Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press
It all seemed so simple in October, when the Oklahoma City Thunder rolled into the 2017-18 campaign with the reigning MVP and two apparent All-Star heists.
Surrounding Russell Westbrook with Paul George and Carmelo Anthony—both seemingly acquired for clearance prices—was supposed to be a defining moment for the franchise. It wound up changing almost nothing.
The Westbrook-George-Anthony Thunder were nearly identical to the one-man-army Thunder. OKC’s win total increased by all of one. Ditto for its playoff victory tally, which was capped at two after Friday’s Game 6 elimination at the hands of the Utah Jazz.
And that might only be the beginning.
With free agency likely awaiting George and his hometown Los Angeles Lakers having already cleared him a max-contract slot, this is where the Thunder could feel the biggest sting from their failure to launch. Take George off this roster, and Westbrook is once again a solo act—only this time, his supporting cast is older and more expensive.
Welcome to OKC’s earlier-than-expected offseason, where needs are clear but ways of addressing them are murky at best.
Setting the Stage
Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press
Officially, the Thunder only have three eight-figure contracts on the books for next season.
But Anthony will make it four as soon as he exercises his $27.9 million player option, money he wouldn’t come close to collecting on the open market.
Anthony Slater @anthonyVslater
That Carmelo $28 million player option for next year is looking uglier by the brick for OKC.
Tack on Anthony’s salary with those of Westbrook, Steven Adams and Andre Roberson, and that’s already $97.4 million on the books. Give George a new deal, and you’ll have blown past the projected $101 million cap and maybe the $123 million luxury-tax threshold as well.
This doesn’t mention the other five players under contract, who will collectively earn $19.4 million. It also doesn’t account for the five headed for free agency, including a postseason starter (Corey Brewer) and two rotation reserves (Jerami Grant and Raymond Felton).
Money is tight, in other words.
Complicating matters, OKC’s pool of draft assets is shallow. While the Thunder hold a pair of picks, the selections fall at Nos. 53 and 57 (from the Boston Celtics). Their first-rounder (20th overall) belongs to the Minnesota Timberwolves and was originally sacrificed in the 2015 trade that brought in Enes Kanter, among others.
Priority No. 1: Convincing George to Stay
Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press
Without George’s L.A. connection, it’s possible he never gets to the Sooner State. It wasn’t until he informed the Indiana Pacers he would be leaving as a 2018 free agent and hopefully heading to the Lakers, per Adrian Wojnarowski (then with Yahoo Sports), that Indy went searching for a trade offer and settled on OKC’s package of Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis.
But with George’s L.A. connection comes constant speculation about a homecoming.
Around the All-Star break, The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor said most executives he spoke with “buy into the fact George is drawn by Los Angeles and will leave unless the Thunder reach the NBA Finals.” That same month, George discussed his future with USA Today‘s Sam Amick and specifically mentioned L.A. as an option.
As far as the Lakers are concerned, their plan of pursuing George (and LeBron James) “hasn’t changed,” Wojnarowski recently reported, per ESPN Los Angeles.
If OKC’s ownership is willing to take the tax hit, the Thunder need to work overtime on keeping George around.
He fits alongside Westbrook as someone who doesn’t dominate the ball, spreads the floor (career 37.6 percent from three), can carry the scoring load when needed (21-plus points per game each of the last three seasons) and defends multiple positions. The two were the best of OKC’s eight pairings to top 1,000 minutes and posted a plus-6.4 net rating together (would have ranked fourth in the league).
George has also left the door to staying wide open at every chance.
“I’m not going to let the playoffs or how we finish this season persuade or indicate where I’m going to this offseason,” he said in early April, per ESPN.com’s Royce Young. “I’m going to put everything into this and again, I can definitely see myself being here.”
Priority No. 2: Guessing Right on Jerami Grant
David Zalubowski/Associated Press
There were several career firsts during Grant’s fourth NBA season.
Like his first 47-plus field-goal percentage, which he pushed all the way to 53.5. And his first above-average player efficiency rating, a 16.2 mark that trounced his previous high of 12.6. This was the first time he’d been worth more than three win shares (5.4) and the first time he produced them at a rate better than .098 per 48 minutes (.156).
Had OKC entered the right developmental codes to move the 24-year-old much closer to his potential? Or was this another conveniently timed breakout, the contract-year surge that pushes up the price tag to where the production will never match?
Given his age, physical gifts and versatility, there are reasons to believe in Grant.
“He’s a unique player,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said, per Erik Horne of the Oklahoman. “…He’s a guy that’s versatile enough where you can switch pick-and-rolls with him. He can play post defense. He does rebound. He does rim-protect.”
Grant’s per-36-minute marks put him first among Thunder regulars in blocks (1.7) and third in rebounds (7.0). He ranked in the 93rd percentile of transition finishers leaguewide (1.39 points per possession), a number that helped OKC finish fourth in fast-break scoring despite only playing at the 16th-fastest tempo.
Grant’s market could be booming.
Bobby Marks @BobbyMarks42
Jerami Grant is slowly inching up to one of the top unrestricted wings this summer. Still only 24.
That complicates things for the Thunder. Not only do they have to peg Grant’s future correctly, but they must determine his ideal price, since his costs could include both his salary and the accompanying tax hit.
Charlie Riedel/Associated Press
While every draft pick is essentially a throw at a dart board, selecting in the 50s is like being blindfolded for the throw. There’s still a chance of connecting, but the hit rate isn’t encouraging.
Over the last five drafts, only one player drafted 53rd or 57th has gotten in an NBA game—Kadeem Allen (53rd in 2017), who made 18 appearances on a two-way contract with the Boston Celtics.
That said, a few players slip through the cracks every now and again, so it’s possible OKC extracts some value out of at least one of these picks.
Shooting should be an obvious focus. While the Thunder finished 15th in three-point makes (10.7 per game), they tied for 23rd in percentage (35.4).
Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk (Kansas) converted 115 triples at a 44.4 percent clip as a senior. He has enough size and athleticism to man either wing spot, and even if he’s a shooting specialist, that still scratches an itch.
Moritz Wagner (Michigan) didn’t crack the top 50 big board of Bleacher Report’s Jonathan Wasserman, but Wagner was mentioned among the first 10 cuts. The 6’11” stretch big isn’t the fleetest of foot, but he hit 39 percent of his threes each of the last two seasons.
If OKC opts to let Felton walk, Jevon Carter (West Virginia) might be a cheap replacement. He’s a dogged defender, improved shooter (career-high 39.3 percent from deep this season) and sound decision-maker (559 career assists against 264 turnovers).
John Raoux/Associated Press
The Thunder’s bloated cap comes as no surprise. They knew what Anthony was owed and what George figured to cost when they pulled the trigger on those moves.
Taking things one step further, they seemingly committed to a win-now core with the intention of adding to it. So, maybe they’d foot a stiff luxury tax bill if it meant giving this group more than a one-year window.
Shooting and guard play, again, should be the primary targets. OKC wilted without the injured Andre Roberson (ruptured left patellar tendon) and needs better contingency plans than Alex Abrines and Terrance Ferguson alone.
“Marco Belinelli is right up their alley,” Bleacher Report’s Dan Favale opined. “Another team could fork over more than the vet’s minimum for his career 37.6 percent accuracy from long range. But he’ll be old enough, at 32, for ring-chasing watch in what’s expected to be a stingy market.”
Add Wayne Ellington and Ian Clark to the list of possible perimeter targets. Michael Beasley should interest any team that runs as many isolations as OKC (second-most in the Association), and Anthony Tolliver could provide the frontcourt spacing (2.0 threes per game, 43.6 percent perimeter shooting) and scoring (14.4 points per 36 minutes) they expected to get from Patrick Patterson (0.8, 38.6 and 9.0, respectively).
If George bolts, OKC might feel emboldened to aim a little higher, in which case Bleacher Report’s Grant Hughes could see Avery Bradley as an option.
“Bradley mops the floor with OKC’s other shooting guard options offensively, and he gives Westbrook a badly needed place to hide on D,” Hughes wrote. “Plus, the Thunder have been interested for a while. Bradley could shine here, and the fit just works—as long as he’s willing to take the taxpayer’s [mid-level exception].”
Other high(ish)-level options might include Will Barton and Tyreke Evans, who work as both secondary creators and second-team focal points. Ed Davis could put a more formidable presence behind Steven Adams, or Nerlens Noel might even be worth a low-cost flier should OKC choose to gamble on his size and athleticism.
The Thunder don’t have a wealth of options, but they shouldn’t need them if this group has the ceiling they initially thought. A lot depends on George’s decision, but if he stays, the Westbrook-George-Adams trio still looks like a potential contending-caliber nucleus to build around.