NBA AM: Breaking Up The Thunder?


Hard To Stay Patient:  With the Oklahoma City Thunder failing to advance the NBA Finals, it’s not altogether surprising that the common belief among fans is that it is time for a change.

Is it?

The Thunder endured an interesting season filled with injuries to guard Russell Westbrook. They put arguably their youngest supporting cast on the floor in as many years and still came away with a 59-23 record and another appearance in the Western Conference Finals. Star forward Kevin Durant earned his first MVP award and from most accounts Westbrook evolved into a more balanced force, especially late in the postseason where his defense pulled out some close plays and won them some games.

There are a number of teams in the NBA would have loved to had the season the Thunder had, but because they are not in the Finals again, there are doubts. There are questions. There is a sense that this team can’t get over the hump.

Before we get into what’s likely to happen this summer, let’s get into what’s not likely to happen: the Thunder won’t panic. The Thunder won’t make some crazy break-up-the-team trade and they won’t break up their core. That’s not how General Manager Sam Presti works and that’s not what the Thunder are trying to build.

The other thing that’s unlikely to happen is the Thunder are not going to go crazy trying to “buy” a free agent solution. In the Presti-era the Thunder have traditionally not been big free agent players. They have opted to draft smart, develop their own assets, look at the trade market opportunistically and pay their own guys when it’s time and the pricing lines up with their expected roles and goals.

So what is likely to happen this summer?

The Thunder hold what is currently the 21st and 29th picks in the 2014 NBA Draft, based on their history of drafting best talent available, they will have some interesting options available to them towards the bottom of the first round. There is a strong chance the Thunder look for a backup point guard, mainly because current backup guard Reggie Jackson looks poised to be a starter next season with Westbrook and Jackson likely sliding to the off-guard position interchangeably.

There could be some solid point guards available at 21 such as Louisiana Lafayette’s Elfrid Payton or UCONN’s Shabazz Napier. At 29, the Thunder could look at add depth behind Serge Ibaka with a number of interesting Power Forward options available like French big man Clint Capela, Florida’s Patric Young, or Tennessee’s Jarnell Stokes.

The Thunder have a few free agent situations, namely starting guard Thabo Sefolosha, who is finishing up his final contract year and will be an unrestricted free agent. Sefolosha earned $3.9 million this season and assuming his price tag stays in that sort of range he is not an expensive player to re-sign and is most likely back for continuity reasons. Ultimately he may lose minutes to guard Jeremy Lamb, which may have Sefolosha looking at other options.

Fans have been calling for the Thunder to use their Amnesty roster cut on Kendrick Perkins and his remaining $9.4 million contract year. The problem with using the Amnesty on Perkins is it really does nothing towards the salary cap other than reducing a possible tax burden. The Thunder are sitting on $67.5 million in expected salary commitments and are under the expected $73 million Luxury tax. Cutting Perkins clears a little bit of cap room, but as we covered above the Thunder historically have never been overly active buyer in free agency, so what’s really gained in cutting Perkins except paying him not to be on the roster? Roster space is not a problem, and Perkins has been a major influence on Kevin Durant and his growth as an all-around player. Perkins’ ending contract could be a very tradable asset, especially at the trade deadline and luxury tax is not an issue for the Thunder until then either, as tax is computed based on what’s on the roster at the end of the season, so Amnesty on Perkins achieves very little in the grand scheme.

The Thunder are not that far away from being a NBA Finals kind of team, in fact they are as close as anyone in the west and every year they get slightly better, especially when healthy.

It is easy to overlook how hard it is to get to the NBA Finals, the Michael Jordan era Bulls lost two consecutive Easter Conference Finals before securing their first title. That’s happened when Jordan was 28.

As good as LeBron James has been in his career he’s was 27 before landing his first championship. Hakeem Olajuwon was 31 before he got his first championship. Shaquille O’Neal was 28 before he got his first ring.

The Thunder’s core is still very young – Durant is 25, Westbrook is 25 – they still have plenty of time and growing to do before it’s fair to call this Thunder team anything more than it is, arguably the best young team in the NBA and when the window for teams like the San Antonio Spurs close the Thunder look poised to be there to fill that gap.

It’s not easy to be patient in sports, but the one thing the Thunder have proven is that they have a long-term plan, and just because they did not get it done this year does not mean they will break it apart. It means they will look to add a couple of more pieces around their stars and hope they all grow into the team they hope to be when their stars start to peak and their championship window comes open.

Hands Off Kevin Love:  So Minnesota big man Kevin Love decided to take a vacation. It’s the offseason and guys do that. The problem is Kevin decided to go to Boston and now all hell has broken loose on the rumor front.

Love wasn’t in Boston for any particular reason, he told people that asked that he simply wanted to experience the city and take in the sites. While Love has been to Boston many times as a player, he is usually there in the dead of winter and usually in the middle of some ungodly road trip.

This weekend Love took in a Red Sox game, hung out on some roof top bars and parties and had, from all accounts, a good time.

The problem with an unexpected Love sighting, is that its fueling the belief that Love wants to be a Celtic and that Boston is ready to trade for him.

While all of that might be true, Timberwolves president Flip Saunders didn’t care much for the story line or the assumption that Love was headed to Beantown as a player.

“The last I knew Kevin was under contract with us, and I expect him to be playing for us next year,” Saunders said to the Associated Press. “I don’t really dictate where guys go on vacation or what they do. They can go wherever they want to go.”

Saunders has heard all the rumors and of course he is fielding all the incoming calls, so he understands what is being talked about both within his team concept and outside of his control.

“I know there’s a feeding frenzy out there from a lot of teams,” Saunders said. “Unfortunately, they have no say. I plan on Kevin being here.”

The word in NBA circles is that Love’s agent is pushing hard for a trade for his client and has been trying to urge interested teams into making aggressive offers to the Timberwolves, trying to get something down around the NBA Draft so Love can focus his attentions on his new team.

Love has two more years left on his contract worth $15.7 million and $16.7 million respectively. Love’s final year is a player option and its believed that he’ll exercise that option in July of 2015, making him an unrestricted free agent.

That threat of opting out not only concerns the Timberwolves, but any team offering real assets for him in trade. There have been several teams that have made it clear they would welcome Love as is, but it’s unclear how much they’d really offer the Wolves without Love opting-in to that final contract year.

The Wolves’ stance privately lines up very much with what Saunders is saying publicly, that they expect Love to be with the Wolves next season. However, the belief away from the Wolves is that have yet to be offered something that makes them better in the long-term and until that happens they are planning for Love to be on the roster for training camp. Should the offers change, their stance may change but as of now they haven’t been offered anything they’d do.

As for Boston specifically, Saunders understands all too well the fan reaction to a player like Love being in town and in the news.

“They’re the same fans who thought they had Tim Duncan,” Saunders joked. “They still think they got Tim Duncan in the draft. I’m not really sure, but the last I looked he was playing for San Antonio.”

The Wolves have the 13th, 40th, 44th and 53rd picks in the 2014 NBA Draft and are aggressively looking at prospects and trade scenarios, so whether the Wolves trigger something around Love or not, its highly likely they are triggering something to combine some of those assets into two strong prospects for next season’s roster.

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