to be desired, but he and Russ could form a dangerous offensive tandem.
OKC could also look for a point guard in the upcoming draft, now that the team is guaranteed to retain its top-18-protected first-round pick, according to Anthony Slater and Erik Horne of The Oklahoman. Since OKC missed the postseason, they will pick no worse than 14th overall.
With the team strapped for salary-cap space, using the draft to groom Augustin's eventual replacement makes the most sense. It's the best way for the club to acquire cheap, young talent without having to reshuffle the roster.
Duke freshman Tyus Jones is the kind of project that the Thunder can afford to gamble on. Bleacher Report's draft guru Jonathan Wasserman had this to say about the Blue Devils' postseason hero in his latest Big Board:
Jones is ultimately a highly skilled natural point guard whose outlook is clouded by below-the-rim burst and a lack of strength. He's going to have trouble finishing at the rim and fighting through screens on defense.
But Jones' ability to set the table for teammates and shoot off the dribble could work long-term in a backup ball-handling role.
Another option is Murray State's Cameron Payne, whom Wasserman called "the most slept-on prospect in America." Payne averaged 20.3 points and six assists during a brilliant sophomore campaign, and he could be a steal if the Thunder can snatch him in the middle of the draft.
The silver lining of this injury-riddled season is that it will allow the Thunder to draft higher than they have in recent years. If they can walk away from the draft with someone that can help them down the road, it may remove some of the sour taste left in their mouths.
The Oklahoma City Thunder don't need to reinvent the wheel to be NBA title contenders next season. A couple of bench contributors and the return of Enes Kanter, combined with Kevin Durant's full recovery from foot surgery, should put the team back on top again.
In what could be Durant's last year in OKC, it is imperative that the club does whatever it takes this summer to ensure next season ends with a championship banner. The Thunder don't have a ton of holes to fill, but after a disappointing 2014-15 campaign, they have a lot of ground to make up.