At draft time, it’s always “best available” versus “team needs.” Obviously, ideally you’d like to combine the two things, drafting the best available player that also happens to fill a team need. That’s why having the No. 1 pick is always ideal.
With the Thunder drafting No. 12, there will be some good players on the board, but they’ll also have to have an idea of what they’re after as well. To me, it’s pretty clear the Thunder should be in the “team needs” camp because they’re an unusual lottery team. While the other 13 are mostly average to bad rebuilding teams, the Thunder are a 60-win title contending monster. They aren’t looking to hit that home run on a player that can turn the franchise around. They’re just looking for another piece to the puzzle.
So, what are the Thunder’s needs?
(Note: I’m not really a believer in positionality in basketball, but for this exercise, I’m going to go position by position.)
Point guard: Check. Russell Westbrook is signed through 2017 and backup Reggie Jackson is signed through 2016. Here’s a catch though: If Scott Brooks comes around and figures out that Jackson is more than simply a “backup point guard” and starts using him as the team’s true sixth man and more of a combo guard, that could sort of create a need.
But we’re just getting hung up on particulars here. “Backup point guard” is really nothing more than a player that can let your starter rest. In truth, James Harden was the Thunder’s backup point guard for a lot of his time in OKC. There is potential need for a third point guard, but that’s something that could be addressed with a veteran minimum contract (i.e. the honorary Kevin Ollie role) or maybe with the No. 29 pick.
Need Level: 4/10
Shooting guard: This gets a little tricky. Thabo Sefolosha will be on an expiring contract next season. He’s 29 and while still playing at an extremely high level, specifically on the defensive end. Behind Thabo is Jeremy Lamb, who the jury is still out on. He’s just 20 and while it’s completely unfair to make a judgment of him based on his rookie season, it’s unknown if the team feels he’s a) ready to contribute next season and/or b) is part of the future vision of the team.
If Lamb is indeed ready and part of the long-term vision, shooting guard becomes much less of a need. The Thunder could still use a defensive wing stopper — something Victor Oladipo would be a perfect fit for — but that could be hard to single out. I would assume Thabo’s going to get re-signed anyway. He’s making $3.9 million next season and with him turning 30, I doubt someone will hit him with an offer the Thunder would be uncomfortable matching.
Back to Lamb: I’ve already mentioned this, and I think it’s still a possibility that the Thunder attempt to move up for that guard. If they don’t feel like Lamb is the player to “replace” Harden, or at least mature into a bench scorer, then they have a major need here. Ben McLemore seems attainable if the Thunder truly want him, same with Oladipo potentially. As it stands currently, the Thunder don’t have a need at shooting guard. But depending on internal feelings, they might.
Need Level: 5/10
Small forward: Pretty damn set there. Kevin Durant is signed through 2016 and considering Brooks sees Perry Jones III as his backup, the Thunder don’t have a lot of room for another. I don’t think it’s out of the question to strengthen the position with a versatile player that could play alongside Durant, especially when KD moves up to power forward. Jones would seem to be that guy and with Dario Saric dropping out of the draft, there aren’t a lot of great small forward options. Unless you go with a vet like Paul Pierce — who might get bought out — in that role. Very unlikely, though.
Need Level: 1/10
Power forward: Serge Ibaka is signed through 2017, Nick Collison signed through 2015, Perry Jones signed through 2017, Durant signed through 2016. That said, the Thunder still are somewhat thin at power forward, mostly because Ibaka might actually be the team’s center of the future, or at least in a lot of lineup combinations. If that’s the vision, then the Thunder need a new power forward. I don’t think the smallball revolution is going to catch on so much that Durant is a full-time 4, but Ibaka could see a lot more time at center either alongside Collison or another big.
And there’s also the fact that Collison has just two seasons left on his deal and he’ll be 34 when it ends. But then again, Nick Collison gets a lifetime contract and he’ll be just as good when he’s 64 as he is when he’s 34 so it doesn’t really matter. (Cries into a pillow.)
Need Level: 7/10
Center: The most unsettled position by far. Kendrick Perkins is signed through 2015 and will be 30 when that deal is up, playing on two surgically repaired knees. Hasheem Thabeet is also signed through 2015, but next season and the season after aren’t guaranteed. Daniel Orton is in the same situation. Collison is sort of a center, and same goes for Ibaka.
Center is easily the Thunder’s biggest need. They tried to address it three drafts ago with Byron Mullens, but that didn’t work out. Then again two drafts ago with Cole Aldrich, but that didn’t work out either. There’s so much talk about needing a “low post scorer” but I think that noise is overrated. Because really, how many teams have a center that’s actually a “low post scorer?” The Pacers, Jazz, Lakers, Grizzlies, Kings, Nets and I think that’s really it. The Spurs sort of have two, but they’re more inside-out and same goes for the Warriors and a few other teams. A lot of teams aren’t drafting and developing traditional back-to-the-basket players anymore. Versatility and the ability to play in space is the thing now.
(In reverse, that also sort of diminishes Perk’s value, doesn’t it? There are fewer and fewer traditional matchups for him, it seems. However, not having the ability to defend a player that can score in the paint is a major Achilles heel for any team. You saw it almost cost the Heat against the Pacers.)
In reality, the Thunder’s front line is kind of thin. They certainly need a big man for the future, someone to potentially turn over a starting role to in a few years. The Thunder will likely have some decent choices at No. 12 to fill that need — Steven Adams, Rudy Gobert, Cody Zeller, etc — and they also will likely have the luxury of being patient with that player. (Though that’s going to frustrate some and immediately declare OKC’s pick a Aldrich-esque bust.)
At this present moment, the Thunder don’t need to draft a new starting center, because unless they truly hit a home run, the guy they take won’t be that at least for a couple of years. But the interior is quietly thin, and only getting thinner. If there’s a hole that could be filled in the draft, it’s here.
Need Level: 8.5/10
If we’re talking needs, I’d rank them like this: 1) center/big; 2) playmaking guard; 3) shooting (literally, a guard that can shoot) guard. We might get a better sense of what the Thunder are thinking as the workouts play out, but we know this so far: The Thunder have worked out Steven Adams (a big man) and Sam Presti has personally traveled to Europe to scout Rudy Gobert (a big man). It would seem the Thunder are leaning that way.