It's a truism in the NBA off-season that if your team is not moving forward, then it's moving backward. Especially at the top of the league where good teams are constantly trying to add that extra piece to give them an edge, if you stand pat with the roster in the off-season, then you're probably moving backwards relative to your competition.
So why is that everyone is giving the Oklahoma City Thunder a pass on their dreadful off-season?
Now that the dust has mostly settled from free agency, NBA rankings are beginning to appear. And more often than not, those rankings have the Thunder placed second behind the defending Champion Miami Heat, first in the Western Conference.
Certainly it's true that the Thunder were the best team in the West and the second best team in the NBA last season until Russell Westbrook was injured. NBA watchers are looking at the return of Westbrook as vaulting OKC right back to their place as the top dog in the West. It's also true that a team with such a young core -- OKC's three best players, Westbrook, Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka are all under 25 -- can improve from within and doesn't necessarily need to add new weapons.
But I'm baffled at how little emphasis has been placed on the loss of Kevin Martin, the Thunder's third best scorer last season. And by the way, the phrase "third best scorer" doesn't really do justice to the situation. Durant and Westbrook accounted for 4,183 of OKC's 8.669 points last season, over 48%, by far the highest percentage for any duo in the league. But Martin kicked in another 1,077 points, and unlike Ibaka who contributed 1,055, Martin is actually able to create some offense by himself.
Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, the Thunder have three of the least offensive-minded regulars in the entire NBA. There were 14 players in the entire league last season who played more than 1,500 minutes while scoring fewer than 10 points per 36 minutes. Three of those 14 players -- Thabo Sefolosha, Kendrick Perkins and Nick Collison -- play in Oklahoma City.
Durant and Westbrook can certainly be counted on to do their parts. An injury to either would obviously derail OKC's season, but that's always been true, and they've both been incredibly durable until Westbrook's injury in the playoffs. But those guys did get at least SOME help from Martin last season -- an incredibly efficient scorer who contributed over 18 points per 36 minutes and posted a true shooting percentage of .608. His loss is a BIG DEAL, even if no one is talking about it.
Ironically, there was significantly more hand-wringing over the future in Oklahoma City at the time of the James Harden trade last October than there is now, despite the fact that Martin was always a very good, albeit temporary, replacement for Harden. All of the issues that were raised back in October -- how their small market budget concerns would limit their ability to win it all, how the loss of the third scorer to complement Durant and Westbrook would be a major problem -- are truer for NEXT season, than they were for last season.
Consider the following two stat lines:
Harden was better in his final season in Oklahoma City than Martin was as his replacement, there's no question about that. But Martin was pretty damn good. Isn't it fairly obvious that the drop off from Harden to Martin is much less significant than the drop off from Martin to ... to ... Jeremy Lamb? DeAndre Liggins? Ryan Gomes?
Oh, did I not mention the Thunder's big off-season acquisition of former Clipper Ryan Gomes? Speaking of regulars who couldn't manage to score 10 points per 36 minutes, in his two seasons in L.A., Gomes steadily lost whatever confidence he had ever possessed on a basketball court to the point where he simply refused to shoot by the end. Maybe he rediscovered that confidence playing in the ultra-competitive German league last season -- but probably not. I'm also guessing that taking shots away from Westbrook and Durant is not the best situation for instilling confidence.
Now, someone is going to point out that Lamb was the MVP of the Orlando Summer League, and indeed he was. He shot 39% from the field, 27% from three point range, and apparently that earned him MVP honors in Orlando, which begs the question, what the hell was going on in Orlando? Lamb played four games, and in three of them he was simply dreadful, like missing at least two-third of his shots bad. In the one game where he scored 32 points, he also committed eight turnovers. Maybe the 21-year-old Lamb, who has 147 minutes of NBA experience, is ready to take on a sixth man role for a title conten -- I'm sorry, I can't even finish that sentence. Of course he's not.
The rotation for OKC currently goes seven deep, and that includes third year point guard Reggie Jackson. It also includes the aforementioned trio of non-scorers. (By the way, don't get me wrong on Sefolosha and Collison, who are both terrific defenders and contribute in myriad ways. Perkins on the other hand is almost completely useless.) It's not clear who would be the eighth man for the Thunder at this point. Derek Fisher (yet another point guard)? Lamb? Liggins? Gomes? Whoever it is, it won't be a name you'd expect to see making a major contribution to a great team.
Maybe I'm selling Durant and Westbrook short. Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant won three NBA titles together with very little scoring help from the rest of the Lakers roster. Maybe Durant and Westbrook are that good. Maybe they'll each take another step forward in their development (although frankly in Durant's case it's pretty tough to imagine where he can go from here). Maybe Ibaka is a better third option than I'm giving him credit for. All of that could prove enough for OKC to remain at the top of the west -- no one can really know.
But we do know that Martin is gone without an obvious replacement. And while we may not know for certain that it will be a big issue for the Thunder, I think it's going to be more problematic than anyone is admitting at this point.