Over the summer, the SB Nation NBA network bands together every week to do "theme days". Basically, all 30 team blogs write about a certain topic, and compare results. This week's topic is, "What if?"
Even though the Thunder are truly lucky to be where they are today, there have been forks in the road. Points where the Thunder could have gone in a different direction, with a potentially much better (or worse) outcome. Some of the more recently publicized forks have related to the James Harden and Kendrick Perkins trades, both of which have had their share of detractors.
But those trades have been discussed to death as of late, and I thought it might be more interesting to go further back in time and take a look at two other pivotal moments that shaped the Thunder into what they are today. First up, I'll throw it to J.A. Sherman, who will discuss what things could have been like if the Thunder had traded for Tyson Chandler. Then, we'll follow up with a essay of mine, where we'll discuss what the world would have been like if the Thunder had drafted Greg Oden.
What if the Tyson Chandler Trade went through?
by J.A. Sherman
On February 17th 2009, The Oklahoman's Darnell Mayberry reported this bit of news:
Oklahoma City acquired 7-foot-1 center Tyson Chandler in a trade with New Orleans on Tuesday, surrounding Kevin Durant, Jeff Green and Russell Westbrook with an anchor in the middle who's carved out a career through rebounding and shot-blocking.
"We are pleased to welcome Tyson Chandler to the Thunder organization," said Thunder general manager Sam Presti. "We are excited to add a young, defensive-minded big man that we feel can help us now and in the future. Tyson has ties to the Oklahoma City community and we are excited to have him with us as we continue to build our organization."
The ever-excitable Chard Ford had this to say:
"Marc Stein is reporting that they'll send Joe Smith and Chris Wilcox there (both expiring contracts) for Chandler. Great trade for the Thunder in my opinion. They needed a young, athletic big. They are stacked with talent now with Durant, Westbrook, Green and Chandler. If they add a two guard like James Harden in the draft ... wow."
A day later...a DAY later...
The Oklahoma City Thunder doctors have red-flagged a turf toe condition with newly acquired center Tyson Chandler and the New Orleans Hornets trade has been voided, league executives said Wednesday night.
"It's blown up," one league executive said.
The Hornets and Thunder completed the Chandler trade on Tuesday for Joe Smith and Chris Wilcox, and the rights to 2008 draft pick DeVon Hardin, but lingering problems with a "turf toe" injury crushed the deal, league sources said.
This news was stunning. The Thunder should have had a dominant defensive center who also understood the fine art of the game, having plied his craft with Chris Paul. Chandler would never be mistaken for Pau Gasol, but still his comprehension of all the little offensive nuances of pick and rolls, setting high screens, and timing made him adept at helping to create good shots on the offensive end of the court. Even though his contract would be expiring soon, the chance to have him for a limited time, and if he didn't want to sign long term let him walk and clear the cap space, seemed perfect for the young Thunder squad.
Instead, we saw a rare trade that was rescinded, Chandler went back to New Orleans. After this point, a number of events transpired:
- Chandler ended up in Dallas where he paired up with Dirk Nowitzki and was easily the 2nd most important player on the court as the Mavericks shocked the world and won the championship in 2011.
- Meanwhile, the Thunder realized that they were too shallow and soft up front to deal with the Lakers, Grizzlies, and Spurs in the West. They surprise everyone by swinging a blockbuster trade at the 2011 deadline that brought the Celtics' championship starting center Kendrick Perkins to OKC (along with Nate Robinson, who will absolutely cross you up, any time, any place) while shipping out Nenad Krstic and fan favorite Jeff Green. At the time, the deal was seen as an absolute steal for the Thunder.
- OKC parlayed Perkins' defensive intensity to a surprise 2011 playoff run, where they lost in the Western Conference Finals to the eventual champion Mavericks.
- Things are great.
- Fast forward to 2013. Things are not so great. The entire landscape of how the game is played has shifted and people are wishing the Jeff Green-Kendrick Perkins trade never happened. Fans are calling for Perkins to be amnestied and he's held partially responsible for the team's inability to re-sign James Harden.
What if Chandler had passed his physical, joined the Thunder in 2009, and was healthy enough to stay on the court as his personal history has played out?
- The Thunder, surprise winners of 50 games in 2010, may have added a few more to the win column and avoided the Lakers in the 1st round of the playoffs. Had OKC earned even one more win, they could have vaulted all the way to the #6 seed, and had they won 4 more, the #4 or #5 seed. Anything that could have helped them avoid the eventual champion Lakers would have bode well.
- The Thunder would have entered the 2010-11 season as one of the favorites, with a starting 5 of Durant, Westbrook, Chandler, Green, and Thabo Sefolosha, and bench players Eric Maynor, Nick Collison, Nenad Krstic, James Harden, and Serge Ibaka forming one of most talented 2nd units in the NBA.
- OKC would not have had needed to trade Green for Perkins, and would have remained incredibly athletic and dynamic defensively without having to surrender the necessary muscle up front to deal with the Lakers and Grizzlies.
- With such balance, 2011 might have been the year where OKC broke through to the Finals for the first time, as Chandler would have been playing in a Thunder jersey instead of a Mavericks uniform. Could they have taken down the Heat, also in a state of uneven rebirth in the wake of The Decision?
- This much is likely - even though Chandler might have been there in 2011, he most certainly would not have been in OKC in 2012. He went on the record repeatedly to say that the new CBA would prevent him from staying in Dallas. If Mark Cuban's billion dollar pockets couldn't keep Chandler, there was no way that smaller market OKC could.
- With Chandler gone and the Thunder having both cap space and a hole in the middle that they needed to fill, where would they have turned in 2012? It was in that season where OKC began to find its true defensive identity behind the intelligent defensive play of Perkins and Sefolosha, which in turn allowed superfreak Serge Ibaka to rely on his natural defensive instincts and lead the league in blocked shots, including 3 separate 10-block games. On the flip side however, if Green had never been traded, Ibaka never would have found the starting line-up and may never have progressed as quickly. Without Perkins, Chandler, or a developing Ibaka, the Thunder's chances in 2012 would have been small.
- Without both Chandler and Perkins on the books, could the Thunder have re-signed James Harden? The answer to that question is still probably, 'no.' As long as OKC had Durant and Westbrook signed to max contracts, Harden likely would not have gotten one. However, it is also possible that Ibaka would have still been undervalued at that point, which would have meant that his extension would not have been as high.
Which brings us to 2013 and today. The Thunder would be without Chandler, without Perkins, Harden would be likely gone and there is a good chance Green would have been as well, as the Thunder could not have afforded a big contract for him while still hoping to keep Ibaka. On the flip-side, the Thunder might have been more fluid offensively and defensively, found a cheap replacement for Chandler, and then been more prone to chase a solid big man like Marcin Gortat.
My final assessment: the Thunder would have gotten to the 2nd round of the playoffs in 2010 by virtue of missing the Lakers in the 2nd round. The Thunder would have broken through to the Finals in 2011, with Chandler playing the key role for OKC instead of Dallas. Given that Miami was still finding itself at that point, OKC's chances would have been 50-50. In 2012 however, the Thunder would have had to make a major step backward and not gotten quite as far. 2013 would have been impossible to predict, as OKC would either have re-created itself as a Heat-type team or they would have had to find other big men to fill the void.
What divergent paths we might have had that still manage to intersect.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere seasons and seasons hence:
Two roads diverged in a hardwood, and I—
I took the toe less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
What if the Thunder had drafted Greg Oden?
Though this option is an obvious one to think of, it's also one that was basically out of the Thunder's hands. Whether the then-Sonics drafted Greg Oden or Kevin Durant was totally up to the Trail Blazers front office. When you look back on the hype of that era, it's easy to see why Oden was such an appealing target, despite injury concerns and the face of a 40-year-old. I mean, we were emerging from an era of basketball where dominant big men still reigned. Shaquille O'Neal had just led his team to 4 of the previous 8 NBA titles, and Tim Duncan's Spurs had won 4 of the previous 9. Even the Pistons, who managed to win the title in 04, had a powerful defensive post presence in Ben Wallace. Those teams that managed to compete usually had to get defensive stopgaps in the front court, players who were capable of at least partially containing the big men who dominated the league.
On top of that, Oden wasn't a guy who lacked polish. Here's Oden's freshmen stats, compared to those of Shaq and Tim Duncan, the gleaming examples of franchise big men at the time.
Obviously box scores aren't the end-all be-all of the player, but it's clear that these three guys were all of a similar caliber.
Anyway, let's get to the point. Let's just say that Kevin Prichard had a last second change of heart in the Blazers draft room. It's already been revealed that there was at least some dissent in there, so it's not too far out to suppose that Pirchard would have made a move for Durant.
What then of the Thunder? Well, as I mentioned above, Oden is nearly impossible to pass up. The next three players taken (Al Horford, Mike Conley, and Jeff Green), didn't have nearly the ceiling that Oden had. They all had All-Star potential, but they weren't the next coming of Shaq. Plus, Oden's injury concerns stemmed from an injury to a ligament in his hand, something totally unrelated to the knee woes he would suffer later. And he had just played nearly a full season at Ohio State. It would have taken a very, very brave GM to pass up the big man.
So, the Thunder draft Greg Oden. He's ruled out for the 2007-2008 season, and the Sonics play one final disastrous season in Seattle. Without Durant, the team of journeymen probably wouldn't manage to win the 20 games that they did. They finish somewhere around 10-15 wins, and P.J. Carlesimo is likely fired.
With the lower win total, the Thunder likely go into the lottery at first place. It's impossible to say where they'd end up, so we'll go with how the lottery actually turned out. The Thunder would have fell into the second pick. They actually drafted 4th that year, so two more players would have been on the board. But both of those players (Michael Beasley and O.J. Mayo) faced questions about their character, and the feeble Sonics were about to move to a more conservative market. Plus, with Oden due to return next year, they needed a point guard. They end up drafting Russell Westbrook anyway.
So the Thunder head into their first season, and Oden fails to live up to expectations, playing injury-riddled minutes as a double-double guy. Jeff Green is relied upon as the primary scorer, and his game develops. Meanwhile, Westbrook develops. But they're all still young, and the team is a lot worse than their real life counterparts as a whole. The Thunder finish with about 15 wins, and are first heading into the lottery.
Unfortunately, their bad season doesn't pay off, and they end up drafting fourth. Because the Thunder messed up the standings, the Wizards end up drafting first and snatch Blake Griffin. The Grizzlies still take Thabeet, and the Clippers are left with the third pick. They need a bona-fide talent to jump-start their franchise, so they go with the risker, higher-upside Tyreke Evans as their pick. The Thunder, having no need for a point guard, still select James Harden.
Thus, the Thunder head into the 2010-2011 season with a bit of hype. Ibaka arrives from Spain, and the role players are more or less the same. But, disaster strikes when Oden has season-ending surgery in November. At this point, how good the Thunder are really depends on the development of Jeff Green. Considering he's one or two steps below KD, I'll say that the Thunder still grab the 8th seed that year. However, they're easily swept by the Lakers, as they have little-to-no post presence.
As we fly further from the original premise, it becomes harder and harder to determine how things would have developed. The Thunder probably still swing for Cole Aldrich, especially as Oden announces that he'll miss the 2011-2012 season. But when Jeff Green needs surgery to correct his heart condition and misses that same season, things probably take a turn for the worse. The Thunder become a team centered around Westbrook and Harden, and they end up missing the playoffs. Green's up for contract renewal, and Westbrook needs to negotiate an extension. All of a sudden, Oklahoma City isn't as enticing of a destination.
Anything beyond this point is dubious. But basically, if the Thunder drafted Oden, they'd be in one of two places today.
1. We'd be the Portland Trail Blazers. After Oden and Green leave, the team tries to rebuild around Westbrook and/or Harden, much as the Blazers rebuilt around Aldridge. (YES I UNDERSTAND THIS IS OBVIOUS)
2. We'd be the Atlanta Hawks of two years ago. Supposing that the Thunder re-sign Jeff Green, they probably become a lower-seeded Western Conference playoff team that just can't push things over the hump. After a few years of floundering in the first round, the team re-builds.
Neither option is particularly exciting or sexy. But both of them are the harsh realities of the NBA. As much of a genius as Sam Presti is, he can't control fate. And in order to be a successful NBA team, sometimes you've just got to get lucky.
But here's the important thing. Neither of those options are necessarily terrible places to be. Both of them have their moments, and neither of them involve floundering in the basement for years on end, like so many franchises have in the past.
What's the lesson here? Good management can only get you so far. But it can get you far enough.
What do you think of our what if scenarios? Do you have any of your own? Let us know in the comments!