By all accounts, the Oklahoma City Thunder will enter 2011-12 with a stacked roster.
But is it so loaded that the franchise can no longer upgrade through free agency?
We're less two weeks from finding out. Barring a setback to a ratified collective bargaining agreement, the NBA is scheduled to draw the curtain on free agency on Dec. 9. A flurry of activity is expected over the first two weeks in preparation for the rushed Christmas Day regular season start.
At first glance, it appears the Thunder is set. OKC has 13 players under contract, a rookie in 24th overall pick Reggie Jackson who'll soon make 14 and a key restricted free agent in Daequan Cook who'll bump the roster to the maximum 15 bodies if he is re-signed as expected.
But let's not forget who's pulling the strings here. GM Sam Presti has proved to be a master monger. If Presti can't pluck a player through outright free agency, he's proven himself to be willing to barter for ballplayers.
Then there is the wild card that is Nate Robinson.
The diminutive and dynamic six-year veteran guard is entering the final year of a contract that will pay him $4.5 million this season. But it's safe to say Robinson is nowhere in the Thunder's plans based off his four games played tally following his mid-season arrival in the trade that brought Kendrick Perkins to town. If the Thunder quickly parts ways with Robinson, whether by trade, waivers or the expected amnesty provision in the new CBA, his departure could open the door just enough for OKC to join the free agency frenzy.
If we've learned anything over the past three years, it's to never predict or pretend to know which direction the Thunder's front office will go. Their head fakes have fooled us all too many times. But we also know this: the Thunder has never been about the big splash. Two major factors make that facet of the franchise's makeup more relevant than ever and perhaps might foreshadow what we may or may not see starting Dec. 9.
The first is the Thunder's increasing need to be fiscally responsible. With talents like Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Serge Ibaka coming up for contract extensions, the Thunder simply can't afford to throw away money on any pricey pieces. The second factor is much simpler. This year's free agent class is crummy. The most desirable players — Nene, Tyson Chandler, David West, Jamal Crawford, Marc Gasol and Caron Butler — cost too much and would only be a duplicate on the current roster.
A popular free agent among Thunder fans has been Shane Battier, a defensive difference-maker who helped Memphis give Kevin Durant fits in the playoffs. But Battier fits the bill as a player who could be too costly and is nearly a clone of a current Thunder player, shooting guard Thabo Sefolosha. While Battier is a better perimeter shooter, Sefolosha is younger, possesses the franchise's “corporate knowledge” and, most importantly, already is signed to a relatively budget-friendly deal that pays him less than $4 million in each of the next three seasons.
Sorry, Battier seekers.
It'd be best for Thunder fans to turn their attention to the bargains, if anybody, in this year's watered-down class. Keep an eye out for specialists. Sharpshooters. Defenders. Rugged rebounders. Veterans who can supply stretches of sustained energy at a discount shouldn't be ruled out, either.
Those performers are about as attractive as RuPaul. They have names like Reggie Evans and Jeff Foster and Steve Novak and James Jones, which means it's probably best to not get too crazy about the possibilities for the Thunder in this class.
There might still be room in OKC's shopping cart for a free agent. But we're past the point of banking on one.
The only thing better than that is we're finally talking about basketball again.
Five under-the-radar, yet reasonable free agents that could fit nicely with the Thunder.
Marcus Thornton, G, Sacramento*
2010-11 stats: 12.8 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 1.8 apg, 0.9 spg.
The skinny: If it's bench scoring the Thunder needs, Thornton could be a one-man lightning bolt. He averaged 21.3 points in 27 games with Sacramento last season following a mid-season trade from New Orleans.
Kris Humphries, PF, New Jersey
2010-11 stats: 10.0 ppg, 10.4 rpg, 1.1 apg, 1.1 bpg.
The skinny: Humphries is known much more for his short-lived marriage to socialite Kim Kardashian than he is for his double-double average from a season ago. But, quietly, the rugged power forward was one of the most effective and efficient big men in the league, albeit for a bottom-feeding New Jersey club. Still, his $3.2 million salary last season made him one of the best bargains in the league. Might not be a bad bargain if the Thunder is looking to bolster its frontcourt depth.
Arron Afflalo, G, Denver*
2010-11 stats: 12.6 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 2.4 apg.
The skinny: After a career year, Afflalo could now cash in big time after proving himself to be a big-shot maker and bulldog defender. He'd have to settle for less money and minutes in OKC but could slide in nicely as a backup to Kevin Durant.
Peja Stojakovic, SF, Dallas
2010-11 stats: 8.5 ppg, 2.3 rpg, 0.9 apg.
The skinny: The first time he signed in Oklahoma City it was for a mammoth $64 million. Maybe this time things could work out a little better. The Thunder still could use one more dead-eye shooter, and at this point in his career that's about all Stojakovic can still supply. Unless another team is willing to vastly overpay the injury-prone 34-year-old, the Thunder could land the career 38.5 percent 3-point shooter on a cheap veteran's deal and dust him off only for specific game-situation or emergency minutes.
Anthony Parker, G, Cleveland
2010-11 stats: 8.3 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 3.0 apg, 0.9 spg.
The skinny: He's 36 but can still fill it up from deep and be a tough defender in spurts. His professionalism would be an added plus in the locker room, and the Thunder likely wouldn't need to greatly exceed the veteran's minimum to sign him to a short term deal if he's seeking a shot at a title in the twilight years of his career.
Others of note: Shane Battier, Reggie Evans, Jeff Foster, Grant Hill, James Jones, Jason Kapono, Carl Landry, Roger Mason, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Steve Novak.
* Denotes restricted free agents.