This summer many of the NBA’s franchises will be looking outside their organizations to sign key free agents that could act as the missing pieces to what they believe will become championship caliber teams. For the Oklahoma City Thunder, though, this isn’t the case.
Thunder general manager, Sam Presti, has the task before him of retaining the backbone of a young and talented starting five, over the coming days and weeks. In his sights is the NBA’s most recognizable young scoring threat, Kevin Durant (pictured) and starting power forward, Jeff Green.
Durant, an All-Star and the league’s reigning scoring champion, has publicly stated that he wants to sign a new lucrative contract this July to play in Oklahoma City in the years to come. By all accounts he has earned it.
Last season alone, Durant, averaged 30.1 points per game, 7.6 rebounds per game in 39.1 minutes per game, while appearing in all of 82 of the Thunder’s regular season games. He led the Thunder to its first ever playoff appearance, which ended in a one point loss against the eventual 2010 NBA Champion, Los Angeles Lakers. In one year he helped take the team’s record from 23-59 to 50-32.
The ultimate show of respect for Durant among the many conversation that surround his free agency, is that the Thunder brass have never once hinted at haggling with Durant over what will be a maxed out contract for the 21-year-old out of the University of Texas.
Green, on the other hand, presents the kind of problems that force general managers and NBA bean counters to earn their paychecks. Presti had a brilliant opportunity during the recent NBA Draft to trade Green, he resisted, indicating that Green is indeed a part of the Thunder’s long term plans.
Green was only the third option at best on the offensive end for the Thunder, averaging 15.1 points per game and just 6.0 rebounds per game, but his presence in the low post proved invaluable to the Thunder over the course of what is being called “The Turnaround” season.
Green’s quiet contributions are often overshadowed by the otherworldly play of Durant and the increasing skill set of Russell Westbrook and unless one has watched many of the Thunder’s games, it is hard to point out on paper just how much the Thunder depend on Green.
Green’s negotiations will be tough for Presti for three reasons. First, Green is going into his contract year and does not necessarily have to sign a new deal and would become a restricted free agent next year if nothing is done by the early fall. Second, if he low-ball’s Green this summer it could have adverse effect on his morale, the team’s morale and may bleed over into the regular season. Third, if Presti gives Green a contract that is above his worth, he will set a precedent, he may rue in future negotiations
The art of finesse will have to a huge part of Presti’s dealings with Green and his agent.
Green’s negotiations will also have a ripple effect when Presti has to negotiate a new contract extensions with rest of the Thunder’s core group. Russell Westbrook will be up for a contract extension in the summer of 2011. Because neither Green nor Westbrook are max contract talent, Presti will have to find a common ground that not only works for the Thunder front office and Green, but a foundation he can use in coming negotiations.
But this is where Presti is at his best. His track record in his three years with the Thunder has shown him to be smart in evaluating players and protecting replete cap space the Thunder have at their discretion. Presti has a gift for finding young talent that is willing to play Scott Brooks style of basketball while keeping the league’s salary cap at the forefront of his negotiations.
In the same manner that Jack McCloskey put together the 1989 Detroit pistons, with key role players, like Bill Laimbeer and Dennis Rodman around one perennial All-Star, Isaiah Thomas, Presti is surrounding Durant with kind of core group players, like Westbrook and Green, that fit an unselfish, team system that is young enough to grow up together and learn to play for each other.
It’s a winning formula that was worked before and Presti’s hallmarks of finding high character young men who are also skilled at the game of basketball, may be the blueprint for further success for the Thunder.