As each NBA team is eliminated from contention for the 2016-17 title, The Washington Post will look ahead to what they have in store for this offseason. The series continues with the Oklahoma City Thunder, which was eliminated by the Houston Rockets in the first round of the playoffs.
2017 draft picks
First round: Their own (No. 21 overall).
Second round: None.
2017-18 salary cap space (with projected $102 million cap)
None. (Nine players with $107.6 million in guaranteed contracts; two draft picks worth $2.7 million, $2.4 million in stretch payments to Ronnie Price). Doesn’t include a team option for Jerami Grant and a non-guaranteed contract for Semaj Christon.
2017 free agents
PG Norris Cole, PF Taj Gibson, PF Nick Collison, SF Andre Roberson (restricted).
Five questions to answer
1. Will Russell Westbrook be willing to sign a contract extension with the Thunder?
When Westbrook chose to commit to a contract extension last summer, he was lauded for his willingness to stick with the franchise in the wake of Kevin Durant’s departure for Golden State. But here’s what Westbrook really did: get himself a several-millions-dollar raise while agreeing to stay for essentially only this past season and the chance to see how things played out with the Thunder without Durant.
After likely winning the league’s MVP award, averaging a triple-double for a season and leading the Thunder to the playoffs, Westbrook has a choice to make: truly commit to Oklahoma City for the long-term by taking a five-year contract extension worth over $200 million this summer or decline it and set up the opportunity to enter unrestricted free agency in 2018.
Make no mistake: If Westbrook declines, the chances of him playing another game in a Thunder jersey drop virtually to zero. Thunder General Manager Sam Presti isn’t going to allow Westbrook to potentially leave as a free agent in the same fashion Durant did this past summer. Losing one franchise-changing superstar for nothing was bad enough. But losing two? That would be truly unprecedented.
The expectation is that the Thunder will meet with Westbrook at the start of free agency and offer him that five-year extension. If he takes it, he’ll solidify himself as the face of the franchise, and the hub around which Presti will try to reconstruct a championship contender. But if Westbrook isn’t willing to commit, it would almost certainly set off a frenzied bidding war for Westbrook’s services — and, in doing so, give Presti the chance he didn’t have with Durant: to get something in return for a departing star.
2. Can Victor Oladipo and Steven Adams become full-fledged Westbrook sidekicks?
In trading for Oladipo and then inking him and Adams to significant contract extensions last offseason, Presti made it clear he was buying into Oladipo and Adams becoming long-term pieces next to Westbrook as the core of the next contending version of the Thunder. The results in their first season, though, have left that outcome in doubt.
That’s not to say Oladipo and Adams were bad; far from it. But Oladipo’s numbers were right in line with where they were each of the prior two seasons in Orlando (15.9 points, 4.3 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 44 percent shooting, 36 percent from three), while Adams saw modest jumps (11.3 points and 7.7 rebounds in roughly 30 minutes a games) but didn’t come close to the potential all-star some — this space included — felt he could potentially be this season.
If Westbrook stays in OKC, he, Oladipo and Adams will combine to make around $80 million per year through 2021. That would mean the Thunder are locked into this core for the next several years — and if Oladipo and Adams don’t make further improvements, it’s hard to see how the ceiling for such a core goes higher than this year’s first-round exit.
3. Can Oklahoma City keep Taj Gibson?
Gibson is a good, solid player — the kind any team would like to have. A durable player who can rebound, defend and reliably hit a midrange jumper, he’s a versatile big who can switch back and forth between playing power forward and center.
Adding Gibson was a big upgrade over rookie Domantas Sabonis, and getting both him and Doug McDermott for Cameron Payne was a nice move by Presti at the trade deadline. With that said, keeping Gibson — despite his fitting on Westbrook’s timeline — seems unlikely, if not impossible.
Why? It’s hard to see Oklahoma City committing to spending heavily in luxury tax payments, given how the Thunder have operated in the past. And with OKC already just a few million below next season’s tax line with Andre Roberson’s contract still to be resolved and several empty roster spots to fill, giving Gibson the, say, $15 million or so a year he’ll be looking for over the next three or four seasons seems like a price too steep for Thunder ownership to sign off on.
4. How much money will Andre Roberson get in restricted free agency?
Roberson showed his defensive prowess while guarding James Harden during Oklahoma City’s first-round series loss to the Houston Rockets. He showed how dismal he can be on the other end of the court in the same series.
This is the conundrum Roberson presents, and what will make his impending restricted free agency so fascinating to monitor. In a league where teams are trying to find every way to play small and be flexible defensively, Roberson provides that in spades. But his lack of offense, which includes being a poor free throw shooter in addition to struggling to hit threes, makes paying him a significant salary a complicated endeavor.
At 25, with the defensive gifts he possesses, Roberson will likely get an eight-figure salary for the next four years, either from Oklahoma City — likely — or elsewhere. And if Roberson can ever even become just a negative offensively, instead of a black hole, paying him that contract will easily have been worth it.
5. Will Enes Kanter be on the move — and what could he fetch in a trade?
This goes back to the question about Gibson’s future. Kanter, in today’s NBA, is a difficult fit. While Kanter is a quality offensive option, he’s a defensive liability of the highest order, as the Rockets proved to the point where Thunder Coach Billy Donovan was caught saying “Can’t Play Kanter” on the broadcast cameras while sitting on the bench during the series.
So, with the Thunder pushing up against the luxury tax and Kanter set to make $17.8 million this season with a player option of $18.6 million for next, will the Thunder try to move him this offseason? If so, would anyone want him?
Given the preponderance of centers around the NBA, it seems more likely that the Thunder would have to attach an asset to Kanter — possibly its 2017 first-round pick — to do so, which would go against how Presti approaches things. That’s why it seems more likely than not Kanter will remain with the Thunder next season, and Oklahoma City would then keep its fingers crossed Kanter opts out of that final year of his deal and eases some of its financial commitments.