Thunder fans have had quite a ride over the past 11 seasons.
There are no NBA championship banners. The parade route plans can be safely archived for a while. But the Thunder have had big time success. 515 regular season wins since the 2009-10 season, the second best in the NBA during that stretch behind San Antonio. Nine playoff berths over that span. Four appearances in the Western Conference Finals. One trip to the NBA Finals. Two NBA MVP’s. Russell Westbrook made individual history on a near-nightly basis over the past three seasons.
Ask your average Kings, Wolves, Hornets, or Nets fan what their last decade was like.
That first book in the history of the Thunder is complete, with the trade of Westbrook to Houston serving as the epilogue. In the aftermath of that move and the Paul George trade that preceded it, Oklahoma City finds itself with a good team. Not a team with legitimate title dreams. Not a mere move or two away from becoming a title contender again. But a good team.
Fans will eventually expect something better than merely good. So will the team ownership and management.
The two sides are likely to have radically different ideas on how to make that happen.
The Long View
From the moment that the Thunder acquired nine million future draft picks, fans with Trade Machine savvy began to pitch a number of ideas of how to unload them.
Bradley Beal. Karl-Anthony Towns. Devin Booker. The Next Disgruntled NBA Star. Any or all of those guys. Match salaries and sprinkle in a generous helping of picks. Make Thunder Great Again.
There are paths for OKC to be a perfectly good team now and over the next few seasons. A squad with Chris Paul, Danilo Gallinari, and Steven Adams will be good —at a minimum. Tack on a shooter here and a rebounder there and you just might have yourself a 2019 Detroit Pistons clone.
But let’s be honest, not even Pistons fans want that.
(Detroit has been at or near the bottom in home attendance by percentage for several years)
There’s no guarantee that Oklahoma City can replicate or improve upon the success it enjoyed in the past decade. But its best chances of making that happen are to eventually sink and, with a bit of luck, rise again.
All We Need Is Just a Little Patience
Antsy fans may want to brush up on the Stanford marshmallow experiment.
This study on delayed gratification tempted children with a choice between an immediate and a delayed reward. As the name implies, kids were offered either one marshmallow now, or two marshmallows if they were willing to wait a while longer.
Sam Presti and the rest of the front office probably want all the marshmallows. Maybe even the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man.
To have an elite title contender in the NBA, a team needs superstars. Only a handful of teams in the previous 30+ seasons have made the NBA Finals with a star-less group of Really Good Players. Toronto showed last season that skilled ball movement, sharp cuts, and creating open shots is wonderful, but in tight games you just let Kawhi Leonard go to work. OKC won countless games over the years largely due to the mere presence of Westbrook and/or Kevin Durant.
Like any other NBA player, teams acquire a superstar via one of three methods: free agency, trade, or the draft. And the order of effectiveness varies by team.
The Milwaukee Bucks were the league’s best regular season team. Giannis Antetokounmpo won the MVP award. The Bucks were a rare team that accomplished both things AND had the ability to create the cap room needed to pursue a max-level free agent.
Yet Jimmy Butler chose Miami —a mediocre team WITHOUT max cap space that needed a complex sign-and-trade to acquire him. Durant and Kyrie Irving chose Brooklyn. Leonard went to the LA Clippers and convinced Paul George —likely with very little or no pushback— to force a trade there as well. Neither Kemba Walker nor D’Angelo Russell gave much, if any, consideration to The Cream City.
When superstar NBA players hit unrestricted free agency, they just aren’t looking to relocate to Middle America —with the very rare exception of LeBron James returning to Cleveland in 2014. And who knows if James would have had any interest in the Cavs if he had been born in Moscow, Idaho rather than Akron, Ohio.
Now it’s happening more often with players under contract. George is now a Clipper after his second career trade request. Anthony Davis forced his way to the Lakers —the league’s third-worst team over the past five seasons— a year-and-a-half before he could opt out of his deal.
Trading for a superstar is an option, but Minnesota (Butler), Toronto (Leonard), and OKC (George) have hard data showing that such arrangements are usually very temporary. Ideally, that kind of player is acquired while he’s still on his rookie-scale contract and maintain significant team control, much like the Thunder did with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. But those trades are rare. The value of a star player on his first NBA contract is enormous.
The Oklahoma City Thunder Select...
That leaves the draft, where the Sonics/Thunder once unearthed three future Hall of Famers in three consecutive drafts, a feat so rare that Doctor Strange likely only saw it once in 14,000,065 Futures. It’s where Dallas found Dirk Nowitzki and San Antonio lucked into Tim Duncan and the Lakers convinced the Hornets to take Kobe Bryant for them and so on and so forth.
Of course, the draft is far from foolproof. The Warriors nailed several picks and formed the dynastic core of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green. On the other hand, the Cavs turned several high picks into Irving... and Dion Waiters, Tristan Thompson, and Anthony Bennett. Charlotte landed Kemba Walker in 2011 and has spilled the chili in every subsequent draft. Sacramento’s draft misfires since 2006 make for a hilarious gag reel.
But the Thunder have proven to be a tad more competent than than most when it comes to identifying talent. Stockpiling so many first round picks gives them multiple spins on the roulette wheel. Those picks that pan out could be kept with the team for up to 8 or 9 years under the current rules. Ideally at least one future star is among those picks.
Those are the marshmallows OKC should try for. And they likely will.
That may not sit well with those that want to win now at the expense of tomorrow, but it’s the most logical way forward in the league’s third-smallest market. It’s the difference between being merely good and potentially great again.
Now, choose your marshmallow.
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