Reminder: We’re cutting out some of the transactional weeds, so you’ll have to do your own homework on some heavily-protected second round picks that changed hands in-season.
2014/15 In-season Moves
Traded for: Enes Kanter, Dion Waiters, Kyle Singler, D.J. Augustin, Detroit’s 2019 second rounder
Traded: Reggie Jackson, 2016 first round pick, 2017 first round pick (lottery protected), Lance Thomas, Kendrick Perkins, Grant Jerrett, Tibor Pleiss’s rights
Waived: Sebastian Telfair
Fired: Scott Brooks
As we explored last week, the Thunder rolled the dice on Reggie Jackson in the offseason. As his restricted free agency approached, this starkly contrast to their fold on James Harden under similar conditions. Despite a rash of injuries creating a huge need at point guard, the discontent between Jackson and the franchise never dissipated. While the Harden/Jackson situations were quite similar, the decision to max out, trade, or hang onto either as a lame duck weren’t identical. They’re different players with different value and different personalities. Harden and Scott Brooks maintain that he would have forever been happy in his reserve role (league insiders have long suggested this was not the case, for what it’s worth). This was certainly not true for Jackson, whose open ambition to be an SPG is still ruffling feathers in OKC.
The strained relationship with Jackson put Sam Presti on the prowl for replacement talent (if he wasn’t already). He traded for Dion Waiters in January, cashing in a first-rounder and a surprise role player (Lance Thomas) to get a shooting guard that had fallen completely out of favor with the LeBron-era Cavs. That move completed the freefall of the Thunder’s sixth-man role from Harden (hugely overqualified) to Jackson (moderately overqualified) to Waiters (reclamation project). It also left the Thunder with one more move to make, since they had moved on from their biggest chip while he was still on the roster.
Presti targeted another big as the central return for the mounting Jackson deal, and backed away from Brook Lopez and the Nets at the last minute to instead snag the younger, one-way Enes Kanter. The closer these retrospectives get to our rearview mirror, the harder it is to come to final conclusions about them, and the Lopez/Kanter choice is no exception. Lopez’s health hasn’t been an issue this season, and he re-signed in Brooklyn at about the same figure Kanter ended up getting from the Thunder. Kanter’s offense was clearly there from day one in OKC, and his defense was clearly not. That trend has continued into this season, while Lopez has continued to develop into a decent defensive center.
But the deal wasn’t for this season alone. Kanter is still just 23, and his restricted free agency removed the risk that the Thunder could lose him a summer after acquiring him, unlike the 28-year-old Lopez. Kevin Durant’s decision this upcoming offseason (and/or next) might ultimately determine if Presti made the right play. If Durant stays for the long-term, Kanter makes sense, assuming his defense ever improves. If KD leaves, then the Thunder’s rejection of a more proven center in his prime as their best player’s contract expired will look like another swing and a miss.
Unless Kanter becomes an x-factor in an unlikely championship run, though, the real issue with the Jackson trade was how little wing depth the Thunder secured. While the team had a growing Steven Adams, a still-great Serge Ibaka with expanded range, and potential in Mitch McGary, they overloaded in the frontcourt while the wing went to crap. Augustin was the serviceable but limited backup point that OKC expected, but Waiters and Kyle Singler have been two of the league’s worst perimeter players in their time with the Thunder. The front office was too comfortable with skilled one-way players like Andre Roberson and Anthony Morrow bolstered by would-be steady two-way guys around them, perhaps because the formula had worked to a different degree in the Thabo Sefolosha era.
After it all, the Thunder have made their bed with this roster. They have no first rounders in 2016 or 2017, and don’t project to have much if any cap space the next couple summers (when the rest of the league will be setting found cap dollars on fire). As tumultuous as the last few years were, they still took the basic shape that Presti envisioned when parting with Harden. While most fans condemned the Thunder as altogether cheap in 2012, a more complex philosophy had driven the move. Instead of hamstringing the team’s cap sheet pre-emptively, the GM aimed to gain breathing room and restock with more pieces whose contracts would expand as they entered their prime (and the Thunder’s prime). A.K.A. tax-paying time was supposed to be now, not then. Durant, Russell Westbrook, Ibaka, Adams, and Roberson have met that goal to a tee, but Presti is having to stake his model on more uncertain pieces around them like Kanter and Singler.
If the Warriors and Spurs didn’t exist, Presti’s master plan would be more celebrated, warts and all. The Thunder’s starting unit is easily the best in the game, and they would be title favorites most years. If injuries hadn’t plagued the team in previous years and they secured a title, same story. But it’s not a hypothetical league, and you live or die with how you play the odds. As the team came up short for the 2014/15 playoffs and Durant’s foot healed (again), it looked like the Thunder just didn’t have a winning hand anymore. Presti conceded as much by firing Scott Brooks a week after the Thunder’s season ended, giving us even more to talk about in the next retrospective.