Offseason Blueprint: Oklahoma City Thunder

Our offseason plan for the Oklahoma City Thunder

 

The playoffs are here and we should all be soaking up every minute of that. However, there are a few teams that have already entered their offseason — 14 lottery teams (that we’ve already covered) and 8 more teams that got sent packing in R1.

Today, we’re going with one of the most hotly debated teams (and players) in the NBA.

OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER

Oklahoma City Thunder
The Thunder need to figure out the best way to build around Russell Westbrook.

In a way, I agree with the Russell Westbrook haters. Westbrook absolutely chased stats this year, attempting to rack up as many triple-doubles as possible in order to help his MVP candidacy. That fact’s been well documented here, where we can all watch clips of him sagging off opponents and rushing in to grab an uncontested rebound instead. The fact that he had more defensive rebounds (9.0) than Enes Kanter and Steven Adams combined (8.1) shows that.

But in a way, Westbrook wasn’t being selfish — he was trying to help his team and his organization. Not in a “let’s win this game!” sense, necessarily, but in a “let’s save this franchise!” sense. The fact that Kevin Durant, the best player in their organization’s history, bolted for one of their biggest rivals was a gut punch. It was like walking in on your best friend, fucking your wife. That stunning move could have crippled the franchise.

When you lose an MVP-caliber player like Durant with no tangible way to replace him, you know you’re not going to be a contender the following year. The Thunder were destined for a first-round exit. But instead of fall into irrelevance, the team found a cause in Westbrook’s triple doubles and MVP campaign. They all worked hard to achieve it, and could all celebrate it together.

Now, with the shock of the Durant decision behind them, it’s time to forget about stats and awards and focus on rebuilding that contender again. Let’s see some possible steps how:

(1) Field of Dreams

The idea that Russell Westbrook’s teammates are a bunch of trash and D-Leaguers isn’t true. In fact, he has three teammates making more than $17 million a year in Steven Adams, Enes Kanter, and Victor Oladipo. That has to mean something, right?

Unfortunately, it doesn’t mean enough. None of those three are true second bananas — in terms of a title contender team, anyway.

You can make an argument than Oladipo — still only 24 — can be that player. He can create his own shot (which should come in handy when Westbrook rests). He’s an improving shooter (36.1% from three last year), and an improving defender (where he’s finally measuring as a net positive in terms of advanced stats.)

But personally, I still feel like Oladipo’s overrated — the result of his college career and lofty draft status. He’s an above-average player, but one that’s making $21 million a year for the next four seasons. In fact, I’d make a few calls and see if OKC can flip Oladipo for a legitimate star. Given their salary cap situation (OKC is paying $110 next year), a trade like that is the only way to draw in blue-chip talent.

The first call I’d make would be to Indiana, who’s dealing with that awkward Paul George situation. If the Pacers feel like George is gone next summer, they’re going to try to acquire assets for him. Obviously, Oladipo wouldn’t be their first choice — or maybe even their third or fourth — but he’s a choice. He’s a near-star and one who happened to be an All-American as a Hoosier in college. It’s unlikely (for several reasons), but it’s a dream. Paul George would be an ideal pairing next to Westbrook — basically a Durant Lite.

If the PG trade is too ridiculous, the team should also debate the merits of Blake Griffin. The link between Griffin and Oklahoma (where he played his own college ball) has been obvious. I mentioned in the Clippers section that I would personally pay Griffin a massive deal, despite the injury risks, because his ballhandling and passing ability is so unique for his position.

To nab Griffin, they’d need him to agree to the deal. That may be a tougher sell. Griffin sort of fits next to Westbrook and Steven Adams, but that’s not a marked improvement from Chris Paul and DeAndre Jordan. Would Blake Griffin really want to go from a mid-level contender in L.A. to one in OKC? Probably not. But again, it’s worth a call.

edit I forgot to mention the idea of Kevin Love as well. If the Cavs lose badly to the Warriors, maybe they want to blame Love and move him out for a more versatile forward (and slide LeBron James into PF full time). I doubt the Cavs would want Oladipo, so this would have to be some three-way trade. Obviously, Love and Westbrook played together at UCLA, but their current games may mesh as well, with Love providing spacing and a secondary scoring option.

Younger players who may be available in a deal would include Dario Saric (who may get squeezed out when Ben Simmons returns) or Jabari Parker (who may be eaten alive by the Greek Freak’s dominance.) I’m especially intrigued by the idea of Jabari Parker playing a stretch 4 in OKC, particularly if he can build on his improvements as a shooter.

Some Thunder fans will inevitably say that the team should “trade Enes Kanter!” instead of Oladipo, but that’s easier said than done. Simply put, Kanter doesn’t have much (if any) trade value right now. Even presuming a team actually wants an offensive-minded big man like that, Kanter may be third in line behind Greg Monroe (who could be a free agent) and Jahlil Okafor (on a cheap rookie deal.) Given that, it’s hard to acquire much for him. If the team can dump him for free, I’d consider that. To me, Domantas Sabonis would be better served as a backup/stretch 5 than as a stretch 4.

(2) The Thin Red Line

The above section was about dreaming big, but this is all about realistic expectations.

If the Thunder can not acquire another star to pair with Russell Westbrook, they have to be pragmatic about their chances and their upside next year. The team may have been 47-35, but their point differential (+0.8) suggests that they’re closer to the 8th seed than the second round.

Given that, I’d try hard to avoid the luxury tax next year. As mentioned, the team’s payroll is $100 million, and that’s not counting a few key free agents in Taj Gibson and Andre Roberson.

The Gibson decision will be a difficult one. Like most NBA fans, I like Taj Gibson quite a bit. He’s a good teammate, a good defender, and a reliable option from the mid-range. But at the same time, Gibson is 31 and turning 32 this summer. I fear that some teams will be enticed by Gibson’s name and reputation, and overpay him. More so than the salary itself, I’m worried that a team will offer him a 3 or 4-year deal. His old coach Tom Thibodeau in Minnesota is a prime candidate for that.

If Gibson can be re-signed on a reasonable contract (maybe 2 years + an option) then I’d happily do that. But if push comes to shove and 3-4 guaranteed years is the minimum, I’d let Gibson walk. To me, the risk of him slowing down on the defensive end is too great to chance. The only thing worse than losing Russell Westbrook as a free agent would be losing Westbrook as a free agent AND having overpaid veterans stuck on your books afterward.

Andre Roberson’s another difficult decision — in a way, the opposite of Taj Gibson. With Gibson, you’re projecting how much he will decline. With Roberson, you’re wondering how much he will improve. Roberson’s shooting problems have been well-documented, and cringe-worthy in the playoffs. He hasn’t shown too much improvement in that regard, either, despite 4 seasons in the league.

In a way, Roberson’s embarrassing failures at the free throw line may help OKC in free agency by keeping his price down. Right now, Roberson should rank behind a few other wings in this free agent class, like Otto Porter, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and Tony Snell. But presuming those guys aren’t available, I’d lean toward re-signing Roberson. He has his faults, obviously. But bare in mind, Roberson is not a good defender; he’s a great defender. He’s not an ideal fit for a Thunder team that needs shooting, but elite traits like that are hard to find.

(3) Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

At the top, I agreed with the Russell Westbrook haters that he’s a stat chaser. At the same time, I don’t agree with the idea that a Westbrook-led team can’t be successful. It may be hard to win a title with one superstar, but there have been plenty of examples of one ball-dominant superstar leading a team to 55+ wins. James Harden is an example of that this year, and LeBron James’ original run in Cleveland is another.

The difference is that those teams were built properly around their star. When you have a ball-dominant superstar, you need to surround him with 3 good shooters and one good big man. The Thunder have that big man in Steven Adams. The shooters…? Not so much. In fact, the team was atrocious from the 3-point line all season.

Re-signing Roberson, as recommended, won’t help, but there are a few cheap ways to improve the shooting of the team. Among the cheap free agent wings with shooting touches could be Jodie Meeks, Ian Clark, Reggie Bullock, and Anthony Morrow (who always seemed underused in OKC to me).

At the 4, you have to hope the lights turn on for Doug McDermott at some point; if he’s ever the player we expected him to be, he’d be a great asset for OKC. Barring that, you’d look at free agents like Omri Casspi (who can play the 3 or 4), Ersan Ilyasova (another guy who should have fit better in OKC) or even a solid vet like Jonas Jerebko.

The team also has to look long and hard about finding a competent backup at point guard to replace Reddit whipping boy Semaj Christon. In a way, Christon is like the Bizarro Russell Westbrook (as in “Bizarro Superman.”) Westbrook is a do-it-all point guard. Christon is a do-nothing point guard. He played 15+ minutes a night, “racking” up stats of 2.9 points, 1.4 rebounds, and 2.0 assists a game, good for a sparkling PER of 5.4. Even a cheap veteran like Beno Udrih, Sergio Rodriguez, or Brian Roberts would be a nice improvement on that. Maybe the way to vanquish Semaj Christon is like another Superman villain Mr. Mxyzpltk — you have to say his name backward, which in this case would simply be “James.”

These tweaks — this “tinkering” — may not help much, but it would help tailor the team around Westbrook better and give them a puncher’s chance of advancing past round 1.

 


Zandrick Ellison

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