Our NBA education continues.
On the heels of the first season that fell short of expectations thanks to a freak knee injury, the events of the past three weeks have brought a harsh but important lesson.
Players still don't want to play in Oklahoma City.
Because of the Thunder's rise, its supremely talented roster and its super passionate fans, we'd like to think players are willing to jump through hoops to play here. But as five years have taught us they're just not.
It's not something Thunder players, coaches or management can publicly admit without it sounding disparaging to their host city. Yet it's been a chief reason why the Thunder historically hasn't been players in the free agent market.
This summer has been no different. Oklahoma City's idleness this year, however, has only felt worse because its second-round exit was followed by its conference rivals spending the summer splurging to stock up on talent. But even when the Thunder tried to improve, the team's efforts failed.
Mike Miller last week became the second free agent this offseason to turn down Oklahoma City. He joined Dorell Wright in that vein. Most disturbing is how Miller took a pass despite Kevin Durant, the face of the Thunder franchise and widely considered the world's second-best player, reportedly taking it upon himself to recruit Miller.
But in Miller's case, choosing Memphis over OKC had much more to do with familiarity. Miller played for the Grizzlies for 51/2 seasons and still has a home in the area as well as strong ties in the community. Wright, meanwhile, simply pounced on a slightly more lucrative offer from Portland.
Those two examples, although representative of challenges every team faces in free agency, only scratch the surface of the obstacles the Thunder is annually faced with.
The side effect of Oklahoma City's stacked roster is twofold: the Thunder no longer has ample money or minutes to offer. A player might sacrifice one or the other but rarely both.
Even in the rare instances when those two things might be equal to a rival team, Oklahoma City can't compete with some other places' perceived quality of life. When allowed to choose freely, players often opt for a city that offers a bigger metropolis or magnificent beaches or no state taxes or whatever else it is that young and rich hearts desire.
The only way for OKC to clear those hurdles is to overpay in free agency, an option the Thunder has wisely declined. In addition to putting the long-term health of the organization in jeopardy, overpaying free agents has long been a route taken by middling teams stuck on the treadmill of mediocrity.
Just look at how a few teams spent this summer: Al Jefferson got a three-year, $41 million deal from Charlotte, O.J. Mayo landed a three-year, $24 million deal from Milwaukee, J.J. Redick received a four-year, $27 million deal from the Los Angeles Clippers, Atlanta re-signed Kyle Korver to a four-year, $24 million deal and Washington re-signed Martell Webster to a four-year, $22 million deal.
By comparison, the most lucrative free agent contract the Thunder has ever offered was a three-year, $15.7 million deal to much-needed center Nenad Krstic in 2008.
The good news for Oklahoma City is the Thunder already has a trio of young stars in Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka locked up long term. Thanks to their presence, the Thunder no longer needs to reel in another big fish. From here, it's about retaining that core and surrounding it with adequate complementary pieces.
That's why the draft and not free agency has been the Thunder's preferred method of building. It annually offers teams more bang for their bucks. For example, Redick's $6.5 million first-year salary with the Clippers will be nearly identical to the combined salaries the Thunder this season will pay Jeremy Lamb, Steven Adams, Reggie Jackson and Perry Jones III. With the Thunder's rising payroll — roughly $500,000 shy of surpassing the $71.75 million tax threshold — it's impossible to overstate the significance of those value contracts.
It might take time for draftees to pan out, and some never do as we know all too well. But while the draft is not as appealing as luring prized free agents, it sure beats the alternative.
That, in Oklahoma City, would be frivolously spending big in the summer or getting spurned.