The Thunder agreed to sign guard Anthony Morrow to a three-year, $10 million deal on Saturday, the biggest free agency signing for the team since giving Nenad Krstic $15.8 million over three years.
Now, to some, that little fact is extremely aggravating. But if you’ve had a good grasp of the Thunder’s building strategy, it just illustrates the creative way Sam Presti has constructed his roster. A much more controlled financial approach using the draft and trade market, rather than falling into the feeding frenzy that is free agency.
But when the Thunder’s offseason began, they had a list of needs to work on. One, they needed to address some interior depth issues, and they did it at the draft, selecting Mitch McGary to be Future Nick Collison. They needed a third point guard, so they got a decent veteran on the cheap in Sebastian Telfair. And they needed some perimeter marksmanship, so they found one of the league’s very best sharpshooters in Morrow.
There was nearly a significant deviation from that plan though, when Pau Gasol unexpectedly wasn’t kidding around about being interested in the Thunder. The Thunder didn’t have much to offer the Spaniard, but with a player of that caliber, you do what you can. Instead, he picked the Bulls, a team that can offer him more money while still maintaining the chase for a championship. But the fever of acquiring Gasol got Thunder fans worked into a ruckus, with dreams of low post offense and slick big-to-big passing coming to OKC.
When word broke Friday night that the Thunder were out of the Gasol hunt, there was big time backlashing. They never do anything! They’re so cheap! They aren’t trying to win now! Nobody wants to sign in OKC! (OK, that last one might be somewhat true.) The typical angst and frustration was percolating. It’s natural to get your hopes up, but the Thunder didn’t lose Gasol. Because they never had him. There’s an important factor often forgotten in free agency: It’s a two-way street. You have to want a player, and that player has to want you back.
But as Saturday proved, the Thunder didn’t have their eggs only in the Gasol basket. They’ve been shopping the market this whole time, registering interest in a number of players, with Morrow being at the top of that list. Thing is, have you seen the market? Jodie Meeks at $6 million per. Ben Gordon at $4.5 million per. Gordon Hayward with the max. Jordan Hill getting $18 million over two years. It didn’t exactly pan out in the Thunder’s favor. When teams roster build through free agency by hoarding cap space, it makes things difficult. There’s something called “the winner’s curse,” where any time there’s an open auction for something, the winner will almost always overpay. That’s why the Thunder didn’t build their team through free agency. They did it through the draft and trades. Because of that, they’ve been able to control their finances a little better, avoiding the free-for-all of the open market. The kind of overspending you see in the NBA today parallels irresponsible spending you see from every day people. It’s a simple principle we’re all supposed to understand with our own bank accounts. You don’t mortgage your future for some shiny toy you just really want right now. Some teams are essentially maxing out their credit cards and headed for an ugly financial reality; the Thunder are on that Dave Ramsey plan.
Anthony Morrow does not equal Pau Gasol, but that doesn’t mean he’s still not a considerable addition. The Thunder are adding a career 43 percent 3-point shooter, and not just that, but Morrow has remained a consistently elite shooter during his six NBA seasons. He’s a player unlike any the Thunder have really ever had, a true specialist that spaces the floor and provides unique lineup options. There will be some sorting to be done with how the Thunder play rotationally, but however it shakes out, Morrow will be a valuable weapon. He has some defensive limitations, but that’s why they aren’t penciling him in for 36 minutes a night.
The Thunder are currently in the early stages of an offensive remodel, adding in a more systematic motion-based approach — we saw the infancy of it during summer league — and the idea is to produce more balance, namely in shots for players like Morrow. But even with that, just by the nature of the existing firepower, Morrow is going to get great looks. For example, Caron Butler, who is very much not a 3-point shooter by trade, attempted almost five 3s a game simply because he found himself open for a lot of shots. Hand Morrow those minutes, and those looks, and the Thunder should expect a better return on investment. (Note: In his limited time with the Thunder, Butler got 141 spot-up opportunities per Synergy — 108 of them 3s — and knocked down 52. Last season with the Pelicans, Morrow had 190 spot-up chances — 106 of them 3s — and hit 76 of them.)
My feeling is Morrow is strictly a bench piece, despite the loss of Thabo Sefolosha. The Thunder are really high on Andre Roberson and came away encouraged by his performance in Orlando. His defensive ability is already at a near elite level — seriously — but he’s always been a significant minus on the offensive end. He showed strides on that end of the floor going from oh-my-goodness-what-are-you-doing to not that terrible. His length and defensive versatility presents OKC a lot of options, one specifically being able to spell Durant on the defensive end as Roberson checks good perimeter players.
Then there’s Jeremy Lamb and Reggie Jackson. One of the big reasons the Thunder didn’t want to pursue other free agents is because they genuinely believe in them. They don’t want to compress the roster by adding pieces, regressing the development of both players last season. In hindsight, the signing of Butler was a mistake because it did exactly that to Lamb. At the time, the thinking was Lamb wasn’t ready and Butler’s veteran presence would be good for the postseason. With it not turning out that way at all, it just meant Lamb got his time cut and missed out on valuable postseason experience.
This Thunder offseason was really about checkmarks, and they’ve done a quality job now of it. They rolled the dice in some ways by stretching for Gasol, risking Morrow looking elsewhere as OKC attempted to recruit the Spaniard. Morrow drew interest from a number of teams, and even had a couple better offers than what the Thunder laid out. Had he sprung for one of those and the Thunder come up empty on Gasol, then you’d have a disappointing offseason to gripe about.
Instead, with just one little addition, the Thunder have had a pretty successful summer, and there’s still money to spend if they choose. They handed Morrow $3.3 million of their $5.3 million non-taxpayer mid-level exception, leaving about $2 million to spend if they want. In guaranteed salary they’re at around $72.5 million, but the expectation is to keep Telfair and probably dump Hasheem Thabeet. The market is pretty picked over now, but there’s for a vet minimum, there’s a player or two of interest still out there.
With Saturday’s signing, Presti released a bit of the tension building after missing on Gasol, but still, because of the hysteria around him, there’s this mindset of “that’s it?” floating around. Look, the Thunder only had an offseason budget of about $6 million. And that’s not because ownership is cheap and won’t pay the tax. That’s because of actual NBA salary cap rules. Where so much of the transactional frustration comes from is an inability or probably, unwillingness, to understand the rules. There are actual regulations in place that influence most of what the Thunder are trying to do. It’s not as simple as pay this guy, trade that guy, sign these guys.
It’s the same lesson every offseason: People love transactions. They get caught up in the frenzy of player movement and draw conclusions about a team that is still three months away from its first game of the season. They look around the league, see other teams making signings, and assume. It was this way in the summer of 2012 when the Lakers had their bonanza, it was this way last summer when the Rockets signed Dwight Howard while the Warriors landed Andre Iguodala, and it’ll be this way on and on and on.
This wasn’t a blockbuster move or something that guarantees championships for the next three years. In the same way the Thunder weren’t necessarily in some kind of a bind because they missed on Dorell Wright last summer, they wouldn’t have been in deep trouble had they come up empty on Morrow. Trusting on young players to develop and grow isn’t fun in July, but the front office isn’t trying to entertain you. They’re trying to piece together a roster under strict guidelines that can compete now, and for the future. They already have the big parts checked off — Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka and Reggie Jackson, for now — and they’re trying to cobble together the periphery pieces that best fit. Anthony Morrow is one of those, and a pretty good one at that.