By Sean Highkin
Coming off a crushing defeat in the Western Conference finals, the Oklahoma City Thunder's next moves are profoundly important. With Kevin Durant coming up on free agency in just two years, and Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka hitting the market the following summer, Thunder GM Sam Presti will have to take a long, hard look at the roster he's put together and make some tough choices.
The last time Presti was faced with a summer of decisions this make-or-break was 2012, when he chose to sign Ibaka to a contract extension and trade James Harden to the Rockets. The deal was controversial at the time, and it remains divisive in 2014. The Thunder have hardly floundered since dealing Harden, remaining a title contender and one of the most dangerous teams in the West, but what Presti does going forward will go a long way in determining whether it was a misstep. The decision to keep Ibaka over Harden was crucial in shaping the Thunder's nucleus, but now, Presti's job is clear: Win a title in the next two seasons or risk losing that superstar core altogether.
Presti is now navigating the trickiest territory for a general manager. The Thunder are decidedly in win-now mode and want to compete for a championship as soon as possible, but winning is only part of the long-term goal. Presti's job won't get any easier until Durant and Westbrook commit for the long haul. Until then, even a move that seems logical on paper could backfire if it rubs one of his stars the wrong way. When Presti traded Harden, Durant was entering the second year of a five-year extension, and Westbrook's new deal was just kicking in. Two seasons later, those deals are drawing still closer to the finish line. The margin for error has never been lower.
In the immediate future, Presti and the Thunder will have to answer three questions to which the logical and emotional answers could be wildly different.
First, Presti has to determine whether Scott Brooks is the right coach for this team going forward. Brooks has taken widespread criticism for being slow to make tactical adjustments and the fact that his offensive scheme essentially boils down to "Give the ball to Durant or Westbrook and hope they can make something happen." But his players love him. Durant left no doubt where he stood on his coach after the Thunder's season ended, telling reporters: "That's our guy. I'm riding with him."
If Presti decides Brooks has taken the Thunder as far as he can, he'd better have a can't-miss replacement in mind. Last month, the Warriors fired Mark Jackson despite the coach's widespread support in the locker room. By all accounts, Jackson's replacement, Steve Kerr, has his work cut out for him to earn the trust and respect of his players. A Brooks replacement would face the same uphill battle. For all his tactical flaws as a coach, Brooks' teams haven't exactly been failures: Two Western Conference Finals appearances and a trip to the Finals in 2012, in addition to last season's second-round exit after an injury to Westbrook. If the Thunder players showed any dissatisfaction with their coach, as LeBron James did with Mike Brown in Cleveland and Dwight Howard did with Stan Van Gundy in Orlando, Brooks' job might be on the line. But his superstars are sticking up for him, and as long as that's the case, a change seems unlikely.
The second decision Presti will have to make would be a no-brainer in a vacuum. Kendrick Perkins is due to make just over $9.4 million in the final year of his contract, which can be waived with the amnesty provision. Doing this would cut the Thunder's guaranteed money for 2014-15 from around $67.6 million to just under $58.2 million. With the latest projections pinning next season's salary cap at about $63.2 million, cutting Perkins would give the Thunder significant flexibility to add another impact player via trade or free agency. And Perkins is arguably the worst starting player in the NBA, a turnover machine with no offensive skills whatsoever whose defensive impact pretty much comes down to fouling people. He also soaks up minutes that could be given to promising rookie center Steven Adams, who will become a key component of the Thunder's core once Perkins' deal is up.
Amnestying Perkins would seem to be the obvious move from a basketball standpoint, but once again, Presti has to take chemistry into consideration. Durant has gone on record many times (most notably in his instant-classic MVP acceptance speech) talking about the importance of Perkins in the Thunder locker room. To cut him is to risk alienating Durant, which could have consequences when Durant hits the open market. Presti already tested the team's family-like bond once when he traded Harden, and the jury is still out as to whether that move was worth it. If the Thunder amnesty Perkins and use their newfound cap room to sign a veteran impact player like, say, Shawn Marion or Emeka Okafor, it could get them closer to a title, which would go a long way in convincing Durant to stick around.
It goes without saying, however, that there are no guarantees that a reloaded Thunder team would rise to the top of a still-crowded Western Conference (much less take down the Miami Heat), and cutting Perkins and failing to turn that flexibility into a title would certainly not help their cause in keeping Durant. The most likely scenario has Presti riding out the final year of Perkins' contract. Trading the veteran center at the deadline for immediate help runs the risk of jeopardizing the Thunder's chemistry during the season, as the Pacers did this February in trading Danny Granger's expiring contract for Evan Turner. If Presti is going to let Perkins go, he has to be positive that his replacement will be the missing piece to a title.
Perhaps the most interesting of Presti's upcoming decisions is the question of what to do with Reggie Jackson. The third-year point guard flourished when Brooks moved him into the starting lineup during the Western Conference Finals, replacing the troubling Thabo Sefolosha. Jackson is a wildly talented scorer, a questionable decision-maker at times but something of a steadying force to counteract Westbrook's freewheeling game. Jackson is eligible for a contract extension this summer, and if he doesn't sign one, he'll become a restricted free agent after next season. If the Thunder opt to let Jackson test the market in 2015, they'll have the right to match any offer he gets from another team, but they run the risk of the open market inflating his price.
Letting Jackson walk isn't really an option -- if they lose Durant or Westbrook, Jackson on a decent contract immediately becomes their most attractive asset, either to build around or trade to a contender for draft picks or young pieces. With Sefolosha likely gone, Jackson is making noise about wanting to be a starter next season, and he'll probably get his wish. The Westbrook-Jackson backcourt was productive for the Thunder this season, scoring 113.8 points per 100 possessions when both were on the floor. But moving Jackson into the starting lineup presents similar issues to the ones Presti faced with Harden. Harden thrived in a sixth-man role in Oklahoma City before developing into a superstar-level talent in Houston. With Jackson inserted into the starting lineup, the Thunder's offensive depth is essentially nonexistent. In order to make starting Jackson a viable long-term option, the Thunder will need to add better bench options than a washed-up Caron Butler and a still-unproven Jeremy Lamb -- which could prove hard to do with Perkins' contract still on the books and an extension for Jackson looming.
The question of whether Durant and Westbrook can play together is, at this point, a thing of the past. But another year or two spinning their wheels and coming up just short of a chance at a title could lead the two superstars to look elsewhere when they hit free agency. For Presti and the Thunder, the clock is ticking to make sure that doesn't happen.
* * *
Sean Highkin has covered the NBA for USA Today, ESPN's TrueHoop Network, The Classical, and other places around the web. He lives in Chicago. Follow him on Twitter at @highkin.