One of the biggest challenges currently facing Sam Presti and the Thunder is deciding what to do with point guard Reggie Jackson.
Jackson has been a big part of the Thunder's offense since James Harden was traded prior to the 2012-13 season. His 13.1 points per game led the Thunder's second unit last season, but if Jackson has his way, he'll be taking his talents to the starting lineup in 2014.
Presti and the Thunder brass face two tall hurdles when it comes to retaining Jackson. The first is money, which is a hot topic with any player. But the second could be just as troublesome for Oklahoma City. Jackson wants to start.
And who could blame him? Jackson started 28 games last season in place of the injured Russell Westbrook and played beyond admirably. The Boston College product earned a career-high 28.5 minutes per game and proved that he's ready to start in this league.
But financially, the Thunder might not be able to afford him. And as far as the starting lineup goes, OKC already has a point guard. These may sound like problems to many, but don't count Presti in that group.
“We see him (Jackson) as a core member of the team and we're gonna put our best foot forward (into the negotiations),” Presti said at a press conference on Thursday. “And I believe he will as well to see if we can figure something out.”
Jackson is in the final year of his contract and the Thunder has until the end of October to sign him to a long-term deal. If they can't work one out, Jackson will become a restricted free agent next offseason. That means that he'll be able to shop around with other organizations, and if he chooses to sign with one, the Thunder would have an opportunity to match that money and retain Jackson's services.
Signing Jackson will be tough. The Phoenix Suns gave point guard Eric Bledsoe a five-year, $70-million deal on Wednesday, which boils down to a cool $14 million a year. Like Jackson, Bledsoe is a 24-year-old point guard with a ton of offensive talent. Bledsoe averaged 17.7 points per game last season; his first with Phoenix.
If you use that Bledsoe deal as a barometer for what Jackson could land on the open market, that's bad news for OKC. Even with Kendrick Perkins' and Nick Collison's combined $11+ million coming off the books after this season, signing Jackson for that type of deal would leave the Thunder financially hamstrung.
Presti would undoubtedly love to extend Jackson right now and not take the risk of him leaving via free agency in a year. And when it comes to the Bledsoe deal, the Thunder GM doesn't believe it necessarily means much for Jackson.
“Those are free agent contracts, what we're looking to try and do is an extension,” Presti said. “And I think if we don't get an extension done this fall, then we roll into free agency. And every year is different in that respect.”
One thing Presti made clear is that the organization isn't looking to deal Jackson. The Thunder dealt Harden to the Houston Rockets for a large haul in anticipation of him not re-signing in OKC.
“That's just not something that we've considered,” Presti said regarding any trade rumors. “He's a guy we see being here a long time.”
With Thabo Sefolosha gone, it remains unclear whom the Thunder will start at the shooting guard slot. Jackson wants to play the point, but would likely accept the off-guard position if it meant that he could start. Other candidates include Jeremy Lamb, Anthony Morrow and Andre Roberson.
Presti gave no direct indication whether Jackson would start or not, declaring that it is a decision to be made after training camp. But if you read between the lines, the odds don't look good for the defensively-challenged Jackson.
“We've always had a defensive disposition to begin games,” Presti explained. “And a really explosive bench group that usually grows and gives our coaching staff a lot of options. Reggie is a major impact player for us and he's a guy that helps us sustain out attacks.”
“The most important thing, once training camp starts, is winning. And focusing on what your contributions are and how you can best be maximized by the decisions the coaching staff makes. I would be surprised if Reggie is focused on anything other than how he best impacts this particular team.”
The Thunder needs Jackson around if they want to remain a championship contender. As we've seen in the past two postseasons, Kevin Durant can't do everything by himself. Presti knows that, too. So you can bet that regardless of what happens, he'll do everything he can to keep Jackson in the Thunder blue.
“These things aren't easy to do, but we're gonna give it our maximum, best chance to make it happen,” Presti said. “Knowing that if it doesn't, we come back next summer and we pick it up again. If it doesn't happen (before October) all it means is that it hasn't happened yet.
”We want to invest in Reggie.”