The most important date on the NBA calendar for the Oklahoma City Thunder arrives Thursday.
The NBA Draft.
Plucking players from the annual amateur pool has and always will be the most critical component to the team’s roster-building. Being on the cusp of a championship will not change that.
In fact, the Thunder wouldn’t be where it is today without the draft. It undeniably has been the team’s lifeblood.
Nine players on this year’s roster were drafted by the franchise or acquired via trade on draft night, a rare reality in the new NBA climate, with its ever-changing rosters and the league’s unabashed push for player sharing. Excluding soon-to-be free agents, the Thunder’s lone exceptions are Kendrick Perkins, Jeremy Lamb and Hasheem Thabeet.
Of the nine homegrown talents, six are rotation players, and they illustrate why Thursday’s draft remains significant for OKC despite where the Thunder is selecting or where the franchise is in its evolution.
“We feel really good that when you draft a player,” said Thunder general manager Sam Presti earlier this month, “you can develop him within your organizational culture, can build habits and develop them in relation to your system and your current makeup of your team.
“So the draft has been something that’s important to our organizational building, but also our cultural building.”
Many are calling for, and perhaps even anticipating, sweeping changes this summer after the Thunder’s six-game series loss to San Antonio in the West Finals. An overhaul, they say, is in order before the Thunder can be crowned champion.
Three trips to the Western Conference Finals in the last four years, however, suggest the Thunder is on the right track. With a roster filled with age 25-and-under talent, there’s also reason to believe OKC should simply keep trucking.
Of course, until the Thunder is the last team standing, a certain level of cynicism will linger. Questions will be asked. Critics will demand changes.
But what’s set the Thunder apart, what’s made Oklahoma City special, is how it has stayed the course, in both its successes and its failures. There’s no reason to think the Thunder will veer off path now.
By building through the draft, the Thunder has landed Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka and Reggie Jackson. Other teams angle every summer to assemble that kind of quartet and label them “Super teams.” But right here in Oklahoma City is the league’s leading scorer from four of the past five seasons, the most athletic and relentless attacking point guard, the league’s leading shot blocker four years running and one of the game’s best sixth men.
Complementing that group is Steven Adams, a center with gobs of potential, Perry Jones III, a world-class athlete with multiple skills, Andre Roberson, a lanky defender, rebounder and hustler, and Nick Collison, a wily veteran. All were drafted by the Thunder or acquired via trade on draft night. Grant Jerrett, also acquired via trade on draft night last year, has the potential to develop into a sharpshooting power forward, skills that are becoming more pivotal at that position in today’s game.
The latter five combined to earn about $7 million this past season. Each of their relatively inexpensive contracts is what allows the Thunder to pay, and ultimately retain, its high-priced stars. Three of the five — Collison and Jerrett being the exceptions — still are on rookie contracts. That guarantees the Thunder four years of a player, as well as the first chance to re-sign him before his contract is up. And the goal is for them to get better and contribute more and more even while playing on those relatively inexpensive deals.
With the 21st and 29th selections Thursday night, the Thunder has an opportunity to continue the critical cycle. Under the NBA’s rookie scale salary guidelines, those two draft picks combined are slotted to make slightly more than $2 million.
For a franchise dedicated toward sustaining an elite roster while juggling the challenges of playing in the league’s third smallest market, it’s the only way to guarantee continuity.
It all makes Thursday the most important date on the NBA calendar.