For the Oklahoma City Thunder, July has traditionally meant a month of light bookkeeping and a jaunt to summer league. While other teams around the league catch transactional fever, the Thunder operate with a fervent reluctance to chasing available players.
Some have characterized that as a small-market franchise being stereotypically cheap. But the reality is there has rarely been a potential move that made sense to act upon. The Thunder are rigid about their core values, and free-agent discernment is prominent among them.
Here’s general manager Sam Presti’s free-agent history (not counting 10-day contracts):
Signed C.J. Miles to an offer sheet in 2008 (Utah matched)
Signed Nenad Krstic in December 2008
Signed Kevin Ollie in 2009
Signed Royal Ivey in 2010
Signed Derek Fisher in March 2012
Signed Hasheem Thabeet in 2013
Signed Derek Fisher in February 2013
Signed Derek Fisher in July 2013
Signed Caron Butler in March 2014
That’s it. That’s all of it.
Presti has historically spent to keep the players he either drafted or acquired. There’s more control, especially financially, in building a roster away from free-market competition.
This summer feels different. With league revenues soaring, the luxury tax -- a well-known enemy for the Thunder -- has unexpectedly climbed to around $77 million. With 12 guaranteed contracts adding up to $69,677,141 (not counting player bonuses), the Thunder have a greater ability to crack the checkbook and, for the first time ever really, a need to do so.
Thabo Sefolosha, the team’s starting shooting guard since 2009, is an unrestricted free agent and is almost a lock to sign elsewhere. Fisher is now the head coach of the Knicks. Butler, a late-season addition, surely isn’t returning. That’s two rotation spots, and one starting job, vacant on a contending team that’s clawing on the wall to break through. The draft isn’t really a place to address present needs -- at least not all of them -- as the Thunder once again kept the future in focus by drafting forward Mitch McGary, a likely successor to 33-year-old Nick Collison, and Josh Huestis, a potential wing stopper in the Sefolosha mold.
Then there’s the issue of Reggie Jackson. The Thunder desperately want to keep him, and with Jackson eligible for an extension this summer, they’re intent on avoiding another James Harden situation. Presti already has said he hasn’t and won’t give any consideration to trading Jackson, but obviously that’s not set in stone until Jackson’s name is signed on a contract. If a deal isn’t executed before October, he’ll hit restricted free agency, a place no Thunder youngster has ever reached.
But Presti doesn’t always operate within the confines of general assumption. The market isn’t exactly saturated with helpful players, and look no further than bit player Jodie Meeks getting a reported $19.5 million over three years from the Detroit Pistons to see why Presti actively resists playing the free-agent game.
Instead, he has meticulously assembled a roster that parlays present into future at all times. As Kendrick Perkins enters the final year of a tumultuous contract, 20-year-old bruiser Steven Adams is waiting to step in. As Sefolosha likely jettisons off somewhere else, Andre Roberson, a 6-foot-7 guard with enough wingspan to make Jay Bilas pass out, is potentially a replacement. As Butler and Fisher move on, Jeremy Lamb enters his third season after showing bright signs before a late-season swoon amplified by Butler’s signing.
Trusting internal development isn’t splashy. It doesn’t make any July headlines. And it certainly frustrates fans and confuses observers as opposing teams try to load up each summer. They think the Thunder are being too conservative, unwilling to take advantage of a clear window of opportunity presented by Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook’s general awesomeness. Kind of hard to argue with that.
Though in some ways, Presti does acquire new players every summer. It’s just that you can’t restage news conferences for players you already have under contract. The idea within the Thunder is pretty simple: Build a young roster and expect its members to come back better in October. Adams improved game by game last season, capping it with an incredibly impressive double-double in Game 6 of their second-round playoff series against the Los Angeles Clippers. Lamb completed what was essentially his first full season as a regular, posting per-36-minute numbers of 15.6 points, 4.4 rebounds and 2.7 assists, 43.2 percent shooting. (For fun, Harden’s second season, per 36 minutes: 16.4 points, 4.2 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 43.6 percent shooting). Perry Jones III got seven starts. Roberson started 16 games last season and with him on the floor, the Thunder allowed 99.3 points per 100 possessions.
When you look at the construction of the roster, the teams sits more in a position of strength than reeking of desperation to fill significant structural needs. The Thunder already have a superstar, a co-superstar, a shot-blocking monster who shoots almost 50 percent from midrange and a dynamic bench option. They have intriguing youth and hold additional assets. If Presti lacked those things, he would have been roaming the aisles of the NBA swap meet searching for them just like other GMs. There are pieces needed on the periphery, but in terms of flashy signings, the Thunder are in a good place. It allows Presti to be selective, and for lack of a better word, stingy.
Signing players for the sake of it can actually compress your roster, too. Additions don’t always actually add. Look at the San Antonio Spurs. After losing Gary Neal in free agency, they didn’t rush to sign a new backup point guard. They trusted in their internal structure, allowing Patty Mills an opportunity. If Lamb is ever going to sniff his potential and become anything more than some dude the Thunder got for James Harden, he actually has to, you know, play.
Relying on youth and development does come with risk, because you’re putting unproven players in a position to produce for a team with title hopes. But consider this: The Thunder allowed 78.0 points per 100 possessions with a net rating of plus-24.9 in nine games last season with a starting five of Westbrook, Roberson, Durant, Ibaka and Adams. The sample size is obviously small, but there might be enough there for Presti to maintain his picky free-agent nature and trust in what he already has.
The big question, though, is how Durant will feel about all this. He probably won’t appreciate another quiet summer, especially after last July ended with the Thunder coming up empty-handed on a number of players he wanted. Durant grew frustrated as the Thunder whiffed on Dorell Wright, Francisco Garcia and Mike Miller, a player he personally recruited. All OKC ended up with was Fisher, for a third time. Will free agents avoiding Oklahoma City combined with the Thunder’s selective shopping be something on his mind in 2016, when he’s set to hit the free-agent market himself?
Maybe, but Presti can’t operate under the the assumption that some arbitrary clock is ticking toward 2016. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. The Thunder have avoided the luxury tax vigorously, but not to save dollars in the present. Their hyper-diligence stems from a tangible fear of the repeater tax, an escalator set into motion if a team crosses the threshold three out of four years. So as 2016 approaches, Presti is putting together a plan to not just re-sign Durant, but also Westbrook and Ibaka a year after. Overextending now and compromising the future roster is step one to losing your cornerstone player. Just ask the Cleveland Cavaliers. Durant may leave the Thunder if they fail the next two seasons, but that’s his decision. Nothing says he’d stay even if they won a title, or two.
Still, the Thunder will be semi-active this July. They’ll make calls, have meetings, probably make some offers. Probably sign a player or two. But they’re shopping in the bargain bin. They aren’t breaking over the tax this season, nor are they likely to hit the “apron” that locks them into a hard cap (about $4 million away). That commitment to the plan, unwavering despite a changing landscape, paints Presti as stubborn to some, but the identity and culture he has created within the organization is something a lot of other franchises are trying to mimic. The Thunder are really good. But the past three seasons, they haven’t been quite good enough. Question is, what’s it going to take to close that gap, or better yet, what’s it going to cost?