We are all familiar with what "the Oklahoma City Thunder model" entails now. They play the decision-making game carefully and pin financial control atop their list of priorities. That has translated into a roster built primarily through the draft, where the most cost-effective players tend to come from, and through which the Thunder can cultivate their own players instead of bidding with other teams to sign free agents.
Look at the current roster, and see how many were acquired through the draft – and conversely, how few were acquired through free agency.
|Kevin Durant||Draft (#2, 2007)|
|Russell Westbrook||Draft (#4, 2008)|
|Serge Ibaka||Draft (#24, 2008)|
|Reggie Jackson||Draft (#21, 2011)|
|Perry Jones III||Draft (#28, 2012)|
|Steven Adams||Draft (#12, 2013)|
|Andre Roberson||Draft (#26, 2013)|
|Grant Jerrett||Draft-day trade (#40, 2013)|
|Mitch McGary||Draft (#21, 2014)|
|Josh Huestis (currently un-signed)||Draft (#29, 2014)|
|Nick Collison (pre-Sam Presti)||Draft (#12, 2003)|
|Hasheem Thabeet||Free agency (2012)|
|Anthony Morrow||Free agency (2014)|
|Sebastian Telfair||Free agency (2014)|
|Kendrick Perkins||Trade (2011)|
|Jeremy Lamb||Trade (2012)|
That's 9 of the current 15 signed members of the Thunder roster acquired through the draft, and once Josh Huestis is signed (with Hasheem Thabeet or Sebastian Telfair the most likely cuts from the roster to make room for him), that number is going to rise to 10 of 15.
General manager Sam Presti has never been one to make plays in free agency. He has his core of superstars in Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka – players that he handpicked, watched become great within the Thunder's developmental system (and maybe with some plain old good luck), and retained by extending their contracts before they hit free agency.
Anthony Morrow may already be right up there with Derek Fisher and Nenad Krstic as Presti's biggest free agency signing ever. Just about everyone else has come through the draft, with a few exceptions made for veterans acquired to hold steady a group of young guns. Even those acquisitions have tended to be uneventful in comparison to the big-name signings or trades that make the NBA exciting.
But this summer offered a blip in that timeline. Morrow might represent one of the Presti's most ambitious free agent signings, but the Thunder pursued something even greater. They flirted with signing former All-Star Pau Gasol, and while he's fallen off some since his glory days under Phil Jackson in the triangle, he represents both the best player and the biggest name that the Thunder have pursued in free agency in recent memory.
It's not hard to see why they were interested. Gasol made sense both in terms of value and fit. He was coming off of a down season in Los Angeles where the Lakers were largely relying upon a group of castaways en route to their worst season since moving from Minneapolis in 1960. It was likely he'd bounce back some on a contender, and getting him to sign at the Mid Level Exception looked like an exceptional buy "low" scenario.
For a few days, it was fun to imagine the Thunder adding the offensive skillset of a guy like Gasol. He filled a need for consistent low-post scoring, could spread defenses out to midrange with a respectable jumper (imagine the offensive unpredictability of a Gasol and Ibaka frontcourt!) and even facilitate some offense from the high post, a task that Kendrick Perkins is incapable of doing. Whatever age has sapped of Gasol defensively, mainly his ability to move and defend around the perimeter, Ibaka supplements.
Photo credit: Mark D. Smith-USA Today Sports
In the end, the possibility of the Thunder getting Gasol fell apart. Not too long after, the Thunder finalized the deal with Morrow and Gasol signed with the Chicago Bulls. While the Thunder's dalliance with Gasol will fade from people's memories soon enough, it also stands out quite a bit in the grand scheme of the Thunder's operations to date.
There have been two big non-draft moves that the Thunder have made in recent memory that involved significant pieces and money: the James Harden trade and the Jeff Green trade. The Harden trade was made out of necessity after the Thunder decided keeping him would sacrifice too much financial control, so they flipped him for youth/draft-based assets (Jeremy Lamb, the pick that became Steven Adams, some more draft picks) as well a stopgap veteran with one year left on his deal in Kevin Martin. It was a classic haul of Presti's most prized assets.
The Jeff Green trade is a bit more interesting through the lens of Presti's strategy. Green never proved to be as big a piece as Harden did in Houston, but what makes the Green trade so unique is that it was Presti's only real "go for it" move in his history as the Thunder general manager. He flipped Green, a young piece he deemed unnecessary with a big man in Serge Ibaka and a scorer in James Harden both waiting in the wings at the time, for an established player that he felt filled a need in Kendrick Perkins. Green's development had stalled a bit and the Thunder needed a big guy to anchor the middle at the time, a role which Perkins had managed to fill on a very good defensive team in Boston.
It was a move unlike any other in Presti's history. By nature, he's been one to avoid the big move. He's perfectly content to stay the course, hoarding assets and developing his young players. The Harden trade was made out of necessity, leaving the Green trade as the only real outlier in the execution of the Thunder's strategy. Apart from those two deals, the Thunder have stuck to drafting players and making minor signings to fill out the roster with steady hands. It's worked perfectly well, and the Thunder ascended to the top of the NBA on the backs of Presti's handpicked core and some help from draftees and veterans on near-minimum contracts.
If the Thunder had managed to sign Gasol, that move would've claimed the same designation as the trade for Perkins. It would've been a "go for it" move, one where the Thunder would've deviated from their tendencies to add a player that they thought could push them over the top.
I want to be careful about reading too much into this. It's very possible that Presti, who avoids free agency because of the potential to bid into an overpay, identified the rare difference-maker that he could realistically have at a reasonable price that wouldn't sacrifice too much financial control. That's reason enough for the team to deviate from their principles.
But there's also reason to believe that this isn't just a blip on the radar. The Thunder are nearing a significant and potentially pivotal point in their current era. Over a 12 month span starting in July of 2016, the contracts of Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka expire. Everything right now is building towards that, and much of the reason the Thunder are so wary with committing money to players is because they want to be able to maneuver through keeping their stars.
Other teams are starting to gear up for a run at the Thunder's stars in the 2016 and 2017 offseasons, and Durant who expires first will be the first domino to fall – if he stays, then dealing with Westbrook and Ibaka becomes easier. But the competition is already making itself visible, in a bid to be the early bird on Durant.
Durant's hometown Washington Wizards recently signed his high school coach, David Adkins, a thinly veiled move towards wooing Durant. Up north, the Toronto Raptors made it a priority to re-sign Greivis Vasquez this offseason, possibly because of Vasquez's friendship with Durant. Durant has brought up his childhood desire to play for the Raptors before, and the Raptors will undoubtedly want to pitch the idea of being the basketball face of an entire country to him. The Thunder know other teams are already interested, and though Durant has been vocal about his love for Oklahoma City, it's all too real a possibility that he leaves.
The best solution for now is to win a title. Winning solves nearly everything in the NBA, and if Durant can win a ring or even two, the odds of him signing a new deal to stay in 2016 would appear to go up significantly.
Obviously, Durant hasn't been able to win a title yet, and obviously again, it isn't easy. The Thunder are getting close, but as close as they got to winning the title with the second best regular season record in the NBA and a semifinal exit at the hands of the eventual NBA champions, they got there upon a visibly flawed process. Critiques of Scott Brooks' offense exist and point at a very real problem, but even more worrying to me is the support that the Thunder's superstars get.
The Thunder's core of youth – the one that the "Thunder model" has prioritized gathering – failed them down the stretch of last season, as everyone on a rookie contract not named Reggie Jackson or Steven Adams proved to be unplayable or insignificant in the minutes they did play. That left the Thunder with a few veterans to hold the bench together: Derek Fisher, Thabo Sefolosha, Nick Collison and late-season signing Caron Butler, a desperation acquisition after Lamb's confidence fell apart. Eventually, many of those vets proved ineffective too. Sefolosha's outside jumper also faded away, and eventually Butler's did too. At multiple points near the end of the season, the Thunder felt like a four or five-man team.
Many of those veterans are gone now, and even Nick Collison appears to be slowing down, as he struggled to get minutes against the Spurs even as Ibaka was limited with his calf injury. Perkins' minutes will probably decline too as Adams' growth continues. I wouldn't count on Sebastian Telfair to duplicate even Fisher's impact from last season, provided he even makes it on to the regular season roster (he has an unguaranteed contract).
This means the training wheels are off now for the Thunder's young guns, who are starting to grow up – an important second narrative behind the looming free agency of the team's core members. Jackson's contract expires after this season, and he's rounded into form as the Thunder's number four guy. An extension for him later this summer seems all but guaranteed. Adams exceeded expectations in his rookie season and should continue to grow into a bigger role this year.
After those guys, the question marks start to crop up. Can Jeremy Lamb, Perry Jones III, Andre Roberson and Grant Jerrett (for the Tulsa 66ers) make something consistently helpful out of what they flashed last season? Can rookies Mitch McGary and Josh Huestis come in and help right away? Those are far from safe bets, although the Thunder have done well to hedge their risk.
Lamb has to find consistency on both ends, though he could be the guy if he can maintain his shooting from the first half of last season over a full season. PJ3 is a bit better defensively, but needs to leverage his athleticism into a firm offensive identity. Roberson had some good moments as a fill-in starter and already is a great defender, but he needs to be able to do something (anything!) on offense. McGary is supposedly a NBA ready prospect, but there's not a lot of frontcourt minutes for him.
|2013-14 per game stats||GP||MP||FG%||3P%||FT%||PTS||REB||AST||STL||BLK||TOV|
|Perry Jones III||62||12.3||.459||.361||.667||3.5||1.8||0.4||0.2||0.3||0.3|
|Grant Jerrett (Tulsa 66ers/D-League)||27||29.3||.431||.364||.817||15.1||6.1||0.7||0.6||0.8||1.3|
|Mitch McGary (Michigan/NCAA)||8||24.8||.545||.000||.667||9.5||8.3||1.5||1.9||0.8||1.6|
|Josh Huestis (Stanford/NCAA)||36||35.2||.451||.338||.627||11.2||8.2||1.2||0.6||1.9||1.2|
Presti's strategy has always been to trust in prospect development, but now as the team is relegated to later picks than the ones that built the core of their roster, the prospects they have to develop aren't as great. The draft can only help them so much. They definitely don't need another Durant or Westbrook, but the question's open on just how much they'd value another difference-maker at the Jackson level. It's uncertain what the current youth core can bring to a team with winning aspirations set for the present. While trust and patience tend to be the way to go, the Thunder's moment is now. They have to get the edge on Durant's lurking free agency.
Signing Gasol would've represented a vocal step in that direction. Given how tentative Presti has been in free agency versus the draft in the past, getting a big name this time would have been a bold proclamation of this team's dedication to go for it. Not only to the rest of the league, but to its own players, and most importantly, its leaders that have carried the team so far by themselves. Watching the Thunder whiff on Mike Miller and Dorell Wright only to settle for throwing unproven players in the fire isn't exactly inspiring confidence. What Presti have done up to here has worked at times, with Adams and Jackson having performed very well relative to expectations so far, but less so with Lamb and the discarded Cole Aldrich.
After missing on Gasol, the Thunder settled for Morrow, a need-filler with plenty of upside as a member of the Thunder but a thoroughly less impressive player and one the Thunder nabbed out of the bargain bin in a market of overpays. Morrow is strictly a one-way player like Roberson and last year's Sefolosha (albeit on the other end of the floor), which doesn't inspire a lot of hope. Adding a historically great three-point shooter in Morrow will help and the Thunder's need for guys that can space the floor will increase Morrow's value to them, but his signing doesn't even scratch the impact that signing Gasol would've left.
Losing out on Gasol is another strikeout for a Thunder team that has historically preferred to lay off free agency. Even a baseball player that draws walks well needs a hit every once in a while, and the Thunder who have drafted well need to make the occasional free agent signing that counts to sustain their winning ability. Gasol would've been that guy, but Morrow likely isn't. The drop-off from Plan A to Plan B was significant this time around, and you can bet folks inside the organization and around the league are aware of that. This wasn't the Thunder choosing to step back – this was them falling short.
For now, it looks like the Thunder will go back to the original strategy: believe in internal development. They'll trust on the guys who develop their prospects to continue getting it done. They've hedged their bets over six young guys with the potential to hold down a role in the rotation, and hitting on even one or two of them could have a dramatic effect on this team's ceiling, especially now that they've cut ties with many of their veterans that were barely scraping by in the league. And everything comes down to winning, even if it happens despite a lack of results from free agency.
But what if it fails and the Thunder don't win enough to satisfy Durant? Suddenly, Presti looks like he's taken the draft-based approach too far. Even if he had careful spending against the cap in mind, the Thunder will be a team overloaded with cost-effective guys but missing the amount of difference-makers needed. The Thunder might teeter too far towards the brink of losing Durant, and the slope is only downhill from there. It's a risk/reward judgment here, and the Thunder's group of prospects haven't exactly swung the needle in the favor of 'reward'.
Without Gasol, the Thunder's decision to stay the course with internal development was their only decision. The Thunder have been cornered into a holding pattern where they take inventory of what they have, then decide if they can continue along the path that their strategy from day one has led them upon.
Perhaps the greatest sign of hope from the failed run at Gasol is that maybe this team realizes the clock towards Durant's free agency is ticking, and they only have two more seasons to convince him this is where he wants to be. If none of their prospects pan out as needed and the Thunder need a little more to get them over the hump, maybe Presti will be prepared to make a necessary big move. If you really feel the Thunder have overloaded on prospects, take solace in the fact that that's a relative good problem to have. Pooling those assets and making a trade shouldn't be too difficult in theory, if in fact it's what the Thunder need. It's just a matter of what Presti's strategy is.