Nearly every team in the NBA would trade places with the Oklahoma City Thunder as currently constructed. While the team just lost in the 2012 NBA Finals, it's likely to be the first of many trips all the way to the end for a young, dynamic team loaded with talent in stars like Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. James Harden was this year's sixth man, Durant is the NBA scoring champ three years running. Serge Ibaka is a dynamic force in down low. Kendrick Perkins is another tough defender in the paint.
But the Thunder will have issues -- just as any team will with a salary cap. While the New York Yankees can spend to their heart's content in a sport without a ceiling in Major League Baseball, the NBA maintains a bit more parity. Or at least, that's the thought process behind the design. Thus the Thunder will have some major decisions to make in the future.
*Will they re-sign Harden for the long term?
*Will they re-sign Ibaka for the long term?
*Will they hang on to Perkins and both stars as well?
To do all of that, the team will have to pay a luxury tax like no other, and that's not likely in the cards for OKC's ownership. While they're bound to always be competitive with Westbrook and Durant locked up, the team is likely to move one or even two of those guys for the sake of staying competitive and within budgetary constraints.
The team could trade Harden for a future star or top flight draft asset to stay competitive for the long run. Ibaka would also bring a similar haul. The team could always amnesty Perkins or trade him as well since injury concerns linger there. However that also eliminates a key component from the team that each of those players bring.
As for developing their own replacements, that's where it gets tougher. The Thunder will continue to pick near the bottom of the first round in any draft and struggle to gain impact players with such a pick. The Spurs are among the teams investing in foreign players to stash them and eventually bring them over. It's paid dividends so far and it could become a model for Sam Presti, the team's general manager, to follow.
But this year, Presti made another move that made waves in the drafting of Perry Jones III from Baylor. Jones averaged 13.5 points and 7.6 rebounds per game at Baylor with a career where much more was expected of the sophomore forward. He earned a reputation for having a "low motor" and holding more potential than production. Along with concerns about potential knee injuries in his pro career, Jones dropped despite having lottery-level talent to No. 28 to the Thunder in the 2012 NBA Draft.
Pro Basketball Talk described Jones as one of the best players in the draft. In fact, Kurt Helin wrote that talent-wise, Jones was the second best player overall:
Jones no doubt has the skills. On raw athleticism and potential he could be the second best player in this draft - he can play the three or the four (he's a bit of a tweener), inside or out, runs the floor in transition, leaps out of the building and can board. But in college you only saw that in spurts, he disappears through large stretches of the game as well. Some teams think if you use him more as a three and less as a five (as was done Baylor) he will blossom. Maybe. But there is risk.
There's that word: risk. It's the reason why every team in the lottery had to go for the sure thing in order to get better (and not appear in the lottery next season). Even those teams on the fringe had to watch Jones go by. After all, who wants to invest a first round asset on a player who could be injured all of the time or one who has poor motivation? But for the team who is already loaded, the one who could even sell off the draft pick to save some money under the salary cap, Jones was the perfect fit.
So far, so good. Even though he was injured for most of the summer league schedule in Orlando for the Thunder, it was immediately clear just how good Jones can be when he's ready and motivated and trying to prove something.
"I sacrificed a lot in college, gave up a lot of things such as scoring because I thought I had other people on my team that can score," Jones said recently. "I realize now, it doesn't matter who I'm playing with. I should always be able to do what I can do and that's score. What I want to do now is show that I'm not the person they think I am. Show I have a motor. Show that I can get out there in workouts and just bring all the energy I can to the floor."
The Thunder seem to love what they have in house so far. Head coach Scott Brooks sang his praises after his limited Summer League performance.
"All the things that we loved about his game when we were scouting him," said Brooks. "I like his athleticism, his ability to cover ground on both ends of the floor and his decision-making. He really does seem to be thinking the right things in the game. Those are a lot of the reasons we were so excited when we saw his name on the board when it got around to our turn. When you look at his size and his talent, he fits what we like to do."
Of course, there's a long way to go before the NBA season begins, but if Jones can manifest that talent on a loaded roster, it will begin to give the team some flexibility on what to do with the players who have already blossomed and, consequently, are commanding major dollars. If ownership decides that everyone can't get the payday they deserve from the same team, then guys like Jones are going to be the ones the team depends upon to become the next impact player for the team.