Oklahoma City’s history in free agency has been rocky.
Often without tons of money to spend, the Thunder’s small market limitations have led the franchise to target mainly role players via free agency.
The few times they’ve gone big game hunting, they’ve come up short with Pau Gasol famously picked Chicago over OKC for the “culture”, and missing out on Al Horford after the big man waited out Kevin Durant to see where he would land.
It’s not been completely fruitless, however. When the Thunder were in the midst of contending for an NBA Championship, they did have limited success in the buyout market, as well as nabbing a few great additions who outplayed their initial roles.
Here are the top five free agent signings in Thunder history:
(Note: for the purposes of this article only players who initially signed with OKC through free agency were counted, for instance, disqualifying Paul George who played a year with the Thunder before signing again)
5. Caron Butler
Already a veteran, Caron Butler was a buyout target of the Thunder in 2014. After things didn’t work out for Butler in Milwaukee, he joined Oklahoma City for the last 22 games of the regular season, providing an immediate scoring spark. Knocking down 44.1 percent of his attempts from 3, Butler averaged 9.7 points per game for the Thunder leading into their deep playoff run. Butler continued his hot shooting into OKC’s first round series agains the Memphis Grizzlies. Shooting 40.7 percent from deep and 34.0 percent from the field overall, Butler added 7.9 points per game over his 28 minutes of playing time per contest to help OKC survive against Memphis in seven games. His shooting numbers, especially from deep, fell off as the playoffs went on, and the Thunder ultimately fell to the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference Finals.
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4. Patrick Patterson
Signing in the summer of 2017, Patrick Patterson was regarded as perhaps the best free agent the Thunder had ever landed while the ink was still drying on his contract. Considered a great stretch big, especially coming off of his stint in Toronto, Patterson had an up-and-down couple of years in Oklahoma City. Though his shooting numbers kept pace with the rest of his career percentages, Patterson often struggled to make an impact in the flow of the OKC offense. Playing alongside Russell Westbrook and Paul George opened the floor for Patterson, but it also afforded him fewer chances to make plays with the ball in his hands. As a result, he only averaged 3.9 and 3.6 points per game in his two years as a member of the Oklahoma City Thunder.
3. Nenad Krstic
Dating all the way back to the early days fo the Thunder franchise, few free agent additions made as big an impact as Nenad Krstic. Brought in during the franchise’s historically bad start in their inaugural season, Oklahoma City turned their fortunes around and finished 20-30 the rest of the year. The 7-foot-0 center gave OKC 9.7 points, 5.5 rebounds and 1.1 blocks per game, adding much needed toughness to the low block to help Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook develop through the early stages of their career. The next season, Krstic again helped bring grit and toughness the the OKC front lines, averaging 8.4 points per game as the Thunder arrived to the playoffs well ahead of schedule, giving the Los Angeles Lakers all they could handle in the first round.
2. Derek Fisher
Derek Fisher added championship pedigree to the franchise when Sam Presti was able to land him out of the buyout market in 2012. Ahead of the move, backup point guard Eric Maynor had just sustained a season-ending ACL injury, leaving just rookie Reggie Jackson behind to run the Thunder second unit. Thankfully for Presti, the 37-year-old opted to chase a title in OKC, imparting his years of experience to the young Thunder core in the process. Fisher wouldn’t have to wait long to exact revenge on the Lakers either. In the second round of the playoffs, Fisher and the Thunder tossed Los Angeles out of the playoffs in five games, punching their ticket to the Western Conference Finals in style. Despite a rocky shooting performance, Fisher gave the Thunder 7.2 points and 2.2 assists per game in 21.9 minutes of action against the Spurs, playing a role in Oklahoma City’s trip to the Finals. Though Oklahoma City fell short to LeBron James’ Miami Heat, Fisher was credited for the veteran presence he brought to the locker room during OKC’s lone trip to the NBA Finals.
1. Nerlens Noel
After turning down nearly $70 million in Dallas, Nerlens Noel signed with Oklahoma City in July of 2018 looking for a career refresh. Playing in relief of Steven Adams, Noel had two great seasons in Oklahoma City. Never a massive offensive threat, Noel brought a relentless energy to the defensive end of the floor, igniting the then-Chesapeake Energy Arena with explosive blocks on help-side rotations. The addition of Chris Paul in 2019 added another element to Noel’s game in OKC — towering alley-oops. A great rim-runner, Paul would lob passes to the rim that seemed to hang in the air for entire minutes before Noel would leap to meet the ball and slam it home. Noel’s offensive output grew from 4.9 points per game to 7.4 points per contest with the addition of Paul, proving he was more than just an athletic defender to be called upon when Adams was either gassed or struggling with a more nimble center. Unable to entice the center to rejoin ahead of the 2020-21 season, Noel signed instead with the New York Knicks for a reported $5 million, the biggest single-year payday of his career.
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