Thunder Move Toward Becoming Factor
Until then, the Thunder will rely on the draft and clever moves such as the mid-season signing of Nenad Krstic and the acquisition of former lottery pick Thabo Sefolosha. Oklahoma City has one of the NBA's lowest payrolls -- although many critics would say that's due to the thriftiness of owner Clay Bennett -- and just $20 million committed to players after the 2010-11 season. But will any of those potential 2010 free agents -- a class that includes LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Dirk Nowitzki -- consider the Dust Bowl?
"I'd like to think we'd be a place that people want to play," general manager Sam Presti said before his club faced Memphis at Cox Pavilion. "That's been our experience thus far for the two summers we've been in Oklahoma City. We're looking for guys who are good fits for us. And the flexibility we have is something we value."
The graybeard in the OKC starting lineup is Krstic, who doesn't turn 26 until July 25. The Thunder could start Russell Westbrook at point and Sefolosha at shooting guard with Durant and Green. Presti's primary concern in the summer of 2010 is whether Durant will want to sign a five-year contract extension or three-year deal. If he chooses the latter option, Durant could be a 25-year-old unrestricted free agent in 2013 and perhaps a couple of All-Star appearances on his resume.
It all depends on how much he likes Oklahoma City and how quickly the Thunder progresses into a contender. Presti said Harden is likely to come off the bench to begin his rookie season, and he astutely signed former No. 4 pick Shaun Livingston, who appears close to recovery from a devastating left knee injury that nearly cost him his career.
So we know Oklahoma City is young and talented, but the question is whether it can actually emerge as a factor in the Western Conference. Management realizes that players seeking a big market and $100 million contract might not consider Big 12 country as a destination, but Oklahoma City is taking a page from the San Antonio Spurs philosophy in trying to win with one superstar, i.e. Tim Duncan, and a slew of talented compliments committed to winning.
And the team's remaining veterans -- Earl Watson, Damien Wilkins and Chucky Atkins -- could be salary dumps come February.
"We're still remaining focused on building a team that can grow and also sustain," Presti said. "We're always going to evaluate free agency as we would the opportunity to trade and the draft as well. If something presents itself in free agency that we feel like can help us stay consistent with the vision of the team, then we'll be proactive with it. We also worked hard to achieve this level of flexibility, and respect the fact that it's hard to achieve it and make sure we're using it wisely and timely."
If Presti sounds more like an accountant than NBA general manager, it's because he never does anything hastily. His moves are calculated and cunning. And he attempts to refrain from major financial risks because the Thunder can't afford -- literally -- the same money blunders as the New York Knicks.
So for now, they are a team on the rise with a crew of young players whose development phase will be fun to watch.
"We have had a plan from the beginning and stuck to it," Presti said. "And now we're beginning to see results. We're excited about our future and will covet our flexibility."