I’ve been firmly on Team Tank since the moment the Paul George trade broke. Before the season began, I predicted 24 wins, trades galore, and didn’t even think dealing Shai Gilgeous-Alexander should be off the table.
In one sense, the most significant thing to change since the summer is not the Thunder’s win total but, rather:
- The rising trade value of a handful of expensive veterans on the roster.
- Confirmation that a 21-year-old (SGA) is a blue chip worth scheduling the team’s timeline around.
In summary, Sam Presti can now sell high rather than selling low. Results of the 2019/20 campaign aside, Presti has preached 2021 and beyond. This season could be more than found money in the standings, but also a rapid appreciation of the team’s already strong asset base. I doubt he is as phased by a 57% winning percentage in a weakened Western Conference as the rest of us.
Were he to deal good players off of a legitimate playoff team, I would embrace it. Not because I relish losing, but because it would signal a vision and commitment to pursuing the best Thunder team “out there”, in his words. It would demonstrate a refusal to let the good become the enemy of the perfect.
No half measures.
There is another full measure that serves both short-term and long-term masters: full-throttle pettiness.
This team will be a massive underdog in any first round matchup. The current “winning is fun” effect would almost certainly be wiped away by a “losing sucks” gutpunch in the 2020 playoffs. The only potential first-round matchup I think they could win?
I’m sorry, but it’s the Houston Rockets.
I could cite some personnel and scheme Xs and Os that Billy Donovan has used in his favor before, or some history of the volatility of both James Harden and Russell Westbrook in the postseason.1Not to mention the organizational panic that Tilman Fertitta has been fostering for several months. But can’t you just feel it?
The most likely outcome of a Thunder/Rockets opening round would be for OKC to give a plucky challenge to the better team, tipping their hat to Westbrook and wishing him well after giving his new squad a noble test. I’m not sure that’s worth the chance at another star in the draft (which skipping the lottery would cost OKC), but the chance at historical redemption is too tempting to ignore.
Could there be any another triumph, short of winning a title, as satisfying as upsetting Houston for OKC? Sure, it would come at the expense of Westbrook, legend of legends in OKC. But it would also reverse the franchise-versus-franchise schadenfreude that has come at Oklahoma City’s expense ever since the Harden trade. In the midst of being gutted by bigger markets, a rebuilding Thunder team hangs on to conquer the enemy that just unceremoniously scooped up another of its best players.
Presti would have emphatically one-upped Daryl Morey in a second round of team building, in the context of a more difficult player-movement landscape.
The Rockets would explode. Picks due the Thunder would soar in value. The Harden years in Houston would not have amounted to the level of success the post-Harden years did for Oklahoma City.
As an added bonus, this could dovetail with keeping Dame Lillard and the Blazers out of the playoffs completely, just a year after his goodbye wave and interview-in-the-chamber figuratively nuked the Thunder.
A legacy, continued
The down home Okies have been anything but polite since arriving on the NBA scene. Always brash and unapologetically ahead of schedule as they picked off established Western juggernauts over the years, their manners emptied completely in the 2016 playoffs.
What I loved about that 2016 team was not just how good they were (before they overperformed in the postseason, they underperformed in the regular season, as was typical), and how close they came to upsetting the Death Warriors. They were also delightfully petty.
Statistics, facts, and reality be damned, the team rudely challenged everyone in its path. Westbrook and KD laughed at Steph Curry’s defensive reputation. Kevin Durant dismissed Mark Cuban’s intellect and, in the next breath, excused Charlie Villanueva from the league. Dion Waiters got away with murder. Donovan pretended not to notice.
Westbrook’s defiant MVP campaign carried that tradition on, as he vowed to come at the foes who had gotten the better of the Thunder in the league’s cosmic drama.
Until further notice, I’m changing jerseys to Team Compete.2My apologies if this jinxes an immediate cascade of Thunder trades. Not because winning is fun, but because I want to ruin everyone else’s. It’s a Thunder tradition.
The rebuild will come soon enough. In the meantime, let’s get petty.