Let’s start here: Just as the NBA looked more wide open than it had ever been, with the Golden State Dynasty finished and no Superteam rising up to take their place, the only team in the league with two All-NBA players blew up their roster in a stunning, franchise-altering trade in the dead of night. To fully suss out this deal and what it means for the future of the Oklahoma City Thunder, it’s worth pondering why Sam Presti finally pivoted to a rebuild.
Make no mistake: that is what Presti did in trading Paul George for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Danilo Gallinari, and approximately one billion draft picks. George is an in-his-prime superstar who finished in the top-3 in MVP voting last year, and had clearly surpassed Russell Westbrook as the Thunder’s best player. OKC swapped him for an exciting young rookie, a good but not great wing player, and draft picks that represent only hypothetical players at this point. That leaves the Thunder with Westbrook, a bunch of role players, and an up and coming rookie who plays Westbrook’s position. The Thunder have little choice but to rebuild.
So why now? Presti didn’t rebuild when Kevin Durant left town, opting instead to work with Westbrook on an extension and setting the ground for his MVP season. He didn’t rebuild when the Russ and Pals team were handily dispatched in the first round, instead swinging a risky deal for Paul George. Now he had Russ and PG, locked up on long term contracts, with a seemingly wide open NBA in front of him. Why rebuild now?
The answer is that Presti really didn’t plan to, but was given a true Godfather-style offer he couldn’t refuse. Ramona Shelburne described Presti as “crestfallen” when George asked him for a trade. Presti, to be clear, could have refused. George is under contract for 2 more years and still seems on good terms with Westbrook and the rest of his teammates and the organization, if social media can be trusted.
At all RT @JalenRose: I am not accepting any Westbrook slander!!!!— Paul George (@Yg_Trece) July 6, 2019
Presti would have been fully within his rights to refuse PG’s request and instead try to convince him that his best chance at a title was still in OKC.
But this trade tells us that Presti may not really have believed such a pitch in his heart.
If Presti really thought the Thunder had a legitimate shot a title with their current roster, he could have asked PG to play out the contract he signed last summer. That he didn’t tells us Presti probably didn’t see this team as a real threat to win it all.
Presti was probably happy to keep rolling with the Russ/PG duo, who at least were good enough for a guaranteed playoff appearance. He could have crossed his fingers for a magical run where everything finally breaks right, like the Mavericks experienced in 2011.
Certainly that’s what many Thunder fans were hoping for. No one would have been too upset if the Thunder ran it back. If the Clippers had made a “normal” offer for Paul George- say, the Heat picks, their own pick in 2021, and Gallinari to match salary- Presti could have concluded that the those assets, combined with whatever he could scrounge up in a Westbrook trade that followed, were unlikely to result in a team much better than the current one. The Thunder would be entering a rebuild just to end up with a team in 2024 that has a similar ceiling. At that point, you might as well stick with your current team and see what happens.
But the Clippers didn’t make a normal offer. They offered the mother lode- the Heat’s 2021 and 2023 draft picks (the 2023 pick is lottery protected in 2023, 2024, and 2025- a potential point of negotiation if the Thunder trade Westbrook to the Miami Heat), their own unprotected draft picks in 2022, 2024, and 2026, swap rights in 2023 and 2025 (so the Thunder will get whichever pick is better between theirs and L.A.’s), along with Gallianri, and Gilgeous-Alexander.
That offer drastically increases OKC’s odds of building an eventual championship winner.
The Thunder own the Clippers’ future now- a future that looks rosy at the moment. But as George’s departure just proved for the twelve hundred and thirty second time this offseason (not an exact figure), the NBA is unpredictable.
Sure the Clippers could win the title this year and next. But will George and Kawhi Leonard both resign after that? Will either lose a full season to injury, as both have in the past? Will both simply not be that good anymore by 2024, as tends to happen when players reach their mid-thirties? If any of those things happen, the Thunder capture the Clippers only reward for being bad, their draft picks, and the Clippers pay all the consequences.
In essence, the Thunder get to rebuild twice- now, with their own picks, and in a few years courtesy of the Clippers, even if the Thunder are back in the playoffs by the time the Clippers picks become available.
That’s without considering the Heat picks and whatever else Presti gets as he auctions off the roster (Jerami Grant already became another first rounder, though likely a late one, courtesy of Denver). Drafting remains such a difficult art that the best strategy for team building is simply to give yourself more opportunities than other teams. That was the logic of the process era 76ers, who missed completely on players like Jahlil Okafor, Nerlens Noel and Markelle Fultz (not technically part of the process, I know, Philly fans), but still wound up with Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid. The Thunder have now positioned themselves to get a similar number of shots at a superstar as the 76ers did. Nothing is certain, but the Thunder will have far better odds than a team who saw it’s stars grow old or walk for nothing before starting their rebuild.
This offer was never going to be found again. It is a preposterous overplay, even for a player as excellent as PG. It was only available because the Clippers saw it as a trade not just for George, but for Leonard as well, whose arrival was contingent on the Clippers bringing in PG.
They gave the Thunder two superstars worth of assets, even though the Thunder only directly controlled one. That was a deal too good to pass up. And even if Presti was “crestfallen”, he would have been in his rights to be a little giddy in private. The Thunder were fresh off two straight first round exits even with PG in the fold, and probably headed for more- even without a real superteam on the horizon, it was difficult to imagine the Thunder battling through teams like the Lakers, Jazz & Rockets (or even the Trailblazers again) just to reach the Finals, let alone triumphing over the Bucks or Sixers when they got there. Instead, Presti gets a jump start on a rebuild that he must have known was coming eventually, with a ton of assets in the bank to eventually build the next great Thunder team. You make this deal ten times out of ten.
It still came with a cost. The Thunder may not make the playoffs next season. The dreams of Westbrook and George lifting a trophy together are gone. The dream of Westbrook being a Thunder lifer and playing out his career in OKC is likely over. In a way, this deal, along with the seemingly inevitable Westbrook trade that will follow, marks the end of the first era of Thunder basketball. When Westbrook leaves, there will be no members of the original 2008 Thunder roster left. The big 3 of Westbrook, Harden and Durant will all be gone, leaving behind a series of tantalizing what-ifs, but no championships.
Really, though, that era ended a long time ago. It really ended when Durant departed- the Thunder have won a total of 4 playoff games in the 3 intervening years. Everything that followed was still meaningful and worthwhile (Westbrook’s MVP season will go down in history as one of the greatest displays of individual brilliance in defiance of impossible odds the sport has ever seen), but the Thunder have not truly been title contenders since 2016.
Barring this trade, they might not have been title contenders again until 2026, or even 2036. Now, Presti can get a head start on building the next Big Three. It comes at an enormous cost, but if the dream is to one day see the Larry O’Brien trophy triumphantly hoisted in Oklahoma City, there was no other choice.