Any analysis of where the Thunder go from here must start with two simple truths:
• OKC enters next season as the clear favorite to make the Finals. The Spurs will be strong, but they’ll be a year older. The Mavericks’ roster retooling process is uncertain. The Lakers are 1-8 in second-round playoff series over the last two years. Teams at the bottom of the Western Conference playoff heap, especially Denver and Utah, should get better, but it’s a giant leap from “better” to title contention. The Clippers and Grizzlies loom as serious threats, but they must stay healthy and fill out their rotations.
The Thunder? They are set. Their luxury tax concerns kick in indirectly now, since Serge Ibaka and James Harden are eligible for contract extensions soon, but the extensions — and the potential tax penalties that come with them — wouldn’t actually hit the books until 2013-14. The Thunder will be over the salary cap next season, meaning they can only address their needs — a backup small forward, a big man who can score — via the mid-level exception. Given the salary commitments to come, a multi-year mid-level deal may be out of bounds, anyway. Finding a defense-oriented wing in this price range (Grant Hill, Josh Howard, Matt Barnes and Mickael Pietrus all come to mind among unrestricted free agents) will be significantly easier than finding an offensive-minded big (Boris Diaw and Anthony Tolliver are among the “blah” free agents that might be affordable).
Still: OKC adds a year of seasoning for its young stars, especially Ibaka, and brings back point guard Eric Maynor to replace Derek Fisher’s minutes. If healthy, this team is a proven commodity, one that’s a step above its conference rivals.
• Oklahoma City was the best offensive team in the league, across both the regular season and the playoffs. The Thunder ranked second in points per possession during the regular season, trailing only the Spurs, and topped the same category in the postseason. Hem and haw all you’d like about Russell Westbrook’s shot selection, Kevin Durant’s struggles against physical ball denial and Kendrick Perkins’ horrific post-ups. But don’t overlook the facts: Nobody scored the ball as well as the Thunder. Even in the Finals, a series in which it looked ragged, OKC put up 105.5 points per 100 possessions — equivalent to a top-five NBA mark. Offense is clearly not the problem here.
Make no mistake, there’s room for improvement. Westbrook is probably one of the ten best players in the league already, but he tends to miss a few open (and subtle, too) passing lanes each game in favor of hoisting up semi-reckless shots. His timing on entry passes to Durant coming off screens is sometimes a precious beat late, and against the very best defenses (i.e., Miami’s), that split-second hesitation means the window to enter the ball at the right spot has closed. Both Durant and James Harden can become passive on the perimeter when the first action designed to free them doesn’t work. Integrating three perimeter stars — and maximizing their talents — is a challenge for a young team, and the Thunder are still making progress down that road. Each of the Thunder’s three stars developed more varied skill sets, and Scott Brooks’ coaching staff gradually incorporated more sets that had them screen for each other or play off one another in a different way, including that pindown play for Durant that became famous during the Western Conference finals. Harden even got to take some crunch-time shots in the playoffs, helping Oklahoma City shake the predictability that doomed its crunch-time offense in the 2011 playoffs.
OKC will need refine its secondary scoring, if only to minimize the chances that an elite defense takes away its first and second options during crunch time. But examining the big picture, this offense is a machine — and it is a machine in spite of its abundance of players that opposing defenses don’t have to respect. That group of non-threats generally includes all the Thunder’s rotation big men, plus Thabo Sefolosha and Derek Fisher. Of the latter two, one was a starter and the other was a key cog in small lineups with Durant at power forward.
Indeed: The Thunder stand to improve offensively simply by re-adding Eric Maynor and training over another offseason, a time in which Brooks can decide how often he should go small and which lineup combinations work best. His choices in that regard were difficult considering the limitations of his personnel, but as the Finals went on, it was clear Brooks ignored accumulating data that suggested certain player combinations weren’t working. Brooks showed an adaptability in that Spurs series and throughout the season in general, and there’s little reason to believe that he won’t get better at his job.
Small lineup tweaks and rotation decisions can swing a series when the competition gets tougher, something Rick Carlisle demonstrated by inserting J.J. Barea into the starting lineup for Game 4 of the 2011 Finals. A coach has to be flexible and open to data that informs him that what has worked all season may no longer be working. If the Thunder brass believes Brooks doesn’t have that extra flexibility to put this team over the top, they are justified to be cautious about a lucrative extension — and perhaps to chase someone like Stan Van Gundy or (gulp) Phil Jackson. But the most likely outcome is Brooks returning, and he and his young players continuing their growth together.
The Heat exposed just how much growth is needed on defense. The Thunder ranked a solid 10th in points allowed per possession, but they were inconsistent against teams that moved the ball well and weren’t overwhelmed by Oklahoma City’s athleticism. Sefolosha is the closest thing the team has to a wing stopper, but he was too small to deal with James. Sefolosha also hurt the Thunder’s offense — opponents simply don’t guard him. Westbrook’s jumpy aggression is great for ball denial and contesting shots, but it leaves him vulnerable to back-cuts as he closes out. Harden has similar off-ball issues. Ibaka, for all of his brilliance as a shot-blocker, has miles to go before he reaches the same level against pick-and-rolls and in complex rotations.
When James’ post-up presence pressed the Thunder into traps and help-and-recover schemes that required five players moving on a string together, the OKC defense collapsed. But guess what? Most young teams don’t defend all that well. The Thunder are ahead of the curve and will steadily get better, particularly if they can add a true backup small forward with defensive chops.
But that’s where things get dicey. The Thunder are capped out with 12 players already on next year’s roster and a first-round pick to come — unless GM Sam Presti deals it away. Adding additional guaranteed money, via draft picks or multi-year mid-level contracts for veteran talent, would almost certainly push Oklahoma City over the luxury tax line — currently at $70 million and expected to rise — beginning in 2013-14. Even factoring in a conservative $22 million starting salary combined for Harden and Ibaka in 2013-14 would push the Thunder to about $69.5 million in payroll for that season and the next one — with half a roster still to fill. Signing those additional players would take the payroll at least into the $75-$78 million range, and even the rosiest internal league and players union estimates don’t have the tax line jumping to $80 million until 2015-16 or later.
Using the amnesty provision on Kendrick Perkins would take the Thunder’s guaranteed money in 2013-14 and 2014-15 (using similar estimates for Ibaka and Harden and fairly minimal charges for the rest of the 12-man roster) down around the current tax line, so perhaps it would be possible to keep this core four together and incur minimal tax penalties. But again, that assumes the use of amnesty on Perkins, the departure of every other Thunder player currently serving a rookie deal (including Maynor) and no significant free agent signings between now and then. Keeping Perkins, re-signing both Ibaka and Harden to market value deals and dodging the tax in 2013-14 and beyond seems nearly impossible. The tax line might jump higher and faster than expected, and the Thunder might even decide to eat a two-year tax bill, knowing Perkins comes off he books after 2014-15.
The tax line and the impact of revenue-sharing are the great unknowns here, but at the very least, the coming bill for Harden and Ibaka will make it difficult for the Thunder to add meaningful talent in the meantime via free agency.
Good news: They don’t need much of it. OKC is already very good, and it’ll get better at its weaker spots.