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.