At the beginning of this season, almost no one expected the Oklahoma City Thunder to be excluded from the postseason picture this early.
I suppose that's what is so exciting and heartwrenching about the NBA: Anything can happen. This anything was a bad thing for the Thunder, as they had their star guard Russell Westbrook taken away by a torn meniscus during the second game of the playoffs.
With the season over, Oklahoma City must look forward—not dwell on the past—if they want to remain in contention for an NBA title.
The silver lining to this offseason is that the Thunder do not have any major contract situations to work out (aside from Kevin Martin), and they also possess two first-round picks in the draft, including one in the lottery.
But what's really the most important thing on OKC's to-do list for the offseason this year? Let's rank the items and take a closer look.
3. Stay Positive and Stay Hungry
With a chance to tie the game in the closing seconds of Game 5 against the Memphis Grizzlies, Kevin Durant pulled up for a wide-open jumper that he'd make 11 times out of 10 in his sleep. Something weird happened, though, and the shot missed off the back of the rim. The world didn't end, but the Thunder's season did.
It wasn't Durant's fault, though. He did all he could to carry this team as far as he possibly could. Sometimes the balls don't bounce your way, and that's what the Thunder have to take away from this season.
Durant—in his post Game 5 interview—wasn't discouraged, though.
KD's suffered through postseason after postseason, coming up short every time, in obtaining that elusive NBA championship. Each time hurts more than the last, but they are all ultimately learning experiences.
This is the message Durant needs to convey to his team. He needs to step up as the leader he is and demonstrate that these trials only make him hungrier and stronger.
Staying positive at times like this is key. If these guys go into the offseason thinking that an NBA ring is unobtainable, that attitude will be contagious and will spread indifference and lack of effort around the locker room.
I know it sounds like I'm giving a half-time speech here, but the Thunder are too young and too full of potential to give up now. They have their core locked in, and their chemistry is among the best in the league. It's up to leaders in the locker room like Durant and Westbrook to make sure their guys stay motivated so that they can all reach their common goal of a championship.
2. Incorporate the Young Talent
One of the pleasant surprises following Westbrook's injury was how well the second-year point guard Reggie Jackson stepped up and over.
Since his shaky rookie campaign, Jackson's showed tremendous growth playing in the backup spot this year and answered the call when Westbrook went down. For the postseason, he averaged 13.9 points, 3.6 assists and 4.9 rebounds, doing more than his fair share to fill the void left by the man he backed up.
This production was great insight into how well talent can develop from sitting, watching and learning for most of a season, sorta like what players like Perry Jones III and Jeremy Lamb have been doing this year.
That's why I believe next year will be their year to really get some good burn in the rotation. The Thunder have both Martin and Ronnie Brewer as unrestricted free agents. I do think they'll make a strong push to keep Martin long-term, but if that deal falls through, Lamb would be thrust into the spotlight as a sixth-man option off the bench.
The same goes for Jones III, who could play either forward position. Without Brewer on the roster, Jones III could easily leap over DeAndre Liggins in the depth chart to earn some playing time.
If we see more of Lamb and Jones III on the court, we'd see a whole new set of weapons for the Thunder on both ends. Sure, there would be some growing pains with the young guns, but those wrinkles are best ironed out early in the regular season.
There's a whole lot of proven young talent on the Thunder who have made their names in the league, but now, it may be time for the even younger guys to fight for a chance to contribute on a regular basis.
1. Find a Replacement for Kendrick Perkins
I've tried and tried over the past couple seasons to really defend Kendrick Perkins. I have.
But this postseason felt like the final straw for me, and I really don't think Perkins is as valuable to this team as I'd always hoped he would be. As you can see around the 1:48 mark in this video, the Grizzlies were none to kind to the Thunder's big man during their playoff series.
Perk isn't usually a numbers guy, but one number really stuck out from his playoff performance. -0.7, according to Basketball-Reference.com. That's right. Perkins fell into the negatives for his Player Efficiency Rating. That essentially means he was so inefficient, it was actually helping the other team.
There were injuries last season that may have hampered his play in the postseason, but there were no excuses to fall back on for this year. Perkins was just flat-out bad, and I think it's time the Thunder move on.
I do know that Thunder GM Sam Presti is no hasty man and will not simply up and trade Perkins over the offseason. He will, however, seek to find an eventual replacement for Perk, possibly in the early part of this year's big-man heavy draft.
You can talk about his toughness, his edge and his championship experience, but at the end of the day, Perkins isn't getting it done on the court, and it's starting to really hurt this team.
Overall, there's no reason to really hit the panic button for the Oklahoma City Thunder. There were some major unforeseen areas of adversity this postseason, but it really showed the value Westbrook has for this team's success. Hopefully, he continues to transcend his diminishing criticism, so that Oklahoma City can come back full strength next season still vying for the pinnacle of success in basketball.