Hamstrung financially, Oklahoma City Thunder GM Sam Presti will embrace this summer’s draft and the bargain end of the free-agency pool as his narrow platform from which to reconstruct.
Although, along with precise minor tweaks, extending MVP-Finalist Russell Westbrook to the super-max contract assumes top priority.
If a likely re-signing occurs, what direction then does this proud franchise take? How will Presti handle tight resources while still adding quality to his complicated roster?
To find clarity, one mustn’t look much further beyond Russell Westbrook.
Last season, amid historic usage rates and triple-double output from its star performer, Oklahoma City won 47 contests and made a seventh post-season appearance since relocating in 2008.
Unfortunately, though, two conspicuous factors derailed the Thunder’s memorable campaign: Anemic 3 PT shooting percentages, and lack of depth at the backup point guard position.
Minus Westbrook, OKC suffered a -12.5 Net drop. This, more so than any other factor defined Oklahoma City’s 1-4 first-round defeat to Houston.
Though minimal hopes of perimeter improvement for OKC exists in the form of Alex Abrines and Doug McDermott, as the following numbers show, the Thunder collapses when Westbrook rests his legs.
OKC backup PG 16-17 averages:
- Semaj Christon: 15.2 MPG, 2.9 PPG, 2.0 APG, 34/19/54 split.
- Norris Cole: 9.6 MPG 3.3 PPG, 1.1 APG, 30/23/80 split.
Russell Westbrook 16-17 averages:
- Russell Westbrook: 34.6 MPG, 31.6 PPG, 10.7 RPG, 10.4 APG, NBA-record 42 triple-doubles
- Russell Westbrook USG and VORP: 41.7% USG, 12.4 VORP (Both league highs)
Further, neither Christon (-6.5 NetRtg) nor Cole (-6.4 Net Rtg) could provide even semi-coherent floor-generalship in prime reserve minutes following Cameron Payne being dealt to the Bulls.
With that stated, moving forward, what options exist to strengthen Oklahoma City’s most pressing weakness? They are scant, but available.
Obviously, bereft of financial resources, Oklahoma City can only attract minimally priced help at the backup PG slot; however, any of these four pickups are likely to add more value than the aforementioned incumbents.
- Ramon Sessions: Hornets, Team Option: Sessions, though on the wrong side of 30, (6.2 ppg, 2.6 apg, 16.2 mpg —each career lows) would still represent a stark second-unit PG upgrade for the Thunder.
Throughout his serviceable ten-year career, Sessions has averaged 10.6 ppg, and 4.1 apg. Grizzled and mentally tough, Sessions should appear on Presti’s radar as an ideal 10-15 mpg option.
2) Shelvin Mack: Jazz, UFA: Mack has solidified his NBA niche as a physical, defensive-minded backup who adds just enough offense in select minutes. While a combo-guard of sorts, Mack averaged respectable numbers (7.8 ppg, 2.8 apg, and 0.8 spg) in 55 contests last season for division-rival Utah.
After earning just $2.4 million during the 16-17’ campaign, Mack’s asking price will no doubt rise as the 27-year-old is now established among the league’s better backup PG’s.
If Presti can loosen wiggle room, Mack’s presence in a Thunder uniform would boost the backcourt’s all-around stead.
3) Jose Calderon: Hawks, UFA: Available after the trade-deadline, but passed over for ineffective Norris Cole, Calderon, 35, averaged 7 points and 3.5 assists in Atlanta’s two playoff wins vs. Washington.
Calderon’s post-season heroics proved that he still has tread left on his well-worn wheels.
4) Jason Terry: Milwaukee, UFA: Approaching 40, yet still proficient from deep (42.7%) Jason Eugene Terry could provide ideal second-unit combo-guard minutes for Oklahoma City while mentoring the team’s youthful reserves.
Further, JET can function alongside or independent from Westbrook. Presti should keep Terry on his short-list of possible signees.
Pragmatically, the #21 slot of the NBA Draft isn’t an ideal location to find an NBA-ready reserve point guard. Although, if Presti opts to take a gamble, these are three prospects who might render Christon’s contract expendable.
- Frank Jackson: Duke
- PJ Dozier: South Carolina
- Edmond Sumner: Xavier
List of Current Oklahoma City Thunder Free Agents
- Nick Collison: The 13-year franchise mainstay earned $3.75 million last season. While OKC holds his early-Bird rights, Collison has stated his desire to return for another season. Due to cap restraints, this could be an economical option to fill roster space.
- Andre Roberson: Roberson will command between $8-14 M on the open market. If Presti is looking to shift OKC in a perimeter-offensive direction, then perhaps not matching Roberson’s sheet would be a wise decision.
- Taj Gibson: Gibson’s market worth, as a solid frontcourt cog, is estimated at $9-10 million. Oklahoma City owns his full Bird-rights, and, therefore, can exceed the cap to retain him. While Gibson exhibited nice chemistry with Westrbook, Presti may re-up the big-man to enhance 1/4 pNr situations. Though if Gibson isn’t brought back, Sabonis could take a step forward in season two, while rejoining the opening lineup.
- Norris Cole: There is little chance of Cole being retained. Further, Cole does not appear to be an NBA-caliber player at this stage in his career.
In closing, unlike the whirlwind of summer 2016, this postseason will be subdued, and intricately strategic. As Westbrook is almost certain to ink a coveted 5-year $207 Million extension, Presti must be on his A-Game to assemble supporting pieces of immediate value.
Along with Oklahoma City’s finances being strained, the surreal circumstances of Enes Kanter’s ordeal renders him difficult to move in a potential sign-and-trade —or any other gainful transaction.
Without question, the Thunder faces a trying summer. On opening night two-fifths of the 16-17’ starting lineup could reside elsewhere. To avoid going into the penalty tax, surprise trades could be made.
Whatever happens, though, it can be assured that Sam Presti’s attention will be affixed to retaining and centering operations around Russell Westbrook into the next decade.