Last season the Oklahoma City Thunder were on the brink of making a trip back to the NBA Finals, and appeared to have as bright a future as any team in the entire NBA.
Great depth in the post, athletic guard play, two superstars. OKC could win in many ways, and proved that by dropping the San Antonio Spurs in six games before nearly knocking off the best regular season team of all-time in the Western Conference Finals.
Defeat had come upon the Thunder, but President and GM Presti didn’t stay deterred. He went to work and strengthened his already potent team with the acquisition of Victor Oladipo from the Orlando Magic. Oladipo’s feisty playing style and cool demeanor looked to be a perfect fit, and Presti, who crafted a roster by paying careful attention to the strengths of his superstars, was praised for setting the Thunder up for sustained success in the NBA’s second smallest market.
“We have a really special group of people, We finished the season the fifth youngest rotation in the NBA since 2010, and we're also in a position where we feel like we can continue to add to our team without having to deplete it or gut it in order to make progress, which is an exciting place to be in a salary cap system,” Presti said at his exit interviews to end the season.
But with Kevin Durant’s shocking departure to join the Golden State Warriors, OKC’s foundation was suddenly rocked, and without Durant manning down the small forward position, the Thunder now has a gaping hole in its once pristine roster.
So instead of building around Durant, Presti must use his mastermind tactics to find a replacement for the franchise’s “Founding Father”. To no one’s surprise, Presti has stressed the organization will not panic and make a hurried decision on what the next step is.
It's going to take the Thunder a moment to regroup, but Sam Presti is sharp, likely has some Plan B blueprints he hoped he wouldn't need— Eric Pincus (@EricPincus) July 4, 2016
"We've never been impulsive. We've never been reactionary. We've never been careless with putting this franchise in the best possible position to be strong and healthy and competitive," Presti said after Durant made his decision to leave. "So, we wouldn't change that right now."
That being said, there’s a few options Presti could take moving forward with the roster. Some have suggested the Thunder should consider trading Russell Westbrook, who will be an unrestricted free agent after this season and could potentially leave without the Thunder getting anything back in return.
Russell Westbrook excels without Kevin Durant being on the floor. pic.twitter.com/qoFCD6Gvae— Thunder Nation (@_ThunderNation) July 8, 2016
But instead of dishing off the Thunder’s lone remaining superstar, Presti will likely consider finding a way to build around him, and that starts by finding a replacement for Durant.
Clearly it’s impossible to find someone who will bring what Durant does on a nightly basis, but OKC was able to strengthen the shooting guard position with Oladipo, therefore a downgrade from Durant at small forward may not be as noticeable in the Thunder’s overall perimeter play if the drop off from the replacement isn’t significant.
That’s where Rudy Gay comes into play.
The 6-foot-8 swing man has a similar frame as Durant, and his scoring ability can’t be debated, seeing Gay has averaged 18.4 points per game throughout his 10-year NBA career.
Durant’s absence in the Thunder’s offense leaves room for a lot of points to be scored, and Gay is plenty capable of putting the ball in the basket. The UConn product is a career 48 percent shooter from the field and has knocked down 34 percent of his three-point attempts.
With a constantly improving roster like the Thunder, Gay would bring enough scoring punch to keep OKC competitive in the west. He may not be the difference in the Thunder winning the championship or not, but it’s very possible the Thunder could still win 50 games with the addition of someone like Gay on the roster.
Not only would Gay be the ideal fill in for the short term, but supposedly he’s available.
Kosta Koufos, Ben McLemore and, of course, Rudy Gay are three Sacramento Kings available via trade, according to league sources— Marc Stein (@ESPNSteinLine) July 8, 2016
Sources maintain Rudy Gay, no matter what happens with Indy, is right there with Greg Monroe in terms of proven players available via trade.— Marc Stein (@ESPNSteinLine) July 2, 2016
The Thunder are in an unfamiliar position without Durant on the books, and if they don’t bring back Dion Waiters, OKC will have about $20 million is cap space. Gay is slotted to make $13.3 million next season with a player option the next year for $14.2 million. Therefore, he’s very affordable without committing for the long term.
Gay does have some flaws in his game, and has taken criticism in the past for taking too many shots. Another downfall is his lack of playoff experience, as he only saw the postseason in the 2011-12 season when he was still with the Grizzlies.
But like the old saying says, “beggars can’t be choosers,” and the Thunder certainly aren’t in a position to coast by without making an indication to Westbrook that they’re serious about winning. Moves to improve the roster are absolutely necessary if OKC has any chance of re-signing their star point guard.
But there’s one thing to remember: there aren’t a lot of “all-star” perimeter players out on the market. Gay may not qualify as a star, but he’s a proven commodity that comes at a reasonable price. And there’s value in the fact OKC wouldn’t have commit for the long haul.
Maybe Presti will opt to go in another direction than Gay. Perhaps he’ll enter the season with this roster, and sort through some things and potentially acquire a significant piece at the trade deadline when more teams become desperate to move assets.
But to ensure the Thunder aren’t that desperate team at the deadline, it may be a good idea for Presti to seriously consider making a deal for Gay before another team does.