Onward and upward: Looking towards free agency

And now for the next trick. But don’t worry, I don’t think free agency is near as stressful and draft time. Especially when you’re a team that’s got very specific needs and the market doesn’t have a whole lot of drop-everything-and-sign-him type of players. So what’s the plan for free agency?

Sam Presti isn’t looking for the quick fix. He’s still looking to build long term. Which is something you may not appreciate next year, but you will in five. Reader Chas said it perfectly: “One playoff run is nothing compared to 8-10 stellar seasons where we are always in contention.” I think Presti and Co. have that exact same mindset. There’s no pressure to win and win big now. Everyone knows it’s a process and this organization is in no huge hurry. Which is a smart way to build.

The free agency signing period starts at midnight and with a little money in the piggy bank, some feel like this is a chance for Sam Presti to prove his worth again. There’s some good players out there that are looking to get paid – Trevor Ariza, Carlos Boozer, Paul Millsap, Lamar Odom, Hedo Turkoglu, Ben Gordon. There’s not a ton of top-tier talent, but there’s enough to pay attention to.

But I’m not so sure Presti will be doing much of anything. I’m sure he’s got his eye on a few players, but right now, he could live with the current roster. Of course it could and should be improved, but Presti appears to be the type of guy that likes to do that through the draft and through smart, sensible trades. Look at his summer free agent signing history:

  • Signed guard C.J. Miles to an offer sheet.

That’s it. That’s all he’s done in summer free agency in two years as GM. Now he’s pulled a bunch of small signings like Chris Alexander and Derrick Byers for training camp, signing Kyle Weaver, inking guys like Eddie Gill and Ronald Dupree for 10 days and also of course signing Nenad Krstic last winter. But he’s not the type of GM that’s shown to jump into free agent waters and make a big splash. At least not yet.

Oklahoma City doesn’t really need a big name player. The keys to the car have been turned over to Kevin Durant, Jeff Green, Russell Westbrook and now James Harden. While a Carlos Boozer or Paul Millsap would obviously help right now, signing one of those two could set you back for your long term plans. You’ve got to let your existing parts develop and turn into your breadwinners. One bad free agent signing where you overpay for a player because he had a good postseason can set your franchise back years or leave you scrambling to dump the salary (see: Elton Brand, Philadelphia 76ers). It can decimate your cap room and handcuff you from making solid trades that improve your team. It turns you from a buyer to a seller, even if you’re in the playoff hunt (also see: New Orleans Hornets). And I just don’t think that’s Presti’s way. Maybe it is and maybe he’s got an offer sheet all filled out for Paul Millsap, but I’m just not so sure.

The Thunder needs complementary pieces, not a big star to stick in the middle. This team is basically close to being built. It’s just a matter of time before the parts grow up and turn their skill and talent into winning. While the Thunder can obviously improve in different areas, signing someone to a four-year, $50 million contract doesn’t necessarily do that. But if Presti does see a guy like Millsap worth the price tag, then I’ll just have to chalk that up to his vision for the team. If you can get a guy like that for $6-8M per, then go for it. But we all know that’s probably not going to be happening.

One huge hole the Thunder roster had last year was a quality scoring option at 2-guard. A guy that could hit a mid-range shot, slash and create for other players and hit an open three. James Harden supposedly has filled that need. So you can take guys like Ben Gordon, Allen Iverson and Nate Robinson off your wish list. If you even had them on it to start with. Another hole was some scoring off the bench. That need is still there, depending on where Harden plays. But who knows, D.J. White and Kyle Weaver may be able to provide some of that. They were just rookies last year you know and White only played seven games. That’s the thing, there’s a lot of bodies on this roster. Even guys like Serge Ibaka and DeVon Hardin haven’t been forgotten about. So if Ibaka could be a quality big man in this league, what’s the point of inking Millsap (or someone like him) to a multi-year, mega-money deal?

Here’s a stab at what the rotation depth chart the Thunder could have come opening night:

PG – Westbrook/Livingston/ Watson
SG– Sefolosha/ Harden/ Weaver
SF– Durant/ Sefolosha/ Weaver
PF– Green/ Collison/ White
C – Krstic/ Collison/ Mullens

Could that depth chart be better? Sure. But how much of it based on what’s already there improving?  If four of those guys are for sure in OKC’s long term plans and guys like Thabo, Collison, Krstic and D.J. White are potentially long term players, there’s not a ton of leverage to go out and add two or three guys. So what positions could the Thunder look to improve in free agency this summer? The cap room is there to make a deal or two, but will they? If the roster’s just about full, what do you do?

That’s why you’re looking at adding selective pieces. A quality backup/starting big man that can rebound and block shots. A dead-eye shooter off the bench that can stretch defensive and provide a little offense. Really, that’s it. That’s the major needs. And while they’re probably a few years off from being there, those holes could have been filled by the drafting of Robert Vaden and B.J. Mullens. Heck, White and Weaver could be those players anyway. That’s why it’s hard to say if OKC will do anything this free agent season. A lot of it depends on how Presti views his youngsters.

But for now, Presti could target players that can fill those roles until his youngsters get there, assuming they ever do. But Presti doesn’t have to do that. He has the ability to, but if the price isn’t right he’s not going to jeopardize re-signing his cornerstone players just so he can ink a backup center or long-range bomber. If this team were a Carlos Boozer away from contending for a title, Presti would probably pull the trigger and spend big, no doubt. But its not. So there’s no need to hurry. I think the fans are willing to wait and as a result, the payoff could be fantastic. There’s a lot of players in this league and missing out on a backup center isn’t the end of the world. For the right price I think a guy like Marcin Gortat is a great fit. But there’s no sense in overpaying for a 20-25 minute a night guy. You just have to make sure your return is worth the cost.

I wouldn’t expect anything to blow your socks off this summer. There’s some big names out there and I’m sure Presti will prod and poke to see what he can get, but I doubt anything major will be done. Free agency for the Thunder is equally as important as the draft, but it may be more about cutting ties and freeing room than it is about bringing a bunch of new players. Don’t forget, as of midnight tonight, Robert Swift, Desmond Mason and Malik Rose come off the books as well. And I’m thinking it’s unlikely to see any of those three re-sign with Oklahoma City. So Presti will have a little spending money to play with and I think he’ll look to sign one, maybe two players that will fit in and fill a need. But even that’s maybe a stretch.

Presti views the trade deadline as his free agency where he can deal expiring contracts to other teams and get a good player in return that’s already been signed. It’s his way around free market capitalism and his way to get a guy with a reasonable contract. Instead of fighting and bidding against other teams, he gets his guy for a price he likes and for a term he’s comfortable with. It’s incredibly smart management.

The point is, it’s unlikely right now for the Thunder to do a cannonball into the free agency pool. Presti is a guy that prides himself on small, calculated shrewd moves. It wouldn’t shock me if the Thunder doesn’t do anything in free agency. Patience is the plan for Presti and he’s taking his time to build this team for long term contention. And you’ll thank him for that in a couple years.