In life, well laid plans seldom come to fruition as easily as we’d like them to. After four straight season of near perfect health, which culminated in an NBA Finals appearance in 2012, the Oklahoma City Thunder have seen three straight seasons cut short by ill-timed injuries. In 2013, Houston Rockets’ point guard Patrick Beverly launched himself into Russell Westbrook’s right knee in the first game of the playoffs, causing Westbrook’s meniscus to tear. In 2014, Serge Ibaka’s calf injury caused the Thunder to fall behind 2 games to nothing to the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference Finals. A hole too insurmountable to climb even when Ibaka returned for Game 3 of that series. And then the nightmare that was last season, as the Thunder bench looked more like a triage unit at times with all the leg casts, hand casts, and men in suits.
With all the injuries though, the Thunder were still in the playoff race til the end of the last day of the regular season, as they finished with the same record as the New Orleans Pelicans, but lost out on a playoff spot because of a tie breaker. The Pelicans won the season series 3-1, with the final game of the series being decided on a near halfcourt double clutch 3-pointer by Anthony Davis to win the game as time expired. That shot was a microcosm of the Thunder’s entire season: so close, yet so far away.
With the playoffs out of the picture, the Thunder found themselves in an unfamiliar positon: picking in the lottery. They likely did not envision themselves picking in the top 14 for the foreseeable future. Being the team with the best record to not make the playoffs, the Thunder fell into the 14th spot in the lottery. They also have their 2nd round pick, No. 48.
The first question that needs to be asked is, “What is available in this draft that the Thunder needs?” When completely healthy, the Thunder are as good as any team in the league. They have a scoring machine in Kevin Durant, a beast of a point guard in Russell Westbrook, a 3 and D power forward in Serge Ibaka that has led the league in blocks 3 of the last 4 seasons, and two young centers that are still developing in Enes Kanter and Steven Adams. What is missing out of that group is a consistent two guard.
To the Thunder, a consistent 2-way shooting guard is about as rare as an albino unicorn that spits fire. The Thunder used a sort of platoon system when it came to their 2-guard position last season. The de-facto starter was Andre Roberson, whose is one of the better wing defenders in the league, but is a liability on offense due to his unreliable shooting. The other 2-guards on the roster also had their flaws. Dion Waiters is likely a better overall player than Roberson, but has a tendancy to not be very efficient on the offensive end. Waiters’ role on this team is likely better served as a 6th man. Anthony Morrow is one of the best 3-point marksmen in the league, but struggles on the defensive end. And Jeremy Lamb is the enigma wrapped up in the question mark at the end of the bench.
With all those 2-guards on the roster, the next question likely becomes, “Why would the Thunder draft another 2-guard?” Therein lies the dilemma with this team. It is loaded! They have 2 point gaurds, 6 wings, and 5 post players (assuming they match any offer for Kanter) all under contract for next season. The thing is all 13 of those players can play. That number doesn’t take into account Kyle Singler, who is a restricted free agent and Steve Novak, who will likely get traded to shed salary. In addition, the Thunder also have Josh Huestis, their first round pick from last season, who delayed signing his rookie contract in order to get more experience with the Thunder’s D-League affiliate, the Blue. There’s a possibility that Huestis may delay signing his rookie contract for a second season if the Thunder doesn’t feel he is ready to play in the league.
“Could the Thunder trade the pick?” is a valid question. Not many teams are in a position to not need a lottery pick while picking in the lottery. But the Thunder could realistically be in that position. Thunder GM Sam Presti is all about parlaying assets into something more valuable in the future. While the Thunder’s high-valued assets are likely untouchable (Durant, Westbrook, Ibaka, Kanter, Adams), this lottery pick could likely be had for the right price.
But then the question becomes, “Would the Thunder forego the opportunity to get another young piece that will be on a rookie contract for the next four seasons?” If the right player is available, I think the Thunder stay the course. But who is that right player? If you look at the players the Thunder have brought in for workouts, you’ll see a pattern developing. Names like RJ Hunter, Jerian Grant, Devin Booker, Sam Dekker are not only players that will likely be there at 14, but also similar in skillset. The outlier may be someone like Bobby Portis, who has worked out for many of the teams in that 10-18 range, and has been rumored to have received a promise from several of those teams. I don’t buy into the Cameron Payne hype because the Thunder already have two point guards on the roster, and have a third one that they love in the D-League (Semaj Christon).
The most likely scenario for the Thunder is to trade out of the lottery but stay in that 18-24 range. Doing that, the Thunder can still draft a player they like and snatch another asset in the process (likely a future 2nd round pick). It wouldn’t surprise if the Thunder drafts Portis, Grant, or Hunter in that position.
As for the 2nd round, look for the Thunder to select a draft and stash player. The Thunder brought in Nikola Radicevic, a 6’5″ Serbian point guard, for a workout about a week ago. Radicevic likely has ties to Thunder assistant coach Darko Rajakovic.
When it comes to the Thunder and this draft, nothing would surprise me. They hold all the cards. They need nothing, but could use a little bit of everything. Thursday night will likely be a busy night for the Thunder.