LeBron James. Kevin Garnett. Paul Pierce. Ray Allen. LaMarcus Aldridge. Carmelo Anthony. Chris Paul. Shaquille O'Neal. Dwight Howard. Kevin Durant. What do these Hall of Fame worthy names have in common? They bolted from their original franchises, and the gaping holes left in their wake shook their jilted former teams to the core.
Each departure not only crippled their respective team, it likely devastated the entire city, if not state. Superstars are irreplaceable, even All-Stars like Aldridge leave a void that cannot be filled by another player. That's why they are stars. That now becomes the reality in Oklahoma City, with the ghost of the Slim Reaper set to haunt OKC for years.
In a market already pillaged through the money splashing of free agency, the small forward options are looking scarce. Sam Presti is not known for panic moves, and that would be a mistake. The classic bad move in this situation would be to make a move to try and fill the Grand Canyon sized space created by Durant becoming a Warrior.
The Thunder General Manager will be more than aware however that this is not possible, and will only make a move that truly benefits the franchise going forward. This also ties into the fact Russell Westbrook's future is far from certain in Oklahoma City, and until his contract extension is sorted it is hard to plan out the rest of the team's future.
Dion Waiters is likely departing the the Thunder, with his qualifying offer rescinded by the team on Monday. His cap hold remains on the books as the team did not renounce his bird rights, and now that Waiters is a unrestricted free agent he won't be on the market long. It's hard not to assume the Philadelphia 76ers wait in the wings.
Beyond that though, the franchise has a decision on how they want to proceed going forward. It is the examples of other departed superstars that they can learn from on how to proceed, or more precisely how not to.
When LeBron James left Cleveland in 2010, the uproar was unlike anything ever seen in sports. The entire state of Ohio felt betrayed, and the jersey burning of Kevin Durant was nothing compared to the riot worthy happenings taking place all around the city James had spent his entire career in.
A short-term team-building approach crippled the franchise, as acquisitions like Shaquille O'Neal and Antawn Jamison came back to haunt the Cavaliers once James left town. After winning 61 games in 09'-10', they suffered a 42-game turnaround and finished the 2010-11 season with 19 wins and 63 losses. They then won 21, 24 and 33 contests in the following seasons.
Good fortune in the draft got them Kyrie Irving, and the pick (Andrew Wiggins) that got them Kevin Love after James returned. Oklahoma City can't count on that sort of once-in-a-lifetime good luck. The Cavaliers won 117 games in four years without LeBron, and have 110 (not including Playoffs) in the two years since he returned -- including an NBA Championship. It's scary to think where they'd be without the return of their King.
They may have become the next Minnesota Timberwolves, who fell apart when long-term franchise cornerstone Kevin Garnett changed teams, so he could reach his goal of finally winning the long elusive first title. The Wolves in good faith did the right thing by their player at the time, sending him to Boston in a mega-deal after the Celtics traded their number five pick in the draft for Ray Allen.
The only problem for the Timberwolves would be what followed. Years of mediocrity. Minnesota hasn't seen the Playoffs apart from on television since Garnett headed for the East Coast. In the 8 seasons since: 220 wins, 502 losses at a winning percentage of .305. To compound that, the Wolves haven't had a .500 season once in those eight years. That is abysmal.
Garnett's Boston faced a similar rebuilding dilemma when himself, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen reached the twilight of their careers. Allen headed for South Beach, whilst Garnett and Pierce headed for the bright lights of Brooklyn. Danny Ainge was smart though, and collected assets as his stars sought further success elsewhere.
This is a method Presti has already adopted with moving Ibaka for what has to be considered a haul from Orlando. Boston is still reaping the lottery-rich benefits of the Brooklyn trade; as Ainge fleeced the Nets of their future and gave the Celtics an incredible one in the process.
Masai Ujiri did the same for the Denver Nuggets when Carmelo Anthony wanted the big stage of home, Madison Square Garden. He got his wish when the Nuggets shipped him a year before his contract expired. Anthony had little intention of staying long term, having turned down extension offers prior to the deal.
In the deal Denver netted Wilson Chandler, Raymond Felton, Danilo Gallinari, Timofey Mozgov and a first round pick in return for Anthony, Chauncey Billups (who'd later be amnestied by the Knicks), Shelden Williams, Anthony Carter and Renaldo Balkman. Despite losing their main star and a player that doesn't come round to a franchise very often, the Nuggets netted themselves the very best return.
New Orleans attempted something similar at the end of that year, when Chris Paul was traded to the Los Angeles Clippers a week after his trade to the Los Angeles Lakers was vetoed by the NBA for "basketball reasons". Paul was sent to the Clippers in return for Eric Gordon, Chris Kaman, Al-Farouq Aminu and a first round pick.
At the time the trade was lauded as a fair deal, but turned out to be a disaster for the Pelicans (who were the Hornets at the time). If Anthony Davis doesn't fall into their lap at number one in the draft, their future would not be bright like it is now. By all reasoning, they are still recovering from Paul's inevitable departure.
The Orlando Magic have faced similarly tough issues in the departure of a franchise player. When Dwight Howard finally left town for the Lakers in the 2012 off-season, the Magic were enjoying five straight semi-successful Playoff campaigns and seasons well above .500. Since Howard's departure the Magic have tried to rebuild, but are still doing so and haven't returned to the postseason. They've switched to win-now mode this off-season, and that might be a big reason why.
These are all various scenarios the Thunder now could face, depending on how Presti chooses to act. The talisman though is Westbrook and what he does. If Oklahoma City can convince him to renegotiate early and take the extra $8.8 million this summer, he could opt out in 2018 and become the NBA's first $200 million player. But he may want to join an immediate contender and that is the current question.
If Westbrook even gives the slightest hint he sees his future outside Oklahoma City, the best-case scenario for the Thunder will be to pursue deals similar to what Denver managed to get for Anthony. Boston and Los Angeles offer the best deals and whilst other places could offer good packages, it's unlikely Westbrook would want to extend elsewhere.
The Thunder can relaunch on the fly like Portland did after losing Aldridge, building around their other superstar in Damian Lillard. And Westbrook is certainly on another level to what Lillard is, not to mention having Steven Adams, Victor Oladipo and more to work with.
Departures of superstars can cripple a franchise, but it's onto Sam Presti and the Oklahoma City Thunder to decide how much it will do so, and for how long.