State Of The Cap: Oklahoma City Thunder
By: Josh Redetzke
Oklahoma City Thunder
2009/10 Payroll: $41.7 million
Highlights: During their first season in Oklahoma City, the Thunder unleashed a trio of young building blocks that would be the envy of any rebuilding team, and in the draft they added to that trio. First and foremost is easily Kevin Durant. The few rough edges to his game were smoothed out nicely. His sub-par shooting percentages blossomed into 47.6% from the field and an excellent 42% from downtown this season. The light rebounding average was raised from 4.4 to 6.5. Did I mention he was sixth in the league in scoring at 25.3 per game? Overall, Durant’s talent level is starting to become scary, especially for a player just 20 years old.
Next on the list is fellow sophomore Jeff Green. Like Durant, Green raised his level of play quite well from one year to the next. He averaged 16.5 points, 6.7 boards, and 38.9% shooting at the three point line, all significantly higher than in his rookie season. While Durant gets all the attention, Green is quietly rounding into a very good NBA player.
Up last is Russell Westbrook. Many thought Jerryd Bayless would be the choice as the fourth overall pick, but Westbrook has proven that the Thunder made the right selection. He was fourth among rookies in scoring at 15.3 per game and he added 5.3 assists and 4.9 rebounds as well. Westbrook does have some things to work on, like his 39.8% shooting and 3.3 turnovers per game, but it’s common for young point guards to struggle in those areas. If he is anything like Green and Durant, his second year should be fantastic.
The Thunder will be well under the salary cap next season because of an abundance of expiring contracts. Malik Rose, Donyell Marshall, Desmond Mason, Joe Smith, amongst others, all add up to a savings of nearly $27 million. The cost cutting phase of their rebuilding is pretty much over.
Lowlights: The only poor contract on the roster belongs to point guard Earl Watson. After putting up just 6.6 points per game on terrible shooting (38% from the field, 23.5% beyond the arc), Watson is still owed $6.6 million next season. Normally a good backup at the point, Watson simply isn’t earning his paycheck with those kinds of numbers. At least he will soon be a tradable asset considering that is the final year of his contract.
Outside of Watson, there isn’t much to complain about. You could make a case for Chucky Atkins and Damien Wilkins. The two vets are set to make only $6.7 million combined next year, which isn’t very much. However, they rarely saw any action during the season and when they did, their play was just awful. Once again, the bright side is that their contracts expire after next season.
The Future: Oklahoma City didn’t win many games this year, but they are making all the right moves in their rebuilding process. Their draft picks have panned out nicely, and the additions of B.J. Mullins and James Harden fill holes at the center and shooting guard postions - especially Harden, who is exactly the type of heady talent the Thunder want to pair with their existing hyper-althletic core. Kevin Durant looks like a superstar that might be capable of carrying his team to a title someday. They have unloaded all their bad contracts and are well under the cap, especially in the summer of 2010 where they currently have just nine players under contract, and that is if you include player and team options. They also made some nice pickups during the season. In December, they signed Nenad Krstic to a small contract so he could help them out at center and he played decently well coming back from an injury last year. The Thunder also traded a late first round pick for Thabo Sefolosha, a young wing player from the Bulls. All of their decisions the past few years have given the team youth to develop and cap space to work with. They are now in position to turn the corner and become a winning franchise again.
One of the Thunder’s needs is at center, which is why they tried to trade for Tyson Chandler and signed Krstic. The Chandler deal failing was probably a blessing in disguise. It would have given the team a legit center, but Chandler was having his worst season in three years and missed a lot of time due to injury. On top of that, his contract is overpriced at $11.8 and $12.7 million over the next two years. B.J. Mullins isn't ready yet to play big minutes, but he could be a pleasant suprise in two years.
This is a team on the verge of a quick rise in the win column. After their dreadful 1-16 start, which got coach P.J. Carlesimo fired just 13 games into the season, the Thunder finished strong under Scott Brooks, going 10-14 in their last 24 games. That isn’t exactly setting the world on fire, but it’s a start. Oklahoma City must keep its patience and use their cap space wisely this summer and the next. If they do, the playoffs are very likely in the near future.