Oklahoma City has taken a bit of a bashing recently as the NBA’s free agency period has progressed. The Thunder have never really been a big player in free agency, and apparently, that was by design. Going into their 7th season, the Thunder have been all about development from within. Draft well, create a culture that values development, and reward the players that can be a part of a successful core. It has worked extremely well for the Thunder. Almost too well if you factor in the James Harden trade.
But this was the offseason where the Thunder would compete a bit in free agency. Because of their salary cap situation, the Thunder were never going to be big players in free agency. They were over the salary cap, which limited the amount the Thunder can give to perspective free agents. When a team is over the salary cap, the only way they can sign free agents is through the mid-level exception ($5.3 million per year) and the bi-annual exception ($2.077 million per year). With the luxury tax line increasing by over $5 million dollars, the Thunder had enough room under the luxury tax line to sign someone up to the mid-level exception. After years of acting like 6th grade boys at a school dance, the Thunder were now ready to get off the wall and go onto the dance floor.
But there’s a sort of awkwardness that happens whenever 6th grade boys first build up the courage to go out onto the dance floor. Their palms get sweaty, they start to stutter, and they begin to worry too much about how they look to other people. And sometimes, those fears are realized in the form of rejection and ridicule. With the draft out of the way, it became very apparent that the Thunder were in the market for a 3-point shooter. Luckily for the Thunder, there would be a crop of shooters from which the team could choose from. Players like Mike Miller, Anthony Morrow, and Jodie Meeks were all set to be unrestricted free agents.
But then something funny happens. The pretty girl that you’d always admired from afar, who recently broke up with her boyfriend, is suddenly eyeing you as you stroll onto the dance floor. (Side note: I know the thought of imagining Pau Gasol as a pretty girl is appalling to most, but let’s just stick to the metaphorical script here.) Her now ex-boyfriend is a rich kid who is also one of the most popular kids in the school. As you approach her, she never breaks eye contact with you and actually smiles. You start talking to her, but her friends keep interrupting, saying things like, “Ohh, look at so-and-so. His dad owns a bull farm” or “Oh wow, so-and-so is looking at you. I think his dad works on Wall Street”. Eventually, your insecurities start to creep up, but you keep talking to her anyway. Maybe she’ll see you as something different, something unique. But then, as you start to build some confidence up, she drops the bomb on you. “You know, I like you and think you are cute, but I don’t think you can provide me with what I need.”
And just like that, it’s over. She makes her way to the other side of the room and starts dancing with the kid whose dad owns a bull farm. Eventually you get over it, and start dancing with other girls, but none as pretty as the first one. You begin to fear that you’ll never be able to dance with the real pretty girls.
There you have it. That’s the feeling of most Oklahomans when it comes to NBA free agency. We are learning that, while we aren’t exactly an ugly duckling, the reality is that we aren’t as rich or as big as most other markets. We are a young city that is just now starting to grow, so we don’t have the history or nightlife the bigger markets have. It’s a problem that many other teams face (namely those team not located on either of the coasts), but this was the first time it has affected us so directly. The reality is when you are stacked up against the LA’s, New York’s, and Miami’s of the world, a place like Oklahoma City isn’t really that appealing to young millionaire athletes, especially for time frame of 3-4 years.
For this reason, the Thunder’s free agency activity is more heightened in February than it is in July. While the Thunder haven’t been players in free agency recently, they have been successful in attracting recently released veterans to join the team for late season playoff runs. Players like Derek Fisher and Caron Butler have been integral parts in recent playoff runs. This is why the Thunder usually have an open roster spot heading into the season. That roster flexibility is not only important heading into the trading deadline, but also afterwards when disgruntled vets are released. Players are more apt to join OKC during this time for two reasons: 1. Older players tend to be married and have kids, which makes OKC a little bit more appealing as a family friendly environment and 2. Even if OKC isn’t on their list as prime destinations, it’s only for a 3-4 month period and could come with a championship attached.
Luckily, the Thunder haven’t had to depend on free agency to build their team. They have literally built their team up from the bottom using the draft and player development. The Thunder didn’t come away empty handed this summer. They signed their shooter (Morrow), and ironically, one of the reasons he chose Oklahoma City is because of its family friendly environment. Maybe, in the end, there’s still hope for that 6th grade boy.