Though it's a bit earlier than most people expected, the 2012-2013 season is officially in the books for the Oklahoma City Thunder.
The bitter taste of postseason defeat tends to hang around for a bit, but it's time for the players and the organization as a whole to move forward and start planning for next season.
It's not always the easiest task to find room for improvement in a 60-win team, but there are some definite needs that Oklahoma City needs to address in the coming months. Fortunately, the Thunder's early exit from the playoffs allows them to focus entirely on the offseason.
Let's take a look at things chronologically and map out an ideal plan for OKC to have a truly successful offseason.
Even with the best record in the Western Conference this season, the Thunder managed to land a pick in the lottery via the Toronto Raptors, which was sent over from Houston as part of the James Harden trade.
Though the ping pong balls did not defy the overwhelming odds of Oklahoma City landing above their 12th slot, having a pick that high after a successful season is still a win for the Thunder.
In terms of who they should select, the Thunder could look to take the best player available on the board. However, I think it would be wiser for OKC to find a quality prospect to serve as an eventual replacement to the underperforming Kendrick Perkins.
Luckily, there are plenty of big men in this year's class who look like they could turn out to be solid contributors. While there may not be any stars that fall to the Thunder that low in the draft, all they need is an eventual starter who could bring more to the table than Perkins.
Zeller's athletic ability and solid speed for a big man would make him a wonderful fit for the Thunder, who thoroughly enjoy pushing the basketball down the floor. Instead of seeing Kendrick Perkins laboring down the court trailing his four teammates, it would be a breath of fresh air for Oklahoma City fans to see a youthful Zeller keeping up with the pace.
According to Draft Express' scouting report on Zeller, he is a great threat to score anywhere on the court, possessing reliable post moves, a decent jumper and a good ability to get to the foul line. This definitely sounds like the kind of guy that the Thunder could really groom and develop in the next couple of seasons.
While getting rid of Perk right away sounds tempting, Oklahoma City GM Sam Presti has already stressed via newsok.com that he will not be using the amnesty clause on him this offseason. Besides, it would do Zeller good to ease himself into the NBA instead of being thrust into the lineup as an immediate starter.
If Zeller is unavailable by the time the Thunder get on the clock, which is a very real possibility, there are other options out there like Kelly Olynyk of Gonzaga or Alex Len of Maryland. These two centers also have some good potential of their own, but Zeller would certainly be the best possible fit for Oklahoma City and could end up becoming a key to a championship run.
For the two other picks (one late in the first round at No. 29 and the other in the early second round at No. 32), the Thunder could go with the classic route of stashing talent from overseas, especially since there may not be a lot of roster spots available.
Instead, though, OKC should strongly consider finding a true small forward to play behind Kevin Durant. Though there are defensive specialists like Thabo Sefolosha and DeAndre Liggins on the roster that can play the small forward position, perhaps the Thunder should look for more offensive-oriented guys that can provide a spark off of the bench.
Taking risks at No. 29 and No. 32 overall would almost be no risk at all for OKC, who has an abundance of talent already. That's why they should strongly consider players like Reggie Bullock of the University of North Carolina or James Ennis of Long Beach State.
Bullock has some great spot-up shooting ability and can space the floor for Oklahoma City. Additionally, he rebounds well for his average size (6'7"), which is an area the Thunder could use help with in their second unit.
James Ennis is a bit more raw, but has freaky athleticism and great length for a wing player. Though nowhere near as good as Durant, his body type and style of play can mirror KD at times, so playing behind him would be ideal for his development.
If the Thunder wanted, they could even draft both of these prospects to see which one fits better as a reserve and reward that player with a valuable spot on the roster.
This draft has a lot of potential to be a great one for Oklahoma City, as they could really find some diamonds in the rough on June 27th. If his track record has shown anything, I have full trust in Sam Presti and know he'll do what's best for this team's success.
The primary concern for the Thunder going into free agency after the draft is not about who to sign, but who to re-sign.
Kevin Martin is the main target for OKC after he had a mildly successful year for the Thunder in his new sixth-man role. Though Martin's already expressed his high interest to re-sign for a long term deal, perhaps the Thunder should approach with caution.
Martin is now 30 years old and entering his 10th year of NBA service, meaning that he's logged some serious miles. Though he may not show signs of his age next season or maybe even the season after that, a long-term deal may not be what's best for OKC talent wise nor in a monetary sense.
Behind Martin is the young Jeremy Lamb, who was used sparingly this past year. Though we have no idea just how much Lamb would thrive, he has shown signs that he could perform well at the NBA level of competition.
I'm not saying that the Thunder should just shun the idea of keeping Kevin Martin, but rather that they should really try to keep the contract a bit shorter and the money amount smaller. Lamb would be a good source of leverage in negotiations, as he could possibly fill the same role Martin had (if not better) for less money.
In an ideal situation, Oklahoma CIty could re-sign K-Mart for a one or two-year contract. Even if they don't, Lamb has enough potential where he could rise to the occasion of becoming the new sixth man.
There's not much else for the Thunder to do in free agency with such little cap wiggle room and the possibility of bringing in three new players after the draft. However, if Dwight Howard came along with interest in taking a pay cut for a championship run, the No. 12 remains unused on the OKC roster.
The offseason could end up being a time of sour reflection for the Thunder, but it could also prove to be a big tipping point in terms of their championship contention for the next few seasons. The core may be locked in, but there's a lot to tinker with in the other areas of the team.
Oklahoma City has a lot to look forward to with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook putting on a show night in and night out. But Presti always finds ways to surprise us with hidden talent through the draft (see Reggie Jackson) and his smart financial philosophy in contract negotiations (see anyone but Kendrick Perkins).
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