Picked: Cameron Payne (14th overall draft pick), Dakari Johnson (48th overall)
Traded for: Randy Foye, 2018 second rounder (unlikely to convey)
Signed: Nazr Mohammed
Hired: Billy Donovan
Traded: Jeremy Lamb, Perry Jones, D.J. Augustin, Steve Novak, two 2016 second rounders, one 2019 second rounder
Outside of the coaching change, this season has been nearly as quiet as the 2013/14 season was. The last 12 months would appear to demonstrate the front office has settled back into a patient confidence in its long-term approach, stabilizing its roster movement into steady moves consisting primarily of re-upping and extending players already in the team’s plans (Enes Kanter, Kyle Singler, Steven Adams, Andre Roberson, Mitch McGary). The team also officially moved on from Jeremy Lamb, who failed to fully reboot his career in Charlotte.
Billy Donovan was hired to get the team over the hump that Scott Brooks couldn’t. After a 2014/15 season lost to injury, the targeted hump was presumably the 2013/14 Western Conference Finals loss, when the Spurs eliminated the Thunder with some breathing room. It’s too early to definitively judge Donovan as a fit, even for this season. He could very well break out some hump-transcending tricks in the playoffs. But he hasn’t been an improvement from Brooks thus far. While Brooks consistently got great defense out of this team, Donovan has played pick-your-poison with painfully limited players while desperately trying to stay above league average on that side of the ball. The Thunder offense has been moderately better under Donavan, but that has hinged as much on the continued ascension of Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant among the game’s greats as it has on any minor improvements to the offense’s flow. Whether this is more a condemnation of the rookie coach or a roster chained to Enes Kanter and Dion Waiters is in the eye of the beholder.
With the coach of the future in place and a barren future draft cupboard, the Thunder badly needed to hit on their lottery pick. They appear to have done just that, finding a point guard in Cameron Payne who is already an impact player. Payne is in the mold of Reggie Jackson, with some give and take in their comparables (better shooter, smaller frame, even dancer). The acquisition of Randy Foye halted Payne’s growth as a secondary ball-handler in favor of a veteran on the slide, reversing Payne’s earlier promotion over D.J. Augustin. Foye is an offensively-challenged inversion of the backup sieve that Augustin was, the kind of poison Donovan and/or Sam Presti clearly prefer at this juncture.
Donovan’s reluctance to rely on a rookie PG for a championship run isn’t startling. The problem isn’t that conventional aversion to leaning heavily on raw players in critical stretches, it’s that the Thunder have continually missed on the wing depth needed to mitigate so many of their problems. We’ve traced the shrinking perimeter talent in prior editions, and things haven’t gotten better in 2015/16. We don’t know if Presti pursued Courtney Lee or how receptive Memphis would have been to dealing him to OKC, but the Thunder had more to offer than the Hornets gave for the two-way guard at the trade deadline. Even though Lamb looks to have hit his ceiling as an 8th man, OKC would have been better off keeping him than parting with multiple picks and players to move and eventually replace him with someone like Foye.
In the blink of an eye, the Thunder morphed from an asset-compiling rebuild to a contender staking its identity on a very particular (and controversial) vision of long-term team-building. It’s impossible to give a final grade to the Thunder’s roster management post-Harden, especially with Durant’s free agency up in the air. However, we have seen enough to reach some conclusions:
- Despite some hiccups, this roster is shaped according to plan.
- Despite much talent, this roster is still short on depth.
- Despite exceptional drafting and development, this team struggles to retain its talent or recoup value when that talent goes away.
- Despite reaching the Finals way ahead of schedule, the Thunder have had both health and transactions break badly enough to jeopardize their return to the promised land.
In a vacuum, every move we’ve analyzed was at least passably understandable, but it doesn’t require perfect hindsight to spot poor decisions that could have been avoided. There are outstanding ifs and buts that could completely recast this entire period. If Durant and/or Westbrook leave, the Thunder’s missteps will be glaring. We also know enough of the Warriors’ dirty laundry to understand that a franchise’s potential isn’t doomed by swings and misses.
So the team stares down what could be its last sliver of a championship window, playing the hand it went all-in with years ago: Durant, Westbrook, and an uneven mix of complementary parts. We’ll know soon—as soon as this summer—if it was a winner or a loser all along.