Five Questions: Oklahoma City Thunder

Five Questions: Oklahoma City Thunder

Over the last few weeks, the BBALLBREAKDOWN team have been taking looks at five important questions each NBA team will be facing going into the upcoming offseason, continuing here with the Oklahoma City Thunder.


The Oklahoma City Thunder couldn’t manage to avoid the injury bug in 2014-15.

It started in the preseason, when reigning MVP Kevin Durant suffered a Jones fracture in his right foot that caused him to miss OKC’s first 17 regular-season games. Two games into the season, star point guard Russell Westbrook fractured the second metacarpal in his right hand, sidelining him for 14 contests. From there, Durant underwent two additional procedures on his troublesome right foot — the latter of which knocked him out for the season — while Serge Ibaka also underwent season-ending arthroscopic knee surgery in mid-March.

If the Thunder stay healthy in 2015-16, though, they figure to be right back in the thick of the title picture. The following five questions will play a large part in determining just how far they’re able to advance.

1. What Can They Expect From Billy Donovan?

After missing the playoffs for the first time in his six-year tenure, the Thunder fired head coach Scott Brooks on April 22nd. In a statement on the team website, general manager Sam Presti acknowledged the role injuries played in the 2014-15 campaign before explaining the rationale for letting go of Brooks:

It is very important to state that this decision is not a reflection of this past season, but rather an assessment of what we feel is necessary at this point in time in order to continually evolve, progress and sustain. We determined that, in order to stimulate progress and put ourselves in the best position next season and as we looked to the future, a transition of this kind was necessary for the program.

Eight days later, the Thunder had their new head coach in place: Billy Donovan from the University of Florida. In a statement, Presti praised Donovan’s “continuous learning mentality” and highlighted his “ability to adapt, evolve and innovate,” “humility,” and “great tactical competence” as reasons he earned the nod.

So, how might the Thunder operate under Durant? BBALLBREAKDOWN’s own Coach Nick and Randy Sherman combined for some in-depth analysis on that very subject recently:

In that article, Sherman summed up Donovan’s offense at Florida succinctly:

In the college game, Donovan has been regarded as one of the top “ball screen” coaches there is. His spread pick-and-roll offense has resulted in consistent top 20 rankings in adjusted offensive efficiency in kenpom’s metrics.

The NBA is, of course, a different game and Donovan may opt to alter his system accordingly. But a successful coach such as Donovan will surely bring his successful formula as much as possible. Donovan also utilizes Horns sets and several set plays, but the spread pick-and-roll offense is his staple.

If Donovan brings his pick-and-roll-centric offense to the Thunder, it shouldn’t require a huge adjustment. OKC already ranked fourth last season in possessions that ended with a pick-and-roll ball-handler — 18.0% of their overall possessions — and scored 0.82 points per possession on those plays, tied for the league’s sixth-best mark. With Serge Ibaka having developed a reliable three-point shot over recent years, the Thunder can confidently rely upon a four-out look, and Durant presents all sorts of problems as the power forward in a small-ball lineup.

Whether Ibaka or Durant at the four spot, Sherman foresees a heavy dose of four-out lineups from OKC under Donovan:

Donovan loves to load the line up with shooting, often playing four players together with three-point ability. Tweaks to the Thunder starting personnel might have to take place for this to be accomplished – the non-shooting Andre Roberson currently starts on the wing for defensive purposes, and if he is to continue to do so under Donovan, Roberson will have to improve to be at least an average outside shooter.

Though there figures to be an adjustment period for Donovan, having a top assistant like former New Orleans Pelicans coach Monty Williams should help ease the transition. Given the offensive success Florida experienced under Donovan, the days of griping about OKC’s play-calling are likely an at end, at the very least.

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2. Who Should They Target With Their Lottery Pick?

The Thunder would have much preferred a playoff run, but one benefit of falling just shy of the postseason is the lottery pick they received as a result. Had they made the playoffs and finished outside 19th or lower in the draft order, they would have conveyed their first-round pick to the Philadelphia 76ers. Instead, they kept their pick and will be selecting 14th on June 25th.

Top-tier title contenders rarely receive late-lottery or mid-first-round picks — the Thunder and the Atlanta Hawks are the exceptions this year — which puts OKC in a unique position. Whereas most teams toward the top of the draft weigh talent more heavily than need — i.e., the “best player available” approach — the Thunder may decide to use their draft pick to round out a hole on their bench.

Heading into the draft, OKC has 13 players currently signed through 2015-16, and that’s not counting center Enes Kanter and swingman Kyle Singler, both of whom are restricted free agents this summer. In other words: If the Thunder are committed to re-signing both, they won’t have enough room on their roster for their lottery pick without making a trade. That could compel OKC to move on from Singler and target a potential wing replacement like Wisconsin’s Sam Dekker or Kansas’ Kelly Oubre Jr., or it could persuade the team to move one of its rarely used reserves such as Perry Jones III, Steve Novak or Jeremy Lamb to create an extra roster spot. If the Thunder are committed to keeping their current roster intact, they could always flip the lottery pick for a future first-round pick, too.

OKC could be considering yet another option, according to ESPN’s Chad Ford. During a recent online chat, Ford suggested the Thunder might have Murray State point guard Cameron Payne in their crosshairs:

As for the Thunder, since late last week there’s been a lot of buzz among rival GMs that the Thunder promised Cameron Payne they’d take him at 14. I don’t know how much of that is smoke, but he is a great fit at 14 and talent wise he may be the best pure point guard in the draft.

In Ford’s latest mock draft, however, he had Payne going 11th to the Indiana Pacers, writing, “A number of rival GMs believe the Thunder might already have promised to take him at No. 14. But I’m not sure he gets there anymore.”

Given the depth of this year’s draft class — the mid-first round is loaded with potential future starters — the Thunder will have no shortage of viable options from which to choose when they’re on the clock. Heading into draft night, they’ll need to determine what they’re prioritizing and how it fits into their other offseason plans.

3. How Much Should They Be Willing to Spend on Enes Kanter?

OKC acquired former Utah Jazz center Enes Kanter in a three-team deal at the trade deadline, shipping out Reggie Jackson to the Detroit Pistons and a protected 2017 first-round pick to Utah, along with other ancillary considerations. In the 26 games he played for the Thunder, the third overall pick from 2011 averaged 18.7 points and 11.0 rebounds per game, racking up 17 double-doubles in those contests. In short, he gave the team its first real offensive low-post threat since moving to OKC.

With Kanter set to become a restricted free agent this July, re-signing him appears to be a no-brainer on the surface. In an interview with Darnell Mayberry of The Oklahoman, Thunder general manager Sam Presti made clear his intention of doing just that, saying, “Enes is someone we are committed to seeing in a Thunder uniform moving forward.”

Kanter’s defensive aptitude, however, complicates matters considerably. Barry Tramel of The Oklahoman described the big man’s struggles on that end of the court:

Kanter’s defense was atrocious. He was bullied some by fellow post men, but much worse was Kanter’s pick-and-roll defense. Team after team strolled through the Thunder schedule and scored on uncontested jumpers and open lanes to the basket.

Suddenly, the Thunder had the anti-Perkins. A terrific offensive player but a major defensive liability. The Thunder plugged one hole but opened another.

With Kanter on the court, the Thunder averaged 109.6 points per 100 possessions offensively — a mark that would have just trailed the Los Angeles Clippers and Golden State Warriors on the season — but conceded 110.4 points per 100 possessions defensively, which would have been the league’s worst defensive rating. The Thunder had a net rating of -0.7 with him on the floor and +2.0 with him on the bench following the All-Star break, although Durant played in just one of those games and Ibaka appeared in 11.

Kanter’s defensive issues weren’t just a small-sample-size anomaly in OKC, either. After he departed Utah and Rudy Gobert slid into the starting lineup, the Jazz had the league’s best defensive rating after the All-Star break, allowing 4.6 points per 100 possessions fewer than the next-closest team. Kanter has yet to post a positive mark in defensive box plus/minus over his four-year career, and he ranked 73rd out of 73 centers in ESPN.com’s defensive real plus/minus this season, trailing luminaries such as Andrea Bargnani and Amar’e Stoudemire.

When Bargnani and Stoudemire are beating you in a defensive metric, that’s a serious red flag. The Thunder are well aware of his defensive shortcomings, however, and believe he has significant room to improve in that regard.

“For Enes, it’s not a strength issue, it’s not a quickness issue,” Novak told Tramel. “He has those things. I think it’s an education. It’s how to do certain things. He’s young. He’s still learning.”

Before getting fired, Brooks expressed faith in Kanter’s defensive improvement as well, telling Tramel, “A training camp will help him understand what we do defensively. He has to improve in that area.”

Based on Presti’s comments to Mayberry, the Thunder appear intent on re-signing Kanter at any cost this summer. However, it may behoove the organization to allow another team to set his market price during his restricted free agency and then match that offer sheet rather than pre-emptively offering him a fat contract. If nothing else, that would limit his annual raises to 4.5% instead of 7.5%, and with Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka all set to become free agents within the next two years, every dollar counts for the Thunder.

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4. Is Kyle Singler Worth Re-Signing?

Kanter isn’t the only potential free-agent quandary the Thunder must weigh this summer. Singler, who came to Oklahoma City in the same three-team deal at the trade deadline, is likewise set to become a restricted free agent on July 1st.

Much like with Kanter, the Thunder are heading into free agency with the intention of re-signing the former Detroit Pistons swingman.

“Finding a player in free agency that can shoot close to 40% from the 3-point line over the course of a season, embrace various roles and stand as one of your more fundamental players at 6-9 is unlikely when over the cap and tax,” Presti told Mayberry. Therefore, we are hopeful we will be able to keep working with him in the future.”

Singler likewise hopes to return, telling Mayberry, “I want to be back for sure. This is the type of environment that I think I thrive in. A winning team. A winning organization. Talented players. This is where I want to be.”

The Duke product’s OKC career got off to a rocky start, as he averaged just 3.8 points on 29.3% shooting through his first 10 games, all of which he started. Brooks sent Singler to the bench for his next five games, but he wasn’t much better, averaging 2.8 points on 33.3% shooting in only 10.7 minutes per game. Things appeared to begin clicking when Singler slid back into the starting lineup in late March, as he averaged 5.0 points on 41.2% shooting — including 47.4% from three-point range — over an eight-game stretch toward the end of the season.

Considering how lethal Westbrook and Durant are with the ball in their hands, OKC badly needs perimeter shooters who can serve as drive-and-kick release valves for either player. Andre Roberson is a talented defender, but he knocked down just 21 of his 85 three-point tries this past season (24.7%), while Jeremy Lamb has yet to shoot better than 35.6% deep during his three-year career. Anthony Morrow is the lone Thunder player not named Durant or Westbrook who outshot Singler from three-point range in 2014-15.

Here’s the problem: Assuming OKC re-signs Kanter, the franchise will vault into luxury-tax territory without factoring in Singler’s new contract. If they’re more than $10 million above the tax line before re-signing, they’d be paying $2.50 in tax for every $1 in Singler’s contract. Therefore, even something as small as a $3 million contract for Singler would wind up costing the franchise $10.5 million.

Unless the Thunder relieve some of that financial burden by trading Novak, Lamb or Jones III for future draft picks, the cost of re-signing Singler could ultimately prove prohibitive, especially if he commands a large offer sheet in free agency. Though both sides seemingly prefer to reunite, it may prove unfeasible depending on how far over the tax line OKC is after re-signing Kanter.

5. Should They Consider Trading Durant?

Let’s be clear right off the bat: This is the nuclear option for OKC. Barring a preposterously lopsided trade offer—say, Andrew Wiggins, Anthony Bennett, this year’s No. 1 pick and three additional first-round picks — the idea of trading Durant is almost certainly a non-starter for the Thunder.

The idea attracted mainstream attention back in March thanks to ESPN.com’s Tom Penn, who served as an assistant general manager for the Memphis Grizzlies and Portland Trail Blazers throughout the 2000s. During an appearance on The Herd with Colin Cowherd, Penn suggested Russell Westbrook’s sublime post-All-Star-break play could cause OKC to consider flipping Durant:

I think this burst from Westbrook makes it much more likely that Durant ultimately gets traded next year. … Sam Presti has proven that he does not ever want to lose anybody for nothing. So he traded James Harden a year early to avoid a potential luxury tax problem a year later.

The Kevin Durant drumbeat next year is going to be so loud because he will not commit early to Oklahoma City contractually because the rules are against that. He can’t get the same contract if he signs early as if he just goes to free agency and resigns.

So if Sam Presti doesn’t get that commitment, he’ll look to trade Kevin Durant. And looking at the performance of Westbrook and the team around Westbrook will make it easier for him to do that potentially.

It didn’t take long for Presti to refute that idea, however, telling Mayberry:

It’s ludicrous to assert that we would trade Kevin Durant. There’s no way to measure what he represents for our organization on and off the floor. He has helped build this organization from the ground up and personifies the Thunder; past, present and future. When he’s done playing, streets will be named after him throughout the state and younger generations of Oklahoman will learn about the role Kevin has played in elevating this community in ways beyond basketball.

Unless Durant sends a message behind closed doors that he absolutely, 100% refuses to re-sign with the Thunder once he becomes a free agent in 2016, the decision to even silently shop the former MVP won’t come easy. There’s a huge difference between trading a talented sixth man who ultimately evolved into an MVP candidate (Harden) and a player who has already cemented himself as one of the league’s five best players (Durant).

However, the Thunder are clearly wary of the possibility that Durant leaves. The two splashy moves they made this year — the deal that netted them Kanter, Singler, Novak and D.J. Augustin at the trade deadline, along with sending a future first-round pick to Cleveland for Dion Waiters in January — both flew in the face of Presti’s previous modus operandi. Likewise, Brooks’s firing was a necessary evil, but it’s difficult to imagine KD’s impending free agency not having played a role in that decision.

Barring a blockbuster trade offer, the Thunder figure to stand pat and rely upon their CBA-related advantages — being able to offer higher annual raises and an extra year — to re-sign Durant in 2016. If rumblings of his disenchantment with the franchise begin to pick up steam over the offseason, however, Presti and Co. must at least consider the possibility of shopping Durant and seeing what they can get in return.

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About The Author

Bryan Toporek is just talkin' about practice. He writes about the NBA at BBALLBREAKDOWN, FanRag Sports and The Step Back. He also helps curate NBAAsesets.com.

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