Now that the season is over, I am already thinking about how this team might look come training camp in October. The particulars of course can not be known until they happen, but I thought it might be time to look at the odds of our four free agents coming back for next season or not.
I don’t have any special insight on these matters, I just thought I would examine the salary implications, the fit, and the intangibles surrounding each player and the team going forward.
Desmond Mason : odds for returning 30%
Desmond is in a unique situation in that he’s stated publicly that he would like to be back, and he has connection with the fans from his playing days at Oklahoma State and with the relocated Hornets. He seems to be a positive influence in the locker room, and despite his puny offensive production, the Thunder played some of their best basketball of the season in January with Des in the starting lineup. Des replaced Damien Wilkins as a starter for the Dec. 19th game against the Toronto Raptors. Prior to that game the team had lost 8 straight. As you may remember the Thunder got the win against the struggling Raptors that night. Over the next 6 or so weeks the team had some of it’s best success, but a closer look reveals there is more to the story.
Mason started 18 games during that stretch and the team was 8-10, which was a revelation for the team at the time. But during those 18 games, the Thunder also had it’s easiest schedule of the season. In those 18 games with Desmond as a starter, 10 of the teams we matched up against were sub .500 at the time, and 11 of the games were at home. It should also be noted that in the run up to that win against Toronto, the Thunder had been very competitive, almost getting wins despite Brooks experimenting with Wilcox in the starting lineup for 5 games and Petro for three; so there was a ton of roster changes during this time. Also, after the win against Toronto with Des as the starter, the Thunder lost five consecutive games.
As a the starting shooting guard, Des shot 43% from the field and a stinky 56% from the line; he never attempted a three pointer. He tallied 6.8 points and 4.2 rebs in 29 minutes. His numbers as a starter weren’t terribly different from his overall season numbers. Offensively, Desmond was very poor this year as a shooting guard, his eFG% on his jumpers outside of the paint is .285. Nearly all of his points come from post ups near the basket or transition baskets; he misses nearly 3 out of every 4 jumpers he takes that are more than a few feet from the hoop. His points per shot (Pts/fga) is an anemic 1.03. For every shot he took, he accumulated just a bit over a point (Damien Wilkins is just about the same at 1.02). His inefficient scoring is the product of him not making (or attempting) any threes and being a poor free throw shooter. As a reference, Thabo Sefolosha’s points per shot was 1.11, Weaver’s was 1.21 and Livingston’s was 1.19. With so much of Desmond’s offense being generated by his athleticism, his looming 32nd birthday and recent knee surgery are causes for concern.
Defensively, Mason was very effective force. The Thunder allowed 3.4 points less per 100 possessions when he was on the court. Also, our opponents shot 48.9% eFG when Desmond was on the court as opposed to 52.3% when he was not. Defensively he has the size and strength to guard shooting guards and small forwards, and plays a physical brand of defense, putting his body on the opponent. Some of his quickness has gone with his age, and maybe more still after his knee injury; Mason isn’t able to stay in front of the speed burners of the league, but he often times made up for it with blocks from the back side or at the rim.
Desmond is an unrestricted free agent. His average salary for the last five seasons has been $6.45 million dollars; he earned $5.3 million this year with the Thunder. We all know that our G.M. is shrewd with the dollars. With Thabo and Weaver under contract next season at a combined $3.6 million dollars, and the Thunder likely to add a wing player in the draft, Desmond’s return to the Thunder is not a good bet. With Thabo and Weaver and Mason, and a draft pick, plus potentially Shaun Livingston all wanting minutes at the 2 and 3 (and Weaver and Livingston at the 1 also) it’s very likely that Mr. Presti simply tells Desmond that he will have to take a reserve role with the team, and a commensurate salary to go with it- as in a deep discount for his services.
Desmond’s fate with the Thunder rests heavily on the forthcoming decision made by another free agent: Damien Wilkins
Damien Wilkins: odds for returning 50%
To me, Damien and Desmond’s fates are sort of linked. You can add Damien to the above list of guys who would like to get minutes at the 2 or the 3 next season, but he too has a unique situation in that he has a player option for next season. Next season will be the 5th and final year of a 5 year $15 million dollar deal he signed after the ’04/’05 season. Believe it or not, he was somewhat of a hot commodity back then, filling in nicely for an injured Rashard Lewis at the end of the season and in the playoffs that year. He was a restricted free agent and the T-Wolves signed him to an offer sheet, which the Sonic management matched. The contract had player options in the fourth and fifth seasons to protect Damien in case he became a breakout player, in which case he could opt out and sign a bigger deal. It has worked out the opposite for the Sonics/Thunder. He’s become a boat anchor that didn’t exercise his option, and may not this year either.
If Damien surveys the NBA landscape and listens to “his people”, he will surely not exercise his option and become a free agent. He would have to hope to catch on with a team, then likely make the team in training camp and almost assuredly take a pay cut from the $ 3.3 million he would get for riding the pine with the Thunder. Add to that, he is coming off a terribly stinky offensive season (his worst as a pro) where he shot just .362 on his field goals and his already mentioned 1.02 points per shot.
The rub for Damien may be his ego. He is likely a fierce competitor and as such, he wants to be on the court. Will he be able to resist the urge to take a pay cut, but with a promise to get some minutes somewhere else? He had his 29th birthday this season and he’s not getting any younger.
We all know what Damien does, he shoots the ball; not necessarily very well, but he shoots a lot when he is in the game. He has the 6th highest usage % and 6th highest FGA/36 on the team, but only the 11th highest eFG%. He’s basically been trying to shoot his way out of a shooting slump whenever he’s been in the game. He hasn’t been a consistent or effective defender since his rookie season, instead looking to take the ball out of the net to launch another jumper. The Thunder offense is 6.4 points per 100 possessions worse when he is in the game. On defense, the defensive rating is about the same whenwhether he is in or out of the lineup, but when he is in, the opponents shoot 54.3% eFG as opposed to 50.8% eFG when he is on the bench.
Damien’s fate for next season and beyond is totally in his own hands. He can either opt out and become a free agent, or he can exercise his option and stay with the team. All Presti can do is wait. The way I read the rules (which are complicated), Damien has until July 1st to make his decision. The NBA draft this year is June 25th, so this might have some effect.
Essentially, Damien would be crazy to walk away from a guaranteed $3.3 million dollars. But if he does, I think it makes it more likely that the team finds room to bring back Desmond Mason. If he does exercise his option and comes back to the Thunder he will be trade bait all season, along with Earl Watson, each being in their last season under contract. If Damien chooses to come back, I don’t see how the Thunder keep Mason, Wilkins, Thabo, Livingston and Weaver, plus a likely wing in the draft without a big trade in the off season.
I think for Damien, it comes down to which is greater, his common sense or his ego.
Malik Rose: odds for returning: 35%
Malik was a nice surprise for the Thunder after the trade deadline deal that brought him out of Purgatory. He provided some bulk down low that we haven’t had on the team in some time. He played pesky defense and still has a surprising amount of game left. He spent some time in the high post in Brook’s offense and didn’t shoot the jumper especially well, but he put the ball in the basket much better as he got closer to the rim. His points per shot was a respectable 1.11. The team offense efficiency was essentially unchanged whether he was in the game or out. He is a good free throw shooter and he gets fouled at a decent rate. He was a somewhat light rebounder during his time with the Thunder (especially offensive boards), but mostly because he was away from the basket in the high post. His defensive rebound rate was decent.
Defensively Rose was a pest to opposing players. The team defensive efficiency was 5.4 points per 100 allowed better when he was on the court. He could hold his position in the post and he wasn’t afraid to body up. He was effective at slapping the ball away from the opposing player in the post.
Rose is a consumate vet and a positive locker room presence. His role was perfect for him as the 8th or 9th man in the rotation and 4th big man in the rotation. His situation may come down to a numbers game for him; as in, can he hope to get some minutes next year? I feel pretty good about his ability to contribute with the Thunder or any other team. I think he is likely to be able to find a job in the NBA next season, but I think the question for him is whether or not he can be part of the rotation. This article in the Oklahoman suggests (but doesn’t actually quote Malik as saying such) that Malik would like to catch on with a contender next season.
Based on the article it seems reasonable to guess at Malik’s odds of returning at about 25% or less, but one thing just doesn’t make sense. He came to the Thunder in a deadline deal for Chris Wilcox straight up. Both Power Forwards were on expiring deals and both players were out of the rotation. Yet Presti makes this deal when Malik’s contract is actually more expensive than Wilcox’s. It tells me that Presti values a deep bench big who is a “character guy” more than a younger guy who may have more game. For that reason, I leave the door open to Malik coming back a bit more than I would have. This wasn’t just a salary dump; if it was just about the salary, he could have just bought out Wilcox or kept him and let his deal expire. No, Presti wanted this guy.
Robert Swift: odds for returning 10%
Robert Swift had moments. He had moments where you caught a glimpse of what a dominant big man in the middle can do for a team. He played some tough, inspired ball this year against Orlando and Dwight Howard, and a few nights later against Yao and the Rockets. He would have a great block or a grab a tough rebound and then he would look like he was ready to puke up a lung.
Robert was never given enough time to prove what he can do. But by the same token, minutes need to be earned, and Robert is just too slow of foot to be any good for what our team needs: somebody to protect the basket. He can get up for a block, but it is like watching it in slow motion. He does have a big body, and he’s not afraid to put it on somebody, but he doesn’t get enough stops. His rebounding is really pretty unimpressive compared to his height and the fact that he never leaves the paint. His offensive rebounding rate is 10th on the team, his defensive rebounding rate is below that of Johan Petro, and his total rebounding rate is below that of Petro, Wilcox and Collison.
The team was just 1.4 points per 100 better offensively when he was on the court, but the defense was 2.5 points worse. All Robert really needed to be able to do was to protect the rim to get more minutes, but he can’t rotate to help fast enough and he doesn’t look like he’s in shape enough to stay on the court.
Robert will absolutely have a job in basketball next year, but his only value to this team is as a 3rd center. Coach Brooks’s actions speak loudly, he would rather use just about anybody than Swift in the rotation.
With the dearth of quality big men available, it would behoove Robert to move on and get a fresh start somewhere else. He’s a product of Wally Walker and Rick Sund, not of Presti, and why would Presti keep him around when his coach doesn’t want to use him, and he can get somebody cheaper to sit the end of the bench and be a just in case big, like last year’s second rounder Devon Harden, who actually does accel at defense.