The Oklahoma City Thunder? Gone till November

With every season that ends, for the playoff teams at least, we felt it right to take a look ahead. TNT already has the rights to "Gone Fishin'," and because we're sure that someone, somewhere, still likes that Wyclef song, we're going with "Gone Till November." And, yes, we know the season starts in October. Today? The Oklahoma City Thunder.

Russell Westbrook’s knee injury may have cost his team an NBA title this season, but it could also go a long way towards saving coach and general manager Sam Presti a whole heck of a lot of criticism. To some Oklahoma City Thunder fans, that statement is just piling bad on top of bad.

Scorn for Brooks’ abilities date back two years at this point, and whether they come in the form of complaining about his limited mid-playoff adjustments or overreliance on certain vets, he’s taken quite a bit of heat following two straight five-game finishes to seasons in 2012 and now 2013. Presti, meanwhile, will receive tempered but certain criticism for his choices to ostensibly value contract extensions for Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka over one for Houston Rocket All-Star James Harden.

Both will be back next year, though. Brooks just finished the first year of a four year contract, and Presti has done so well in his first six years with the team that he’s earned several more years of goodwill. Both admirably and staunchly defended themselves (and by extension, the team’s owners) in the wake of the deal that sent James Harden to Houston, allowing for the team’s ownership to skate in the face of paying the luxury tax. On top of that, Westbrook’s season ending injury allows for most to consider the 2012-13 team a once-again championship contender that was just felled by bad luck at the worst possible time.

People should think this way. For as much as the Memphis Grizzlies and San Antonio Spurs are to be respected, this was the Thunder’s bracket to lose, and they lost it because an All-NBA-level player was taken from the team during the first round. Fellow star Kevin Durant hadn’t played without Westbrook since his rookie season in Seattle, and though he gamely tried to keep his team afloat, you don’t get out of the second round without significant depth and/or star power.

Durant and the Thunder are to be credited for keeping things as close as they did, and anyone criticizing Durant for not firing for 55 a game on the way to the floor would be getting it wrong. History may unfortunately push observers to forget just how close these losses were on their way toward pointing toward Houston’s first round near-comeback and the lone second round win OKC managed to pick up. Presti, Brooks, and the team’s ownership will no doubt be mindful of that as they take to the offseason.

It will be a complicated summer for the Thunder. Way back in autumn, following the Harden deal, you got the sneaking suspicion that Kevin Martin (the ultra-efficient sixth man the team picked up in return) was just going to be a one-year replacement for the Thunder’s former top sixth man. The team wasn’t going to pay the luxury tax with James Harden on board, so why would they move to pay the tax by signing Kevin Martin (who is an unrestricted free agent this summer) and diving over that line?

All of this must be pretty frustrating for Presti. His owners left a larger and established market to come to Oklahoma City, where the ravenous Thunder fans packed their gleaming new-ish stadium for years even prior to the team’s playoff turns. Now, after gobbling up four years’ worth of playoff revenue and doing most of the damage along the way with Durant, Westbrook, Harden and Ibaka and former forward Jeff Green all on rookie contracts, the ownership appears to be drawing a line in the sand.

We won’t know for sure until July hits. Using the amnesty provision on someone like Kendrick Perkins (set to make a ridiculous $18.5 over the next two seasons) would save the OKC ownership group money in basketball terms (with Perk’s contracts going off the book), but it wouldn’t save them anything in payroll terms, as the team still has to pay the rest of Perkins’ contract. And if the Harden deal is any indication, the Thunder owners are thinking more about payroll than basketball these days.

Perhaps that was a one time deal, though. Perhaps the Thunder could decide to play the tax next year in small amounts, re-signing Kevin Martin to appropriate terms, while keeping Perkins around. The sort of sunk cost thinking that other (big market) teams are afforded with the luxury tax probably isn’t in place here, because it may be more worth it to the Thunder to pay Perkins nearly $9 million next year for just a little bit of basketball than it would be to pay him and make him go away.

That’s on Presti. The amnesty clause wasn’t in place when he bid against himself to extend Perkins’ contract in February of 2011, so he can’t pretend to act as if he knew he could lop the deal off the books some time down the line. Signing Durant and Westbrook to big deals was a no-brainer. Serge Ibaka’s deal was less understandable, but still probably the right move considering his still-improving game. Presti dropped the ball with Perkins, though.

And he’s employing a coach that is routinely caught doing the same.

It’s possible to conclude that Scott Brooks might be wasting the prime years of Nick Collison’s career. The Thunder reserve is far more capable defensively and offensively than Perkins, a player that missed nearly three-quarters of his shots in the playoffs while still seeming out of place any time an opponent decided to initiate a screen and roll. Brooks often seems to making decisions based on reputation, which at times may be far removed from reality, and that could harm the team’s chances moving forward as Presti adds cheaper, older talent to round out his rotation.

This is still a championship core, taken down far too early because of Westbrook’s injury. And even the scorched earth policy – waving goodbye to Martin, cutting Perkins – could see the retention of that core should Jeremy Lamb build on what was a frustrating rookie year and Collison keep up his wily ways. What’s scariest for the rest of the league is the internal development: Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka are still growing, learning, and improving.

“Wait ‘til next year,” once again, though. Dammit.