After another season that ended in a first round exit, the Oklahoma City Thunder must do what it takes to improve around Russell Westbrook and Paul George. That may require some truly difficult decisions that shakes up the makeup of their roster.
The main hurdle that could prevent the Thunder from being able to make substantial roster changes is a lack of salary cap space. They are projected to have $142.5 million in guaranteed salary for the 2019-20 season assuming that Patrick Patterson opts into his player-option and Nerlens Noel declines his $1.9 million player-option.
While Oklahoma City is not going to be able to go out and sign free agents outside of the projected $5.7 million in mid-level tax payer exception, there is still hope. The $10.7 million trade exception that they acquired by trading away Carmelo Anthony that expires in late July is their best hope to add a difference maker.
It will be important that the Thunder manage to shed their payroll before they use that trade exception unless they are willing to pay substantially more in luxury tax. The top candidate for being a salary cap casualty appears to be Dennis Schröder ($15.5M) but the same can be said about Andre Roberson ($10.7M) depending on the team’s view of his recovery process.
If past behavior is any indication of future action then it is worth mentioning that Oklahoma City expressed interest in Taurean Prince, Wesley Matthews, and Anthony Tolliver around the trade deadline. Their targets could certainly change over the summer but it’s important to note that there is a pattern being that all three players are reliable three-point shooters.
It would make a lot of sense for the Thunder to pursue a trade for Prince given that he is only 25-years-old and is under contract for around $3.5 million next season. He is coming off a season with averages of 13.5 points, 3.6 rebounds, and 2.1 assists while producing a 44.1/39/81.9 shooting split.
Prince could have his offensive potential maximized as a high volume catch-and-shoot threat in Oklahoma City by playing off Westbrook and George. He shot on average 2.2-of-5.5 (39%) from the perimeter last season but particularly 1.6-of-3.6 (42.8%) on catch-and-shoot attempts. That is a particular attribute that would be particularly valued by the Thunder.
It only helps that Prince is 6’8″ because that opens up some serious potential for lineup combinations. With the Golden State Warriors utilizing a ‘death lineup’ that features Draymond Green at center, it is important to have personnel that better equips them helps to match up with such combinations.
It is unclear what would be required from the Thunder to be able to acquire Prince in a trade. It could be easier to get that done if the Atlanta Hawks select a player at his position during the upcoming NBA Draft. There is a possibility of them selecting a small forward given that they likely will have two top 10 selections and it is mostly a wing draft.
A veteran like Matthews would be a clean-fit considering how he is a reliable catch-and-shoot threat that doesn’t shy away from matching up with star players on the defensive end of the floor. He ended up signing with the Indiana Pacers after being bought out by the New York Knicks and a guaranteed starting shooting role with greater offensive responsibility likely was the deciding factor for him.
There was no mention of Matthews in the Pacers’ end of season press conference and that is a likely indication that he will not be back in Indiana. It becomes a matter of how much the asking price would be in free agency because the Thunder will likely not be able to afford being the highest bidder for his services.
A player like Tolliver makes sense but there is not much difference between the impact that he would likely make and what Patterson brings to the table. Last season was a down year for Patterson as he shot only 33.7% from deep. There is reason to believe that he will improve considering how he shot 37.2% from the perimeter in his career before 2018-19.
The specific players that the Thunder could target aren’t necessarily what is important. The fact of the matter is that whoever they pursue needs to improve their perimeter shooting capabilities to make it easier for Westbrook to get to the basket. He is unlikely to be traded or change the way that he plays the game, so accommodating his skill-set better is ideal.
Making trades and signing players is certainly not the only way that Oklahoma City can improve their team this summer. During the end of season press conference, general manager Sam Presti told the media that the Thunder’s best path to improve is through player development.
“Everybody has to get better. It’s really a group effort. I have to do my part. I have to look at, ‘How good is this team? What’s the capability of the team? What’s the path forward for the team? What are we going to do to improve the existing group? What can we do externally to work from there?’ … Our greatest path for improvement is going to be the improvement of our core group.”
Before getting into how the supporting cast can improve, the greatest impact starts at the top. One of the top ways that Westbrook and George can get more help is to help themselves. Westbrook would benefit greatly by becoming a better jump shooter over the summer and George needs to at least get his shoulder healed up for next season.
There are key rotation players like Steven Adams and Jerami Grant that could still add to their skill-sets in the offseason but are already making significant contributions. It is unlikely that the Thunder will receive drastic changes in the contributions that they bring to the table but anything more would certainly help.
Perhaps the greatest hope is that Roberson can be a reliable perimeter shooter after he returns to the lineup. He provides a truly game-changing defensive impact that was sorely missed this season but his value would skyrocket if he shot better than his career 25.7% clip from deep. He has been able to focus on spot shooting for a long time as a result of his injury.
Where the greatest potential for growth lies is in the development of young players like Terrance Ferguson and Hamidou Diallo unless veteran players are inserted above them in their rotation. There will be less potential for playing time for both players once Roberson is back, especially if Schröder remains on the team.
Whatever it is that the Thunder choose to do in the offseason to get better, it is clear that considerable improvement is necessary before they can go on a deep playoff run.