The Oklahoma City Thunder woke up Tuesday morning with no upcoming game on their schedule. They're done. The Warriors completed the comeback everyone should have saw coming after falling behind 3-1 with their Game 7 victory Monday night, sending the Thunder into their biggest offseason in franchise history. I broke down what Kevin Durant faces with his free agency choice this summer, but the Thunder have to somehow pick up the pieces and move forward for both the short- and long-term future.
OKC has to figure out how to keep Durant, improve the team, create flexibility and manage the various doomsday scenarios that exist for the future. For a team with such a great season, it is not an easy position GM Sam Presti finds himself in, starting Tuesday after the fog of their collective disappointment dissipates.
Here's a look at the key elements of the Thunder's offseason, and where they go from here.
What does Durant's future hold?
So obviously, the big question about Oklahoma City's summer, and the one that everything else falls out as a consequence of, is what will Kevin Durant do? Durant's going to get max money, no matter where he goes, with a starting salary at roughly $25.9 million. If he wants to sign a five-year deal, he can, with Oklahoma City. If he wants to sign the max elsewhere, it's four years. If he wants to sign a one-year deal, he can. If he wants to sign a two-year deal ... you get the idea.
The most commonly accepted scenario is kind of a sucker punch for the Thunder. Consider that in Durant's contract year, they beat the 67-win San Antonio Spurs and pushed the Golden State Warriors to seven games, going up 3-1. In the pre-cap-explosion NBA universe, that's a no-brainer -- KD re-signs on a five-year deal. But if Durant signs a one-year deal for the max at $25.9, he's then eligible for the same deal next year with an even higher cap, starting at a staggering $35.8 million.
So there's just no way that Durant turns down an extra nearly $10 million, no matter how loyal he is to Oklahoma City. So the most likely scenario is that Durant returns on a "LeBron Deal" -- a two-year contract with a player option (for protection) in the second year. He can then opt out next year and return to free agency -- a belief shared by many NBA insiders, according to ESPN's Marc Stein.
All this great work the Thunder did, the fact that Durant has to feel like he's right there in terms of the title race? It's all for naught if they backslide next season. What if the Thunder get knocked out in the first round in a 4-5 or 3-6 matchup with the Spurs or Clippers? Or how about if they lose in the second round in five games because OKC's role players don't play as well?
In short, the Thunder haven't saved their future, they've just bought themselves time most likely.
Then again, there's still no guarantee Durant returns. He might leave if he simply wants a fresh start, or perhaps he succumbs to the temptation of securing what would be a near-automatic championship ring if he joined the Warriors. Even then, he's likely to secure a one-year deal for the same scenario mentioned above. That's the real issue that hurts the Thunder here. The CBA has built-in clauses that give the home team an advantage in re-signing their players, based on the amount of the annual raise and the length of the contract (five years vs. four). The cap explosion over the next two years due to the NBA's new TV deal, and the fact that the players' union rejected any attempt to "smooth" those raises have resulted in a situation where in reality, there is no financial incentive the Thunder can offer Durant in re-signing with them this year, because he needs the one-and-one.
The good money is on Durant staying in Oklahoma City for one year, but the most likely scenario remains that the Thunder will once again have to put together a postseason run good enough to convince him to stay. Durant may want to go for the whole "wine and dine" tour with free agency suitors, but if he chooses to re-sign for one year, expect that to go relatively quickly. He'll agree to a deal, but probably would not sign in ink for a while.
If Durant does sign for a max $25.9 million, that eats up most of the Thunder's cap space. They can and will go over the cap up to the projected $108M to $109M mark for the luxury tax. They can go over the cap to re-sign Durant by holding his Bird Rights. That gives OKC about $17 million in wiggle room. They're not going to go into the tax; it's not viable in OKC's market.
(Yes, yes, I know. If that's a problem why did they move the team from Seattle, if you want a championship team you have to pay for it? I get it, I've heard it all before. I'm just telling you the reality. The Thunder are unlikely to go into the tax, or if they do, significantly. They did go into the tax this year, but that makes it less likely they will next year given the nature of what's called the "repeater" tax under the CBA which is a whole other thing I'm not going to get into but you can read about here.)
So to sum up, OKC is likely to re-sign Durant on a one-year deal with an opt-out, be back in this situation next year, and will probably have around $17 million to play with when he in fact becomes a free agent in 2017.
The Dion dilemma
Durant's not the only free agent on the market for Oklahoma City. Dion Waiters cashed in big time on his contract year, coming up huge for Oklahoma City in the playoffs. He played with poise, confidence, made great passes, played great defense and accepted his role on a championship-caliber team. He's only 24, just entering the very earliest reaches of his prime.
Waiters has shown that he's not a max player (though that designation is largely meaningless in today's NBA and is based mostly on market availability and investor value -- what he means to the team that signs him) but he's also shown himself as invaluable to the Thunder. The problem is that the $17 million available is only barely above what will be a near-average first-year amount under the new cap. Will Waiters take a discount to stay with OKC? That doesn't seem likely. This is his first major contract, and you have to get paid on this one. Without him, the Thunder fall back to having a wing who can defend but can't shoot (Andre Roberson) and a wing that can shoot but can't defend (Anthony Morrow), and whatever Josh Huestis is.
So either the Thunder will need to clear some cap room to keep Waiters, or he could wind up taking off. The problem is that the Thunder need Waiters, but they also need a better version of Waiters. They're unlikely to get that, and they can't risk liquidating his money to pursue someone and then striking out. They don't reach the conference finals without Waiters. That's the reality. That dilemma will be difficult for them to sort out.
Problems at back-up point guard
If there's one thing that Billy Donovan really did poorly this season, it was fail to bolster OKC's backup point guard position. D.J. Augustin had been productive and proficient for the Thunder, but he slipped out of the rotation for Donovan in favor of rookie Cameron Payne. Eventually they traded Augustin to Denver, picking up combo-guard veteran Randy Foye, presumably, to make room for Payne.
Nope. Donovan instead played Foye over Payne for the final two months of the season. Then, after taking him out of the rotation and breaking his rhythm, Donovan tossed Payne back in against the San Antonio Spurs, only turning back to Foye after it became apparent the Thunder needed a guard on the floor who wouldn't have a panic attack when pressured on-ball. Foye stepped up and helped the Thunder get past San Antonio, but struggled against the Warriors' length and athleticism. But by that point, Donovan couldn't afford to turn back to Payne.
Payne could very well take steps forward next year, but the Thunder could use a veteran guard who can knock down shots to be ready just in case. Foye is a free agent. He'll be a cheap continuation option. Augustin might honestly have been perfect and likely would have helped against the Warriors. Much of this will come down to the Waiters decision. If Waiters goes elsewhere, the Thunder might use that money to add a combo-wing who can handle the way Waiters did. Eric Gordon might be an option here as a combo guard, even with his injury issues.
Solving the math problem
Zach Harper broke down the "Math Problem" for OKC in that their average 3-point shooters couldn't keep pace with the Warriors' perimeter onslaught after Game 7. Going forward, that's something they have to rectify. Westbrook either has to become a reliable 3-point shooter or reduce his attempts from deep. OKC needs more sharpshooters. They have Anthony Morrow, but he can't get minutes on account of his defense. They either have to get improved, consistent shooting from Roberson, who is unlikely to evolve into a Splash Cousin, or look to add it in free agency.
Outside of Gordon, Arron Afflalo might be the best shooting guard option to improve here. Afflalo shot 35 percent in 2015, and 38 percent in 2016. His value has dropped considerably and he might be interested in chasing a ring with OKC. Alan Crabbe (39 percent) is ideal, but he's a restricted free agent who the Blazers are unlikely to look to move.
They need to find shooters, but can't give up defense. That's a tough line for Sam Presti to walk.
An eye to the future
The Thunder don't have a draft pick currently, which is fine. They don't need another youngster with Payne and Huestis (and Mitch McGary).
But the way they are currently constructed is going to bulge at the seams next summer. They will have Enes Kanter on his big contract, conceivably Waiters on his deal, then have to pay (very likely) Kevin Durant, Westbrook, Steven Adams and Serge Ibaka, all of whom will be free agents if Durant signs the one-and-one. How do you balance going all-in to win a championship and validate this era with the fact that at some point you have to be aware of what happens down the line?
Does that mean possibly moving Ibaka, who hasn't been the same player since his 2014 injury, so that you can retain Adams next year? Does that mean hedging your bets in the event that Westbrook and Durant both leave at the same time? Or do you trudge ahead and say "We'll deal with those problems when we get there?"
It's a balancing act, but there are a number of scenarios where the Thunder window, as wide open as it seems after their incredible playoff run, simply closes with rapid velocity.