The worst place a team can be in the NBA is stuck in limbo. In functional terms, NBA limbo is exactly where the Thunder were last season: a mid-to-low seed who doesn’t have much of a chance of advancing past the first round. Slim chance netting of an impactful draft pick, and even slimmer odds of contending for a title.
Sam Presti knows this, and, arguably more importantly, Russell Westbrook knows this. Although he preached continuity in his exit interview, Presti knows the onus is on him to improve his squad in a timely manner or risk losing Westbrook to greener pastures.
Presti very well could decide to sit back this summer, setting his team up for a run at a superstar free agent in another time — maybe next summer, maybe the one after that. Knowing how vital Russell Westbrook is to this franchise — not to mention Presti’s tendency to be proactive with personnel decisions — safe money could be placed on Presti doing something to improve the viability of his roster, however marginal that improvement may be.
Although no single addition would turn this team into a contender (at least in my opinion), any one of the following players being added to the roster will make them a better, more dangerous team than last year.
This list includes both free agents and possible trade targets.
NOTE: Considering that the Thunder will be over the salary cap, some maneuvering will be necessary to bring in any free agent. It’s hard to predict exactly how salary cap implications will be handled (especially if a third team is involved in a sign-and-trade), so I won’t delve too far into financials.
2017 stats: 21.6 PPG, 8.1 REB, 4.9 AST, 49% FG, 34% 3PT, 76% FT
Priority numero uno for the Thunder. And, despite the hometown allegiance for Griffin, this will be the toughest sell for Presti and the Thunder. Nevermind the financial wiggling Sam Presti will have to do (assuredly, some combination of Enes Kanter, Victor Oladipo, or Steven Adams will have to be moved to make cap room); Griffin has reasons outside of basketball to stay in Los Angeles. He has his hands firmly in the entertainment biz, and, like Shaquille O’Neal, just might enjoy the off-the-court acclaim more than the on-court accolades.
But the future of the Clippers is dicy — Chris Paul (who has certainly helped Griffin make millions) just might bolt for the greener pastures of, say, San Antonio, to chase a ring while he’s still an effective player. Without Paul, the Clippers are a bottom-feeder in the Western conference.
If Griffin wants to compete for a title, Griffin could easily head to Boston, who has room to sign him without mortgaging the farm to add him. Add the first overall pick, and that might be the most likely landing spot for Griffin.
Still, though, playing with Russell Westbrook might just appeal to Griffin. A lineup of Westbrook, Andre Roberson, Jerami Grant, Griffin, and Steven Adams would probably be the most athletic in the league. As a player who enjoys running the floor like a guard, fast breaks with Russell Westbrook might cause involuntary salivation on Blake’s part.
And then there’s this: what if the Thunder don’t want him? His injury history is worrisome, and the off-the-court issues (like punching out an equipment manager) are documented and not quite the mold that Presti is used to.
At the end of the day, though, when you can add a superstar, you do it. It’s really just a matter of if Griffin will bite.
MAGIC 8-BALL OUTLOOK: Very doubtful
2017 stats: 21.9 PPG, 5.4 REB, 3.5 AST, 47% FG, 40% 3PT, 84% FT
If Gordon Hayward’s skillset were translated to baseball, he’d be referred to as a five tool player. Because he’s played in Utah, on of the least-exposed markets in the league, he’s underrated. Criminally so. But he does it all, and he does it well: shooting, playmaking, defending, rebounding. He also has a high basketball IQ (which can be expected from a Brad Stevens product) and is, by all accounts, an excellent teammate.
And, oh, yeah: he’s coming off of the best year of his career.
The Jazz are the favorite to hold on to Hayward because they can offer him by far the greatest amount of money over the longest span of time. He also has a great supporting cast, and there’s the fact that he might not be the first option in San Antonio or Boston.
If it weren’t for Hayward missing out on an All-NBA team — and thus an opportunity at the lucrative super-max contract — I would have pencilled him in to stay in Utah. However, his exclusion opens the door to leaving the Jazz.
Hayward is quick and athletic, but he doesn’t often get a chance to show that off in Quin Snyder’s system, which was the slowest pace-wise of any NBA team last season. The option of playing in a higher-octane system may tantalize Hayward to come to Oklahoma City.
Fit-wise, you couldn’t draw up a better player for what the Thunder need right now. He’s a rangy, versatile, two-way wing. Hayward himself may not get the Thunder over the title hump, but, at least in my eyes, a Westbrook-Hayward pair would make for a better team than either the Thunder or the Jazz.
Boston, because of the Brad Stevens-Hayward connection, must be considered a favorite, as well as the Jazz. But the if Westbrook recruits Hayward hard, and Presti can work his front office magic, a Hayward addition could be the best option for all parties.
MAGIC 8-BALL OUTLOOK: Don’t count on it
2017 stats: 15.5 PPG, 4.8 AST, 3.5 AST, 41% FG, 35% 3PT, 78% FT
You’re probably calling me crazy right now.
Him? Isn’t he a point guard?
Yes, yes he is. And I think he’d be an incredible fit for the Thunder, and, more importantly, could be acquired on the cheap. Hear me out.
First, and most importantly: the Lakers seemed primed to draft Lonzo Ball with the second overall pick, unless Markelle Fultz miraculously falls to them. Ball (or Fultz), a potential face of the franchise in the years to come, will likely get the lion’s share of the minutes, making Russell expendable.
Secondly, Russell’s stock will not get any lower. Although many were high on him coming into his rookie season, perceptions have soured. Whether former coach Byron Scott’s criticisms (remember — Scott was notoriously tough on his rookies) of Russell’s work ethic are valid remains to be seen. Russell is also a less-than-average defender at this point in his career. He’s a flawed player, but then again, the vast majority of second year players are.
A change of scenery may be just what Russell needs to reset and jumpstart his career. And what better way to get in gear than by learning from Russell Westbrook?
Although he’s listed as a point guard and has played that position for most of his life, he looked comfortable as a hybrid two-guard late in the season for the Lakers. If traded to the Thunder, Russell would likely play a hybrid two-guard role. At 6’5″, he’s versatile, perhaps even able to play the three, albeit in a limited fashion, at least until his defense improves.
Simply put, Russell has oodles of talent and potential. He can’t be blamed for not quite realizing it in his tumultuous two years with the Lakers. It’s not easy to acquire a player with potential at Russell’s price — which is probably some combination of young players, draft picks, and cap relief.
Although a straight up trade for Russell is probably not likely, the Thunder could be able to wiggle their way into a trade that sends Paul George to Los Angeles. Russell’s career will be decided by the fates of other players like Ball and George. For that reason, it’s tough to make a prediction about his future. However, his Harden-esque potential is very intriguing to me.
MAGIC 8-BALL OUTLOOK: Ask again later
2017 Stats: N/A
Well, it appears that, if Chris Bosh will play again (and that’s one 6’11” sized if), it will not be for the Miami Heat. Due to the blood clot issues that sidelined him for the better part of the last two seasons, Bosh remained on the Heat’s roster and on their salary cap ledger.
No details have emerged yet (the agreement has not yet been finalized) about how the Bosh will be paid the $52 million he’s owed over the next two seasons. Although the Heat will not be on the hook salary cap-wise, they will still have to pay a portion of his guaranteed salary. Depending on how much Miami is liable for, Bosh could take a huge discount to play for a contender.
Bosh would be a major risk for any team, and would certainly have to undergo a sustained series of tests and doctor supervision if he is to return to the basketball court. Bosh says he feels great,but he hasn’t played a game since February of 2016 — meaning he’s got a ways to go if he wants to get in game shape.
It’s probably not likely that Bosh will play basketball again in his career. But if he is cleared, and if he is willing to play at a steep discount, OKC just might be one of his best fits. It will be a wait and see situation with Bosh, but don’t hang your hat on it. It will depend on if Bosh is cleared to play again and if a team will take a risk on him.
MAGIC 8-BALL OUTLOOK: Ask again later
2017 stats: 18.7 PPG, 6.3 REB, 2.7 AST, 45% FG, 37% 3PT, 85% FT
Before a torn achilles sidelined him for the final 52 games of last season, Rudy Gay was playing arguably the best and most efficient basketball of his career. His effective field goal percentage (a metric that accounts for three-pointers being higher value shots than two-pointers) was tied for his second-highest of his career.
Gay has gotten a reputation a chucker who shoots at the expense of his team’s success — a perception that was not helped by the fact that each team Gay has left (Memphis and Toronto) has become immediately better without him. And then there’s the fact that it’s tough to come back from an achilles tear and be an effective player.
But the Thunder are clearly interested in Gay — they reportedly had a deal in place to trade Cam Payne for Gay last season before Payne’s foot injury.
I think he’d fit in well in the starting lineup as a spot-up shooter. Gay just might be the scoring wing the Thunder need. Although he prefers to work out of isolation (and he’d get his opportunities to do so), he’s never played with a point guard (or player, for that matter) like Russell Westbrook. The buckets will come a lot easier than it did in Sacramento, and that will be a talking point if the Thunder recruit him in free agency.
The Kings are in rebuilding mode right now, which means a sign-and-trade deal could be leveraged with them quite easily. Presti just might be able to shed some cap space while he’s at it.
Simply put: for all of his flaws, Gay is a bona fide scorer. He gets buckets. The Thunder need a player like him if they want to improve on last season’s run.
MAGIC 8-BALL OUTLOOK: Signs point to yes