He has three rotation players who will be free agents, two first-round draft picks at his disposal and — gasp — one pivotal contract negotiation with another sixth man.
Sam Presti has much on his plate this off-season.
How the Thunder general manager completes his summer checklist will go a long way in shaping the future of the franchise. It’s a big off-season for OKC, perhaps even the most pivotal the Thunder has had since becoming a title contender.
Not only did the Thunder fall short of its championship goal, but for the first time in its progression as an NBA power, OKC regressed as a team. With changes certainly coming and contracts on star players another year closer to nearing their end, the Thunder has ventured into new territory.
Add to that, the team’s talent is as ready as it’s ever been to win now. No more sitting back and subscribing to the slow-and-steady approach. Injuries to key cogs in each of the last two seasons have illustrated what can happen to championship windows we assume are wide open.
From staffing to signings, the Thunder has major decisions ahead.
The responsibility for figuring it all out and keeping the organization on its championship track falls on the shoulders of one man.
Welcome to the summer of Sam.
Here are the top 10 things on Presti’s summer to-do list.
Critically analyze the coaching staff
More and more observers are starting to question whether Scott Brooks has taken this team as far as he can. Some are even demanding that he be relieved of his duties. Most rational minds don’t think that will happen, but Presti and his staff this summer absolutely should be asking themselves if more can be done to support the product on the court. Presti has expressed enormous confidence in the current roster, which suggests he believes the personnel is not a problem. If that’s the case, it might be time to bring in someone who can help put the personnel in better positions to be successful. That doesn’t necessarily mean starting over with a new head coach. It could be as simple as adding an assistant, someone who specializes in offense or defense and can shore up the struggles and slippage we’ve seen on those respective ends of the floor. Sticking to the status quo could be costly. This is a team that is talented enough to journey to the conference finals for years to come. But more and more, it’s beginning to look like more is needed to get over the hump.
Start contract negotiations with Reggie Jackson
Jackson is eligible for an extension to his rookie deal this summer. If an agreement is not reached by Oct. 31, Jackson will become a restricted free agent next summer, which gives the Thunder the opportunity to match any offer he receives from another team. Ideally, a deal would be reached this summer. It would provide the Thunder clarity for future salary cap calculations and prevent Jackson from receiving a more lucrative offer on the open market. It also would give Jackson long-term security and alleviate any pressure that could come with playing next season in a contract year. But with Jackson saying Sunday he wants to be a starting point guard, something that won’t happen with Russell Westbrook in town, these negotiations could be tough on the Thunder.
Decide what to do with Thabo Sefolosha
He’ll be an unrestricted free agent on July 1, and given the way his season went and ended, it appears Sefolosha won’t return. He battled injuries, his defense regressed and his shooting percentages plummeted, from 41.9 percent from 3-point range last season to 31.6 from that distance this season and 26.1 percent in the postseason. Sefolosha’s drop off resulted in him being benched twice in the playoffs, first for the final two games against Memphis, and then for the final four games against San Antonio. With Jeremy Lamb and Andre Roberson waiting in line, Sefolosha’s time with the Thunder might be up.
Decide what to do with Derek Fisher and Caron Butler
Both will be unrestricted free agents, and both are well beyond their best days. But both added leadership in the locker room and toughness and experience on the court, things the Thunder sorely needed. But, like Sefolosha, their production plummeted in the postseason. Fisher has said this would be his final season, and he has been linked to the Knicks’ vacant coaching job for months. Meanwhile, Butler, 34, didn’t end up providing the boost he was expected to bring. Even worse, his arrival stunted the growth of young players like Lamb and Perry Jones III when they got squeezed out of the rotation. The question Presti has to ask himself is whether it’s worth bringing Butler back if it means another year of Lamb and Jones sitting the bench.
Turn the trade exception into something
One of six eventual assets the Thunder netted in the James Harden trade, a $6.6 million trade exception allows the Thunder to trade for a player, or players, for up to that amount without having to match salaries. The roster-building tool was acquired when OKC shrewdly assembled a sign-and-trade that sent Kevin Martin to Minnesota last summer. It is set to expire on July 11. Presti can use that chip to bolster the Thunder’s roster (Arron Afflalo, anyone?) and continue to change perceptions about the Harden trade. But forget public perception. The Thunder needs to take advantage of this chip and add to the core. In the past, OKC allowed much smaller exceptions, which were acquired when the team traded Byron Mullens and Eric Maynor, to expire. That can’t happen this time around.
Capitalize on the 21st overall draft pick
The Thunder has two first-round picks, but this one deserves its own mention. That’s because it, too, came as part of the Harden package, arriving via Dallas. Fair or not, what Presti does with this selection will also shape the perception of the Harden trade and, more importantly, be a factor in determining whether the Thunder received optimum value for a player who has blossomed into arguably the league’s third best shooting guard just two years after the trade. Whether he picks a player here or trades the selection for a veteran or future asset, Presti has to come away with a winner.
Figure out what to do with the 29th overall draft pick
It’s unlikely that the Thunder uses both selections. This one has a high chance to be packaged in a trade. At the trade deadline, the Thunder was rumored to be in serious negotiations to send this pick to New York for guard Iman Shumpert. It is believed the Knicks said no thanks. But something similar could be in play on draft night.
Make a decision on whether the stashed players stay or come aboard
Two promising prospects, Tibor Pleiss and Alex Abrines, are being groomed overseas. Pleiss is a 7-foot-1 center with nimbleness and shooting range. Abrines is a 6-5 shooting guard with a serious jump shot. Pleiss, the 31st overall pick in 2010, seems ready to join the NBA. Abrines, the 32nd overall pick last year, might need more seasoning. The decisions aren’t totally up to Presti. Both players have to be ready to come over — Pleiss has repeatedly expressed interest — and the financial component has to work. But if the time is right, we could see some more foreign-born flavor help the Thunder punch its championship ticket.
Monitor and perhaps make a play in free agency
This year’s free agent crop is weak sauce. But that’s OK. The Thunder, remember, has never been a real player in free agency. Don’t expect OKC to start now. That means names like Luol Deng, Trevor Ariza, Greg Monroe and Pau Gasol probably are unrealistic targets. But the Thunder is beyond the point of simply infusing the roster with more and more young talent. OKC now needs veterans, especially with the expected departures of Sefolosha, Fisher and Butler. Mike Miller, who was targeted by Presti last summer, could be an option. Sharp-shooting threat Anthony Morrow could be a good fit as well as a relatively inexpensive addition. But the Thunder needs depth more than it ever has since evolving into a championship contender. And the draft is no longer the ideal route to balancing out the roster.
For all the disappointment in how the 2013-14 season finished, it’s important for Presti and the front office to maintain perspective — something that’s never been a problem for a franchise that prides itself on taking a patient and methodical approach. There were a lot of positives to take away from this season, and just because the outcome didn’t turn out the way anyone had hoped doesn’t mean it’s time to panic and ditch the long-standing principles that got the team here. Though this is a critical summer, the Thunder will continue to be an elite club regardless of what happens over the next four months. Now is not the time to get restless and risk toying with that reality.