OKLAHOMA CITY —
Oklahoma City isn’t likely to be the epicenter of the NBA offseason this summer, not after last year’s blockbuster trade of James Harden to Houston.
The Thunder are expected to follow last year’s roster shake-up with a series of additions in Thursday night’s draft — with hopes of returning to the top of the Western Conference.
Oklahoma City’s season came to an abrupt and unexpected end in the second round of the playoffs to Memphis, one round following a right knee injury to star point guard Russell Westbrook and a year after the team lost in the NBA Finals to Miami.
Kevin Durant’s wingman is expected to return to his old, explosive ways by the start of next season. His injury, though, exposed Oklahoma City’s need for a consistent third bit of star power in Harden’s absence — a need general manager Sam Presti hopes to fill.
The Thunder have three of the first 32 picks in the first and early part of the second rounds of the draft, beginning with the No. 12 pick that was acquired from the Rockets as a part of the Harden trade. Oklahoma City also has the 29th overall selection after a 60-22 regular season as well as the 32nd choice, a leftover from the 2011 trade that sent Byron Mullens to Charlotte.
Regardless of which players the Thunder come away with, they’ll be counted on to serve as a much-needed complement to the incumbent stars, Durant and Westbrook, along with the emerging Serge Ibaka.
“The thing that has really been our engine for our improvement on a year-to-year basis has been the internal development of our players, and that is a credit to our coaching staff,” Presti said last month. “We also want to continue to supplement them with players that complement them, and also are continuing to grow, as well as some players that (are) stabilizing forces.”
Even without Harden, Oklahoma City finished with the second-best record in the NBA last season — tops in the West. Durant won his fourth straight scoring title, averaging 28.1 points as the Thunder scored 105.7 per game, third-best in the league.
Durant struggled to carry Oklahoma City on his own without Westbrook at his side in the playoffs. He averaged 28.8 points per game against the Grizzlies, but shot 42 percent compared to 51 percent during the regular season.
Shooting guard Kevin Martin was brought in from Houston as a part of the Harden trade to try and serve as the Thunder’s third scoring option, but his shooting dropped off considerably during the playoffs.
Also, the former Western Carolina standout — who averaged 14 points per game during the regular season — is one of three potential free agents for Oklahoma City, along with midseason acquisitions Ronnie Brewer and Derek Fisher.
Regardless of the team’s draft picks, Presti said he expects the Thunder to remain among the NBA’s best and “put ourselves in position to where year in and year out we feel like we’re within a handful of teams that compete for a title.”
In order for that to happen, Westbrook — who upped his assists from 5.5 per game to 7.4 last season — must return to top form following his meniscus tear and surgery.
His injury came at the worst time possible for the Thunder, though Presti is counting on the frustrating experience to serve as a learning tool in the future.
“Certainly, the timing of when that injury took place was unfortunate because it didn’t allow for a whole lot of time to adjust or adapt, but as I said before, that’s sports,” Presti said. “You can’t control those types of things, but you do have to deal with them.
“I think we’ve dealt with them the best that we could, and we’ll be better for it.”