Pretty Much Screwed: The Oklahoma City Thunder

  • Dylan Murphy

Welcome to “Pretty Much Screwed,” our 2012-13 guide to the upcoming NBA season, in which we identify the reasons why your favorite team might have to start looking forward to 2013-2014 — and highlight at least one reason for you to be hopeful. Today: the James Harden-less Oklahoma City Thunder.

It’s old news already and we’ve already discussed at length, but we have to say it again:

Clay Bennett is a money-grubbing shitbag ruining everyone’s fun.

We’ve coated every NBA preview post with our own special brand of acid-tounged sauce, but turn back the clock a few days and it’d be tough to weasel your way into saying that the Oklahoma City Thunder were Pretty Much Screwed. They had it all: youth, perimeter offense, perimeter defense, rebounders, interior rim-protecting and Kevin Durant. But a few days ago, reality smacked us in the face as the NBA’s financial overlord reigned supreme. James Harden wanted max money, but Oklahoma City didn’t have max money to offer. So they offloaded him to Houston for Jeremy Lamb, Kevin Martin and some picks.

Everyone’s praised the deal this way and that, as the Thunder didn’t get much worse and picked up some pieces for sustained contention in the future. But the entire venture of ostensibly declaring the Thunder a “winner” is at the very least somewhat ironic. Oklahoma City, by any metric, is now a worse team because James Harden is better than Kevin Martin. The other pieces acquired in the trade will hardly reverberate in the short term, and so the trade, for now, is just a Thunder loss. And ultimately the OKC championship window is now, not next year. All you have to do is look at Derrick Rose to wonder – could this be the year an injury derails everything? Of course OKC seems poised to contend for years to come. But the NBA landscape changes quickly, as players’ talents in comparison to their peers’ fluctuate and age and contracts create a revolving door bench.

So when we hoist OKC GM Sam Presti on our shoulders and call him king, remember that it’s within the scope of Clay Bennett’s ant farm – Presti won as much as he could have won in this nightmare scenario. Because no matter the hand he played, it was a losing one. A real win, simply put, would have been re-signing Harden to a max four-year, $60 million deal.

And thanks to Clay Bennett’s frugality, Presti will have to continue to rely on the sports world’s silent assassin: the NBA rookie salary scale. The Thunder sucked Durant, Westbrook and Harden’s talents dry before having to re-up for long-term, financially crippling deals. Except only two of three could be locked up and Harden got shafted. Now, is he a max player? Probably not. But the NBA market dictates value, and Harden’s convenient placement on an NBA title contender and the U.S. Olympic team inflated his market value. And so we’re back where we started, which is James Harden’s recognition that a max contract is on the table.

Clay Bennett was willing to move the team from Seattle to Oklahoma City because the team was no longer financially profitable. So it should come as no surprise that he’s not willing to shell out extra cash to keep a player that can ultimately be replaced. Of course the NBA’s luxury tax penalties make venturing into those waters particularly prickly, but ultimately profitability won out. As a human being who enjoys money, this makes sense. Clay Bennett wants to make money, and has every right to. But as an NBA fan who wants OKC to win, who wants LeBron James to sprain his ankle on a fallen out hair plug, I hope Clay Bennett’s family relocates to Seattle without him.

Kendrick Perkins is still under contract, and that’s unfortunate.

Oklahoma City is young, athletic and fast. Kendrick Perkins is old, slow and not athletic, and making $9 million per year over the next three years. Though Perkins does provid some post defense to hold off Gasol and/or Howard, OKC will beat the Lakers by playing their game: small, quick, fast, transition. Any half-baked defensive solution to the Lakers’ big men involving Kendrick Perkins will be catering to two simultaneous yet diverging styles of play. It will be neither strong enough defensively to stop both Howard and Gasol at the same time, nor fast enough offensively to outrun the Lakers down the floor. So basically what we’re saying is that Kendrick Perkins is an annoying lard that needs to cut himself and subvert the NBA’s cap penalty rules to give OKC some financial flexibility.

One reason you might not be screwed: The Western Conference is ultimately a two-horse race, so Oklahoma City can essentially focus its energies on developing strategies to beat the Lakers. Not to mention Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka and Russell Westbrook – they’re good pieces to have.

Actual season prediction: First in the Western Conference. It will take the Lakers all season to figure it out, and OKC will capitalize by racking up the wins as the Lakers struggle at times. Still, it’ll be those two teams in the Western Conference Finals. San Antonio, you say? Stop it. Just stop it.

Read the rest of our NBA Previews here.