Just before ducking under a doorway and into NBA offseason oblivion, Hasheem Thabeet, all smiles as usual, thanked the media and wished writers and broadcasters a good summer.
“I don’t get to talk very often,” the Thunder’s jovial 7-foot-3 center joked at the conclusion of his exit interview.
Nothing sums up Thabeet’s season better than that scene.
He was happy. He was positive. He was professional.
Thabeet’s lack of playing time this season, a result of an unforeseen rookie stepping onto the team and stealing his minutes, never modified his mindset or altered his approach. Despite difficult circumstances, Thabeet stayed ready all year and delivered when called upon. In doing so, Thabeet established himself as a trustworthy veteran who can contribute in a pinch.
“I just can’t stop working because you never know what’s going to happen in this league,” Thabeet explained. “I kept working. I kept believing...When the time came, I was able to go and produce.”
The question is whether Thabeet’s production will be enough to keep him in Oklahoma City for a third consecutive season.
The Thunder has a $1.25 million team option on Thabeet for next season. His contract, as well as his willingness to accept and succeed at his role, makes him a quality yet relatively inexpensive option as a third string center, one who proved this year that he can provide solid minutes when given the opportunity. But this could be a big summer for the Thunder, with roster changes coming and the always complicated salary cap to consider.
Thabeet wants to return. The Thunder gave him a chance two years ago when it seemed the rest of the league had given up on him. Oklahoma City is where Thabeet has grown confident and regained a passion for playing the game and being a part of a team.
“That’s the goal,” Thabeet said of coming back. “I don’t know anything else. I haven’t heard anything else. I’m going to be here over the summer working out. That’s really all I can say about that situation.”
Thabeet’s minutes dipped from 11.7 minutes per game as the primary backup to Kendrick Perkins last season to 8.3 per game this year. Most of those came in mop-up duty. Steven Adams, the 12th overall selection in last year’s draft, slid in as Perk’s primary backup this year. The only change remotely possible for next season is the order of the top two of the depth chart.
That leaves Thabeet looking at a likely repeat of 2013-14 next season.
He never said it was easy.
“It’s tough,” he said. “It’s like being on a standby flight.”
Waiting…and waiting…and waiting, for an opportunity that might never come.
“Having the guys that I have around all the time and the way we talk, the way we interact with each other, that kept me in a straight line,” Thabeet said of his teammates and coaches. “I could’ve been very upset about it and just not (done) anything. I know why I’m here. They’re not doing to me a favor. I work for everything every day.”
Thabeet arrived at the Thunder’s practice facility between 8:30 and 9 a.m. throughout the year for 10 a.m. practices. Sessions would end around noon, but Thabeet wouldn’t leave until 3 each day.
“I’m putting that time in,” Thabeet said. “Again, it’s a tough situation, but professionalism, this is my job.”
Thabeet’s professional approach paid off multiple times this season. After sitting out the first six games of the season, Thabeet moved into second on the depth chart after Perkins missed two games because of the loss of his grandfather. Thabeet responded with an encouraging four-point, five-rebound performance in 14 minutes off the bench in a road game against the Los Angeles Clippers.
Six of Thabeet’s next seven appearances came in games decided by at least 15 points. He sat for 44 games before receiving his next meaningful minutes. They came in a home game against Memphis on Feb. 28. Perkins was injured, and the Thunder needed assistance against Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph. Thabeet answered the call with two points, four rebounds, one block and some terrific post defense in a six-point win.
Similar efforts from Thabeet were seen in sparing minutes when Perkins missed 17 straight games with a groin injury.
Will it be enough to keep Thabeet in town?
He hopes so.
“It’s been a great two years of my life being out here in Oklahoma,” Thabeet said. “It’s been a great run. Everybody is young. Everybody comes to compete. Everybody loves to joke around. That’s what made us come even closer together every day. We hang out with each other, go to each other’s houses. We know where everybody lives and that’s been a great key for us.
“We have a great group. These guys have been great for me, when I was playing last year, when I’m not playing. To me, this is a family.”