|It was a good offseason in OKC by default. (Getty Images)|
I. How they finished 2012: The Thunder's season ended with their first and only four-game skid of the year. And what an unfortunate time to have it.
After winning Game 1 over the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals in fairly convincing fashion, Oklahoma City seemed to be in prime position to win a championship. They had homecourt advantage, they were playing a wounded Heat team and they were rolling with confidence.
But a miserable start to Game 2 really signaled the downfall of the Thunder in the Finals. OKC has a chance in the end of it and when a foul on LeBron James went uncalled late, the Heat had their split and a chance to win a title in Miami.
Which of course, they did. The Heat found big performances from unexpected places (Mario Chalmers, Shane Battier) while LeBron was his usual brilliant self. OKC came up short in Game 3, blew a big Game 4 lead and then got completely smoked in Game 5. The series never returned to Oklahoma City, and the Thunder watched an incredible opportunity slip through their fingers.
II. Needs entering the offseason: Essentially, nothing. The Thunder have been brilliantly built in a way that the only offseason move that really needs to be addressed is making sure the roster has at least 13 players on it.
Because the Thunder are mostly set. They've got Kevin Durant. They've got Russell Westbrook. James Harden, Serge Ibaka. They've got depth. They've got bit players. They've got talent, skill, size and speed. They've got pretty much it all.
The one thing they could use, mostly as a luxury, was a little extra versatility. Where the Thunder struggled most in the postseason were against skilled smallball lineups. OKC didn't have a good answer for stretch 4s, or LeBron (but who does?). Adding something that provided more options certainly wouldn't hurt. An stretch 4, a versatile forward that could allow Durant to remain at small forward while still maintaining good size and power.
III. The Draft: That aforementioned need? Boy, was it ever filled.
The Thunder drafted 28th, meaning they were at the mercy of most of the rest of the league. Mostly scraps is what they expected to be picking from and while, yes, worthwhile players have been picked in that spot, it's not exactly somewhere you can fill a need. The Thunder had three options: 1) draft and stash, 2) trade the pick or 3) hope to get lucky.
And as players came off the board, around the 23rd or 24th pick it kind of hit everyone: Holy crap, Perry Jones III is still available! The likely reason was that he was medically red-flagged right before the draft because of a meniscus issue in his knee. That, combined with fears over his motor and desire, had him free-falling.
All of those negatives were huge positives for the Thunder, though. Jones fell right into their lap at No. 28, and they walked away with not only a good player in the draft, but someone who has the chance to actually help them immediately.
Jones is a player of lottery skill level who dropped hard for various reasons, all of which didn't matter to the Thunder -- who, in turn, are an absolutely ideal fit for him. He gets to play and learn behind Durant, doesn't have nearly the same pressure of being a lottery pick on a rebuilding team, and very likely will find a valuable role on the floor for a contender. I'm sure he didn't love it as he sat uncomfortably waiting for his name to be called. But as he reflects, he's pretty fortunate with his position.
But in terms of fortunate, nobody more so than the Thunder.
IV. Free Agency: The big questions for Oklahoma City entering the offseason weren't about whom they would go get, but about whom they would keep. With extensions available for Ibaka and Harden, most of the offseason focus for OKC was on them, and any future luxury tax implications in keeping them.
The Thunder did have three expiring deals though in Derek Fisher, Nazr Mohammed and Royal Ivey. The Thunder let all three walk, bringing in former No. 2 pick and draft superbust Hasheem Thabeet, undrafted rookie Hollis Thompson from Georgetown and Oklahoma City native Daniel Orton, who hasn't fared well so far in his young career. The Thunder let six NBA championships rings, more than 2,000 games and 38 years of NBA experience walk and replaced them with two rookies and two draft busts. Essentially, the Thunder are betting on their existing vets and recent experiences to be enough to draw upon the always valued veteran leadership factor.
But back to the Ibaka/Harden thing: As you'd expect, operating against the common line of thinking, Sam Presti inked Ibaka to a four-year, $48-million extension that guarantees Oklahoma City at least five more seasons of Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka. With the potential opportunity to add Harden to that mix. That's a sustainable championship core right there.
Most approached OKC's main offseason question as an either/or situation, but the Thunder are not. They've never felt they were picking Ibaka or Harden, but more are trying to find the best possible way to keep both. And Ibaka's extension at least provides the opportunity. In a roundabout way, Ibaka gave the Thunder a discount by choosing to sign an extension now rather than wait until next summer where he likely would've received a max offer sheet from someone. It left the door open for an extension for Harden. With the amnesty ace in the hole still in Presti's pocket, OKC could come out of this thing smelling like roses.
V. Overall grade and accomplishments: A-
When you already have a championship-level roster in place and all you do is solidify the future of it and likely even improve it a bit, you're pretty much guaranteed a successful offseason.
The Harden question will continue to hang over the Thunder like a dark storm cloud until it gets done. For now, OKC seems to have the situation entirely under control. As calculated and meticulous as Presti is, you know he has this thing played out completely and has every number in mind that gives him the best opportunity to make it all happen. He pushed the button on Ibaka's extension not as making a decision between two players but as one that he felt will give the Thunder a great chance to keep both. No way he would've done it otherwise.
Yes, the Thunder did lose a very savvy veteran in Fisher, who was a solid playoff piece for them last season. But what some are missing is that the Thunder are replacing him with maybe the best backup point guard in the game in Eric Maynor. He blew out a knee early last season and will be ready for training camp. In a way, the Thunder added one of the top role players in basketball to their roster this season on a one-year deal. Not too bad.
Maynor gives the Thunder an incredibly deep and loaded bench. He's a wonderful change of pace to Russell Westbrook and even gives OKC the opportunity to play Westbrook off the ball some.
Thabeet is a low-risk move that saves the Thunder a little money. Instead of paying Mohammed a 14-year vet minimum, OKC gave Thabeet one on his three years of service. He's been a complete NBA failure, but the Thunder pride themselves on player development. They have always felt if they could get a player in their program, they can maximize his potential. Well, that's being put to the test now. Thabeet will likely open training camp as the third center as Cole Aldrich appears to be the backup to Kendrick Perkins. But if he can finally realize some of that talent, the Thunder will have big-man options if the future tax situation calls for them to amnesty Perkins.
And then you top it off with the addition of Jones, a perfect player who fills a need, has major talent and could be the steal of the draft. It seems the rich just got richer this offseason. It was good fortune for Jones to fall to them, yes. But the Thunder are really more like Harvey Dent: They make their own luck.