It's hard to walk away from a season that saw the Oklahoma City Thunder work as one of the better teams in the Western conference for months, eventually winning that conference and taking a game in a closely-matched NBA Finals, and be disappointed with the season they put together. Or, worse, wary of the team's future. But we are. The players? Trust 'em, to nearly no end.
The team's GM? One of the best in the business.
The Oklahoma City Thunder's ownership, and head coach? That's an entirely different story.
Last season, as the Thunder advanced to within a few games of making the NBA Finals, we worried about Scott Brooks' creativity as an offensive coach late in contests. We worried if he would find a way to put together sound options for his team in the waning seconds of a close game against a playoff team. By and large, starting in the first week of his team's season, he and his players took care of that.
He also took to Kendrick Perkins, in his first full and healthy season with the former champion in the OKC pivot. And, in a distressing move that reminded of Brooks' over-reliance on Jeff Green despite Serge Ibaka (even then) being the significantly better player, Brooks handed the former Celtics center minutes he probably didn't deserve throughout the regular and postseason. It didn't cost his team a championship, but it certainly didn't aid them in their quest.
Now, GM Sam Presti and the Thunder organization have a decision to make. Brooks' contract is up, following the month of June. He would like a four-year contract, guaranteed; and if you approach his work in the context that tells you a championship is coming following a first round-to-third round-to-Finals loss run so far, he seems well deserving of one. The Thunder, rumors suggest, appear to only want to give Brooks a two or three year deal.
I'm not exactly suggesting the Thunder give him a nil-year deal, but I'm not far off.
Because Brooks has significant shortcomings that usually only get worse over time with head coaches. Comparing Brooks to Miami Heat counterpart Erik Spoelstra, just because both head men are young coaches on their first top gig, is ridiculous. Spoelstra has had his in-game failures, but they rarely had to do with rotations or choices in personnel. No, Spoelstra's limitations came in the form of dealing with and getting to his superstar players, because the former tape operator who made a point to know everything there was to know was long on hoops smarts but short on experience. By the spring and summer of 2012, this changed.
Brooks paid his dues, there is to be no doubt, and he has significant gifts of his own to share. But Kendrick Perkins, especially playing with a torn groin for the last six weeks of the postseason, does not deserve to be outpacing his more versatile and effective backup Nick Collison by almost 10 minutes per game. Or six minutes per game in a Finals run that saw the Heat playing Joel Anthony only two minutes and whippet thin Chris Bosh starting at center for Miami during most of its championship run.
These are the situations, the second and third quarter chunks of play, that turn solid leads or potential runs into close games and then into close losses. Nitpicking of the lamest order? That's your call, but when you're one of two teams left in mid-June, this is what happens. And what happened was a Thunder team that didn't appear to adapt all that much between their Game 1 conquest and Game 5 blowout loss.
The more significant worry, so profound it even rubbed the ABC crew the wrong way, is the impending contract extensions due to both James Harden and Serge Ibaka.
Both — hell, let's do it — stars were working off of rookie contracts as they aided the Thunder to their near-championship run, and both will be restricted free agents next summer with extensions able to be quibbled over this summer. The Thunder, already paying Kevin Durant a max deal while watching as Russell Westbrook's maximum contract sets in next season, would appear to be a bit unnerved at the prospect of adding two more potential eight figure deals to the ledger.
We have a problem with this, as you'd expect.
That's what great teams have — four dudes making giant heaps of cash on big ass contracts. Some crummy teams have just as many, but those are failures of their own design, paying too much for players that don't deserve it. Durant, Westbrook, Harden and Ibaka deserve it. More pressing to the Thunder is the fact that they're going to get it, in Oklahoma City or elsewhere.
Let's also recall that, under the smart guidance of Sam Presti, the Thunder were just above the salary cap last year, and are set to be just above it next year even with Durant and Westbrook's contracts hitting hard. That's a remarkable payroll level for such a fantastic team.
Let's also point out the fact that this team's ownership has enjoyed the shared gate receipts to 43 playoff games over the last three years, with 20 or so set to presumably hit next season and beyond. On top of those sellout crowds. On top of the ad revenue you get from being the only game in town. On top of their own personal wealth. Fret over the more punitive luxury tax all you want, but the Thunder have the money to make it happen. In their first bit of spending since taking the team from Seattle, the Thunder's ownership HAS to make this happen.
(Even if they end up paying double per year what they're offering to Scott Brooks to Stan Van Gundy, Jeff Van Gundy, or Phil Jackson.)
We trust the players, and we trust Sam Presti. They'll get the benefit of the doubt, even after putting together moves we don't applaud initially. And now, after that initial promise and well-earned plaudits, they'll be forced into some tough, tough stuff. Tough decisions from management, internal development from players.
Gee, it sure is tough to be an expertly-run championship contender full of players in their early-to-mid 20s. See you this time next year, Oklahoma City.