Slowly but surely, Oklahoma City’s roster is drifting further away from the cast that won only 20 games last season.
Today’s acquisition of Desmond Mason and Joe Smith will add more experience, depth and, quite possibly, wins to the team this season. Having covered Mason during the two years the Hornets were, I can say without a doubt Oklahoma City just became 10 times more competitive.
Of Mason’s two seasons with the Hornets, one stretch during the 2006-07 season defined what he’s all about. With the Hornets playing without injured key cogs Chris Paul, Peja Stojakovic, David West and Bobby Jackson from late December to mid-January, Mason stepped up and became the team’s go-to guy. In one 11-game stretch over that span, he averaged 17.7 points, 6.3 rebounds and 40.4 minutes.
He did so in the face of nightly double teams, nagging injuries and being asked to defend the opposing team’s best player at the other end.
Mason did his best to steady the injury-plagued Hornets throughout most of that season. Until he sustained a broken nose and deviated septum late in the season — which ironically was the result of an elbow from new teammate Chris Wilcox – Mason was on pace to play all 82 games. He finished at 75.
“I don’t know how to tone it down,” Mason later told me during that season. ”I just play one way, and when I can’t do that I’m done.”
But the best part of the additions of Mason and Smith to me is their leadership. Surrounding Kevin Durant, Jeff Green and Russell Westbrook with those two guys will be invaluable. Mason is a gym rat who probably spends the equivalent of a season putting in extra time on the practice court and in the weight room. OKC fans will want Durant and Co. to soak up his work ethic and any nuggets he spews.
I think Smith is a veteran who could potentially start from opening night depending on how coach P.J. Carlesimo wants to use him. Roles are determined in training camp unless your last name is Durant so anything’s possible. But I would assume Carlesimo would at least want to start the season with a more veteran starting lineup of Earl Watson, Kevin Durant, Desmond Mason, Nick Collison and Joe Smith. That would allow Green, Westbrook and Wilcox to be impact players off the bench. Or, Carlesimo might insert Green into the starting lineup in place of Mason and continue to try and speed his development and allow him and Durant to keep learning each other’s tendencies. Wilcox could also start at power forward and Collison could start at center.
But that’s also part of the beauty of this move. It gives the team that much more flexibility with lineups because of the versatility and interchangeable parts.
It’s almost unbelievable how much Oklahoma City got for Luke Ridnour and Adrian Griffin. Joe Smith, the 1995 No. 1 overall pick, proved last year he has plenty left in the tank after averaging 10.1 points and 5.2 rebounds. Smith should be able to teach Robert Swift, Johan Petro and Sene (if they all return) a few tricks of the trade for the long term while improving the team’s interior defense and creating match-up problems with his shooting touch in the short term.
Aside from all the on-the-court possibilities and potential benefits, the trade gives OKC even more opportunities in the future because of both players’ expiring contracts. You’ll hear a lot about the near $30 million in salary cap space the team will now have next summer. But consider also that the two players, because of their talents and their friendly contracts, could be attractive assets for a team looking to make a deal at the trade deadline. GM Sam Presti used Kurt Thomas in that exact fashion last year when he sent him to the Spurs at the deadline for a 2009 first-round draft pick.
Where Presti goes from here is the next question. With Collison, Wilcox, Petro, Swift, Sene, D.J. White and now Smith, veteran forward Donyell Marshall doesn’t figure to see much playing time and could be dealt or bought out. And with Mason and Kyle Weaver now added to Durant, Green, Westbrook and Watson, there doesn’t seem to be many minutes on the wing for Damien Wilkins, who could now be on the move as well.
Note: Updating a previous post, the organization is now likely to release info on tickets Thursday morning. It appears today’s trade pushed things back a day.