(Hey there Thunder fans, my name is Kevin Yeung and I'm the newest writer at Welcome to Loud City! When my hometown Vancouver Grizzlies departed, the Seattle SuperSonics became my team, and I've stayed on board with them even after they moved to Oklahoma City. I'm excited to join your great community, and I hope I can entertain you guys with my writing. If you want to talk about basketball or anything else, you can always send a tweet my way at @KevinHFY!)
We have Kevin Durant and we have Russell Westbrook. They're as good a duo of players as any in the league. Together, they scored 51.3 points per game, the most of any two players on the same team, and their plus/minus while on the floor together tied for second in the NBA per game at +7.6 points. LeBron James and Mario Chalmers had the same mark, and it was the NBA's most well known group of superstar buddies in LeBron James and Dwyane Wade that had the best plus/minus in the league at +8.2 points per game. That's very good company to be in for our own two superstars.
However, what would happen in the unspeakable scenario where we lose one of them to injury?
We saw that scenario unfold in the 2013 playoffs, when Westbrook went down with a torn meniscus in Game 2 of the first round against the Houston Rockets. OKC went 3-6 without Westbrook, finishing up the Rockets going 2-2 and then losing to the Memphis Grizzlies in the Conference Semi's, 4-1. Durant was great, averaging 31.8 points in Westbrook's absence, but as the playoffs wore on Durant's effectiveness and production diminished due to the added responsibilities. Durant couldn't do it alone, and the rest of the team struggled to play consistently.
Kevin Martin and Reggie Jackson put in one hell of an effort in making up for the loss of Westbrook's production. However, what mattered most was this: they weren't playmakers like Westbrook. Martin is primarily an off-ball scorer at this stage in his career and Jackson is still raw in running an offense on his own, averaging just 4.4 assists per 36 minutes last season. Martin and Jackson could not create consistently reliable offense, for themselves or for the team, with the ball in their hands.
When the Rockets and the Grizzlies cracked down on Durant, sending double-teams and concentrated defensive attention his way, the Thunder were powerless to counter an obvious defensive strategy. Durant struggled passing out of double teams, and even when he did, his teammates couldn't always make the other team pay for it.
To top it all off, there was the fatigue Durant faced. He averaged 45.1 minutes per game across nine playoff games, largely carrying the offense on his back. Oklahoma City would never have succeeded with their star under such a heavy burden. They needed Westbrook, a player that they could trust with the basketball. We could lament the loss of James Harden, who had been that 3rd playmaker, but for better or for worse, that move has been made and it's in our past. The bottom line now is that one injury, to either Westbrook or Durant, could once again ultimately end the Thunder's playoff chances.
Next season, Westbrook will be back at full health. Both he and Durant are extremely durable players - before last season, Westbrook had never missed a game in his NBA career. Durant had only missed 15 games in his six year career. Throw in the continuing progression of Reggie Jackson and 2012 lottery pick Jeremy Lamb, and there's very little chance of a repeat of last season's Westbrook-less struggles.
However, should injuries persist, are a contending team like the Thunder content with Jackson and Lamb as their emergency plan? Jackson's playmaking was mediocre at best, and his outside shot was highly inconsistent. Lamb hasn't even played meaningful NBA minutes yet. Maybe they can be good enough next season, but neither ‘maybe' nor ‘good enough' is what a contending team wants. As unlikely as the odds may be, I can't imagine that the Thunder would be at all interested in allowing injuries to ruin a second straight postseason.
In fact, even if injuries aren't a problem, wouldn't the Thunder like to have that tertiary playmaker anyway? That was what James Harden represented, along with his bench scoring, and having a new ball-handling presence on the bench to replace Harden might be helpful in order to keep teams honest when Westbrook or Durant head to the bench.
What should the Thunder do? Perhaps more appropriately, what can the Thunder do? They are very close to the luxury tax line that they appear to be committed not to cross. For the 2013-14 season, the luxury tax threshold was set for $71.748 million. The Oklahoma City Thunder are currently at $70.376 million with 3 non-guaranteed contracts, which gives OKC a little more than $1 million left to work. That was likely the primary reason that led to their signing of Andre Roberson for 80 percent of his rookie contract on Sunday.
However, the Thunder do have options. They have three non-guaranteed salaries (Hasheem Thabeet, Daniel Orton, DeAndre Liggins) that come out to $3.00 million altogether. They also have two salary exceptions remaining with which to sign players: the $5.15 million Mid-Level Exception and the $2 million Bi-Annual Exception. Lastly, they have the trade exceptions from Martin ($7 million) and Eric Maynor ($2.9 million).
Oklahoma City doesn't need an impact player. At this point in the offseason, they'd be a bit lucky to find one. Fortunately, what Jackson and Lamb offer is upside. That upside means that, if all goes well (or better), the Thunder might not even need to bring in a new playmaker. If there's one thing Jackson and Lamb can consistently offer, it's secondary scoring. The Thunder would only need to bring in someone that can handle the ball and make the right pass.
Whoever the Thunder do bring in would only have to be suitable insurance for the absolute worst case scenario. That player could come cheap enough that the Thunder might only need to waive one or two of their non-guaranteed players. In fact, they might even be able to add the veteran sharpshooter they swung and missed on in Mike Miller even after signing a playmaker. (I personally would argue that a shooter would be an even greater priority following Kevin Martin's departure, but that's beside the point.)
Perusing the remaining free agents, there are a few veteran names that could be of interest as playmakers. Hedo Turkoglu would need to take a massive pay cut from his $11.8 million from last year, but he didn't play up to it at all and got suspended for a banned substance last season on top of his struggles. Alternatively, OKC could look at Beno Udrih, Jamaal Tinsley, or even the dubious Luke Walton, who quietly averaged 7.0 assists per 36 minutes this past season for the Cavaliers.
None of these players are outstanding talents by NBA standards. Certainly, none of them will ever come close to producing the way Westbrook or Durant does. However, what they will do is give the Thunder a veteran player that they can throw the ball to and trust running the offense, should teams try and crack down on Westbrook or Durant.
Now, the Thunder recently signed Derek Fisher. Could he be that veteran playmaker? Certainly, he has the championship pedigree, having won five championships as the point guard of the Los Angeles Lakers. At this stage in his career, however, he's not someone you can trust with the ball in his hands. As Thunder fans, I'm sure we're all familiar with what Fisher offers: spot-up shooting, a veteran presence, and at times, elite flopping. That list doesn't include playmaking as a ball-handler.
The same goes for the Thunder's newest signing, Ryan Gomes. His skillset is more that of a shooter rather than a playmaker. After spending the last season playing in Germany, it's debatable whether or not he can be a reliable NBA player. He might struggle to just make the regular season roster.
At this stage in the offseason, no team will be looking to hit home runs with their signings. Most are looking simply to shore up the recesses of their bench. This includes the Thunder, who are satisfied with where they stand despite losing Kevin Martin in free agency.
Right now could be a great time to pick up that tertiary playmaker they lost in James Harden. By the time the season ends, it might be a moot point, and both Durant and Westbrook could finish completely healthy. However, after last season's disappointing finish, some cheap insurance would be just that much more reassuring.