The Oklahoma City Thunder Roster doesn’t look like that of an NBA title contender
The Oklahoma City Thunder have not been lucky lately. After making the finals in 2012, injuries have derailed their postseason twice, first with a knee injury to Russell Westbrook and then with a mysterious ailment to Serge Ibaka. Then this season started with Durant sidelined and continued with Westbrook suffering a hand injury, resulting in a real chance the Thunder miss the playoffs. Health problems have been the biggest reason the team has not exerted the dominance they were supposed to over the Western Conference. Yet there’s another, subtler reason why Oklahoma City has not lived up to the expectations their play created a few years back: their team-building strategy.
The ownership group that controls the Thunder is cheap. That’s common knowledge. The Thunder are reportedly a profitable team, but Clay Bennett refuses to pay the luxury tax. They were willing at one point for James Harden but weren’t comfortable with paying him the max. They are over the tax line at the moment. but they will probably make some moves to get under it. With the rules changes introducing the repeater tax — a much harsher penalty for teams that exceed the tax line for three out of five seasons — more teams are trying to reduce their salary, so the Thunder’s frugality goes unnoticed.
It’s their prerogative and it’s something the San Antonio Spurs — in many ways the inspiration for the Thunder — have done for most of Duncan’s career. The problem for Oklahoma City is their approach leaves little margin of error, since they won’t spend their way out of bad decisions. That leaves ingenuity and luck as the only options. In the parallel with the Spurs, Steven Adams would be to the Kendrick Perkins’ extension what Kawhi Leonard was to the Richard Jefferson blunder: a cheap, young, productive player that erases the previous mistake.
Clearly Sam Presti is a good general manager who has built a contender. The problem is the short leash he’s on in terms of spending makes hitting home runs like drafting Adams a constant necessity. That’s why the Thunder do the same thing over and over again: draft or pick up prospects and hope the guys they sign develop into exactly the type of player they need. With Adams in tow, what they are looking for are two archetypes: a 3-and-D wing in the Thabo Sefolosha mold and a sixth man who can score and create.
For the first need, Jeremy Lamb was supposed to be the answer. He disappointed so now Andre Roberson is tasked with starting, dooming the team to play 4-on-5 on offense. All the while, players like DeMarre Carroll, Jared Dudley and Gerald Green have been available either on free agency or on trades. The Thunder ignored those opportunities because they are hellbent on developing their own low usage, high efficiency wing despite not showing progress in that area in the last few years and having to resort to players like Derek Fisher and Caron Butler in the postseason when it becomes obvious there is a hole in the rotation. It wouldn’t surprise me if an over-the-hill bet is added after being waived when Roberson’s limitations get exposed further.
Things are even more complex when it comes to the sixth man because the imprint the former occupant of the role left is inescapable. James Harden is irreplaceable. There are not many players as talented as he is and even fewer as productive. But the Thunder didn’t need to replace the Rockets’ version of The Beard, just the crafty scorer and creator that ran the second unit and closed games for them. They tried Kevin Martin for a year, since he was part of the Harden trade, before letting him go and focusing on guys on rookie deals. They lucked out with Reggie Jackson but couldn’t agree on an extension and it’s clear they are going to lose him in free agency. So what they thought was the right move was trading for Dion Waiters.
The jury is still out on that trade. The Thunder gave up nothing valuable and Waiters is talented. But it should not have come down to a panicky move in the middle of the season. Jackson had made it clear he wanted to start last year. Shaun Livingston, Jarrett Jack and C.J. Miles were all available. The Thunder had the resources at their disposal to make a free agent signing or a small trade and didn’t use them because they keep wanting to either find a market deficiency or find the new James Harden, choosing potential and a low price tag over solid play. That’s not a bad plan for a team biding its time before contention but the Thunder have been in win-now mode for years.
Scott Brooks has received a lot of flak for the team’s failures over the years but he just doesn’t have a typical roster for a contender. Instead of settling for Steve Blake and Nemanja Nedovic, the Warriors went out and signed Livingson. The Blazers went after Blake to allow C.J. McCollum to develop at his own pace. The Grizzlies added Vince Carter to give them more depth at the wing and brought back Beno Udrih as insurance for Nick Calathes. When Trevor Ariza left, the Wizards added Paul Pierce instead of hoping Otto Porter would suddenly become dependable. Finding reliable veterans is important. The Thunder’s big acquisition was Anthony Morrow, someone who has never been to the playoffs.
Had the Thunder been healthy all season, they would be among the top four in the West despite their faulty roster construction. That’s how good the core of Westbrook, Durant and Ibaka is: they can carry a weak supporting cast to one of the best records in the ridiculously competitive Western Conference. But they shouldn’t have to. The biggest failing of the Thunder’s ownership and front office was not losing Harden or being unable to sign another star but missing out on opportunities to add the type of dependable role players a contender needs. That’s the thing to remember as rumors about a potential trade for Brook Lopez emerges, showing Oklahoma City’s desperation to right all the wrongs they have made over the years by making one big move now instead of the little ones that were necessary in the past.