Since moving to Oklahoma City back in 2008 the Thunder have, for the most part, maintained consistency. Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka were mainstays of the core for eight years together, and there wasn’t much roster turnover.
That consistency started to trickle away as guys simply left (Durant) or were traded (Ibaka), and the roster rebuild began in 2016 with those pieces in motion. Three years later came the 2019 offseason, when the Thunder would see the most roster turnover they’ve had since re-locating to Oklahoma City.
The Thunder watched title windows slam shut due to untimely injuries, bad luck, inability to close teams out and then Durant deciding enough was enough. The Westbrook show was fun on a nightly basis, but the fact remains that when Durant left, so did OKC’s chance of winning a title as constructed.
Westbrook, George and Carmelo Anthony provided small hope they could win a title with a big three, but who would’ve known that would dwindle with an Andre Roberson injury? Sam Presti decided it was time to pull the plug and made the ultimate decision to rebuild from the start. Thunder fans will soon realize it was the right idea.
The Thunder were strapped on the cap heading into this offseason with little room to improve the limited roster. Their big signings to provide shooting were Alec Burks and Mike Muscala. Exit Westbrook, Paul George and Jerami Grant, who were all very big parts of the Thunder the last two years together. Enter a plethora of draft picks, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Danilo Gallinari, 9-time All-Star Chris Paul, future assets, cap relief, more hair pulling, more losses and the list goes on and on.
The Thunder were left in a rough spot, as Burks and Muscala were allowed to re-think their commitments after the George deal. Burks didn’t see OKC as a logical stay and bolted for Golden State. Muscala stayed and will provide veteran leadership.
By trading George, Westbrook and Grant, Oklahoma City maneuvered their way to $921K over the tax threshold and with one more small deal can completely duck the tax line this year. That is a given, as there is no point in paying the tax for a team that won’t contend for a title. A deal involving Gallinari or Dennis Schröder is a possibility.
The Hoarding begins
OKC first built this roster by drafting Westbrook, Harden, Ibaka and Durant and turning them all into good NBA players. OKC now needs the 2.0 lite version of this to happen.
This offseason, OKC positioned themselves from a rough scenario to bright hope for the future. Equipped with eight first round draft picks and multiple pick swaps from their trades, they now have the flexibility to draft premium players or make a big trade to get another superstar.
Presti was smart. He wanted to maximize the value of the draft picks and pushed them out the future. It may be frustrating to wait for but here is the hope: The Los Angeles Clippers’ picks arrive when George and Kawhi Leonard can opt-out, and the Rockets picks start when James Harden and Westbrook each are in their mid-30’s. And they have the ability to swap with each of those teams the other years.
You can never have enough draft picks, and turning them down is like telling your boss, “I don’t want that raise; I’ll keep working for what I’m already making.” Starting in 2022, the Thunder essentially own the draft for a five year span. They will have up to three first round picks some years, and can swap if there is a better pick. Having Gilgeous-Alexander, Darius Bazley and young guys that can grow helps expedite this process and gives the Thunder the ability to win games, develop their youth and not worry about their draft position thanks to the swaps.
The Thunder could even decide they want to use the draft stock to get another star. Let’s say a Devin Booker becomes available, OKC has plenty to go out and get him.
The Westbrook show was fun on a nightly basis, but the fact remains that when Durant left, so did OKC’s chance of winning a title as constructed.
I see Paul staying on the roster for the 2019-20 campaign. His contract is pricey and the best time to trade him will be in a 2020 offseason that doesn’t feature many big names. I also see Steven Adams, who looks to have great chemistry with Paul, sticking on the roster amid trade rumors that may or may not be true.
Three names I do see being traded are Nerlens Noel, Gallinari and Schröder. I don’t see them in the team’s long-term plans and they can help save the Thunder money this year. Gallinari has good trade value. He is instant offense and when healthy can help a contender. He should net a pick or two at the deadline with a younger player. Noel will attract interest. He has started games in this league and is on a veteran’s minimum deal. He may not garner a first round pick, but a few second rounders would work.
The more draft stock the better for OKC. They could attach some to Paul if they decide they want to move out of that deal down the line.
Compared to some players, Schröder has a decent contract at 2-years, $31 million left, so there could be some value there. He won’t reel in a huge catch, but something light to get out of the remainder of the contract would be ideal. Paul is great to have on the roster and will help a rising star like Gilgeous-Alexander in the NBA, but throwing in Schröder as well is adding too much to the mix. Schröder has started some preseason games to possibly boost value, but having Schröder and Paul alongside SGA could stunt his growth with the ball in his hands. I believe Schröder will move back to the bench and Terrance Ferguson or possibly Hamidou Diallo will enter into the starting lineup as a tiny small forward.
As set up, there are three players who will expect to see heavy minutes. Gilgeous-Alexander, Adams and Paul will all see at least 30 minutes per night. Gallinari should see good minutes but again I expect him to be traded by the deadline. Schröder and Ferguson should split minutes playing in combo positions. Diallo has the possibility to start if Ferguson doesn’t show more growth and Schröder gets traded.
One name we haven’t forgotten is the uncertain Andre Roberson, who still is not participating in full-contact practices or playing in games. At the time Roberson signed his extension, it looked to be a steal. But with him being out almost two years now the Thunder have lost most of their investment. His contract comes to an end this year. Oklahoma City has seemed to plan without him moving forward, loading their wings this summer.
The George domino fell and people were upset, but the last three years of Westbrook’s run have been (albeit historic) very stressful and fans have three playoff wins to show for it. This is coming from a team that was guaranteed to win double-digit playoff games every year from 2010-2016 when healthy. George and Westbrook are dominant players in this league and a lot of fans were upset to see them go. But the fact remains, both players have an injury list building up and moving towards building the future was the right move.
We all loved Westbrook. He gave his all for the Thunder franchise. But let’s face it: as constructed OKC was not winning a championship. They turned a sticky situation into one that is set up better than any other team for the future. Now fans just have to be patient and let it take its course.
There is a tough scenario that could play out. Look at the Boston Celtics: they owned the Brooklyn Nets’ future and it didn’t turn out the way people expected. They’re now mixed in the shuffle of pretenders out East and are below a tier from the Philadelphia 76ers and Milwaukee Bucks. Fans will be irritated if the players they do select aren’t playing at an All-Star level from the opening. But I believe this will play out in OKC’s favor due to the abilities of Presti and co. to draft and develop. My ultimate guess is they trade a bundle of picks for an established player and keep a few to draft.
There will be bright moments and there will be absolutely ugly moments, but fans have been through this before. In 2008-09 the team started off 3-29 and the fans even booed the players. Look what that turned out to be in the end. Presti is a good general manager, he made the moves necessary to get this team back to being a contender in the future.
With the trades that have been made and the many more that may come this season, you will get back to loving Thunder basketball and its winning ways very soon. Presti re-charged this rebuild with deals this offseason. Now buckle up for the ride and remember during the bad times: we have made it through the pain before.