The Oklahoma City Thunder were eliminated from the playoffs on Tuesday night by the Houston Rockets in a series that lasted just five games. However, all things considered, the 2016-17 campaign should be viewed as a positive step for a team that was sent reeling during free agency last summer after former league MVP Kevin Durant bolted to Golden State.
For most franchises, losing a player like Durant—arguably one of the top three players in the world—would usher in years of lottery contention. However, the Thunder (47-35) stood up to the adversity and managed to secure the sixth seed in a very competitive Western Conference.
Oklahoma City, of course, was powered by All-Star guard Russell Westbrook, who became the first player since Hall-of-Famer Oscar Robertson to average a triple-double for an entire season. Westbrook’s stellar play has him slotted as the favorite for this year’s MVP award, and it would be well-deserved if he walks home with the hardware.
Beyond Westbrook’s play, though, the Thunder still face an important question—What’s the next course of action to return to true title contention?
General manager Sam Presti will have his hands full this offseason attempting to leapfrog the franchise’s competition in the West. There are three ways to improve in the NBA; the draft, free agency and the trade market. Presti won’t have much flexibility when it comes to free agency and the team’s current spot in the draft rarely produces a transcendent type of player, not right out of the gate, at least.
In terms of finances, the Thunder currently have $110 million in guaranteed salaries on the books for the 2017-18 campaign. The projected salary cap for next season is $102 million, which already places the club over this threshold before even contemplating any progression to be derived from potential free agents. With the team already over next year’s projected cap, Presti will have a big free agency decision to make on veteran forward Taj Gibson, who the team acquired at this season’s trade deadline.
Gibson earned $8.9 million this season, the last year of his deal, and averaged nine points and 4.5 rebounds on 50 percent shooting from the floor in 23 appearances (16 starts) with the Thunder. Gibson, 31, will be seeking a multi-year deal in the eight figure per year range and Presti has to decide whether or not to invest top dollar in a forward on the wrong side of 30, especially with the team’s current cap situation.
On the flip side, the Thunder will also have to keep an eye on swingman Andre Roberson. The versatile Roberson serves as the team’s primary defensive stopper. The team will have until June 30 to issue a qualifying offer to Roberson and doing so will make him a restricted free agent.
The Thunder are fully expected to issue the qualifying offer and allow the market to set Roberson’s value once free agency begins July 1. Oklahoma City would still be in a strongly leveraged position since they could match any offer received for his services, but failing to come to terms on an extension last year could lead to a team offering a crazy number that the Thunder would have to think carefully about matching.
On a different level of importance, veteran forward Nick Collison is also headed to unrestricted free agency. Collison, 36, has played every season of his career with the franchise since entering the league before the 2004-05 campaign. Of course, retirement isn’t completely out of the equation for Collison, who earned $3.8 million this past season and appeared in a career-low 20 contests.
Rounding out the financial picture, the Thunder have a $2.9 million room exception at their disposal and a trade exception from Ersan Ilyasova worth $4.9 million. It expires on November 1, 2017.
Transitioning to the draft, Oklahoma City owns the No. 21 overall pick. According to Basketball Insiders’ latest mock draft, the Thunder will select Syracuse forward Tyler Lydon. Nothing against the future of Lydon (or similar players expected to be selected in this range) but none of those guys are going to push Oklahoma City over the proverbial hump.
Lastly, let the circus begin.
Although Westbrook signed a contract extension to remain with the franchise after Durant bolted in free agency, he owns a player option for the 2018-19 season. In other words, Westbrook could opt to become an unrestricted free agent after next season, meaning that, technically, it could be his last in Oklahoma City. This places even greater pressure on Presti to assemble, acquire and develop Westbrook’s cast of supporting characters.
Presti has struck gold late in the first round of the draft before (Reggie Jackson and Serge Ibaka) and he hasn’t been shy about making trades (Enes Kanter and Victor Oladipo), but can the veteran executive put together a strong enough core around Westbrook on seemingly borrowed time?
Only time will tell. But the clock starts now.
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