Thunder make historic choice to trade star tandem, start over

Dan Feldman

The Thunder – despite having stars Paul George and Russell Westbrook – lost in the first round for the second straight year.

“This is a team that can go far,” George said at his exit interview. “We have pieces in place to have a long postseason run.

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“I’m still trying to wrap my head around that, on what’s the next step, the next phase for this group going forward.”

George eventually found his answer – requesting a trade to the Clippers to play with Kawhi Leonard. Oklahoma City acquiesced and then worked with Westbrook to deal him, too. The Thunder are sending Westbrook to the Rockets, completing an unprecedented star teardown.

Oklahoma City is the first team in NBA history to trade two reigning All-NBA players in the same summer.

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This is only the third time a team has lost multiple reigning All-NBA players through any mechanism in the same offseason. The other two:

1998/99 Chicago Bulls: Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen

Jordan retired after winning his third straight championship and sixth in eight years. As the 1998 offseason stretched into 1999 due to a lockout, the Bulls – ready to enter a new era – signed-and-traded Pippen to the Rockets. Chicago stunk for the next six years.

1951 Indianapolis Olympians: Alex Groza and Ralph Beard

Groza and Beard both got banned from the NBA for a point-shaving scandal during their time at Kentucky. The Olympians folded a couple years later.

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Lowering the standard from All-NBA, a few more teams have lost multiple reigning All-Stars in the same offseason. Beyond this year’s Thunder, the other three:

1977 Indiana Pacers: Billy Knight and Don Buse

Forced to pay an entry fee with their merger from the NBA, the Pacers faced financial difficulties after their first NBA season. So, Indiana traded its best players – Knight to the Buffalo Braves for Adrian Dantley and Mike Bantom, Buse to the Suns for Ricky Sobers. Indiana clearly had seller’s remorse, later reacquiring both Knight and Buse.

1964 Detroit Pistons: Bailey Howell and Don Ohl

Following a miserable season, the Pistons traded Howell and Ohl to the Baltimore Bullets for Terry Dischinger, who won Rookie of the Year the season prior. But after one good season in Detroit, Dischinger went into the military and returned a couple years as a lesser player.

1957 New York Knicks: Nathaniel Clifton and Harry Gallatin

The Knicks missed the playoffs for the first time in their 11-year history then sent Clifton and Gallatin to the Pistons for Mel Hutchins. All three players lasted only one more season in the NBA.

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It’s unsurprising teams have so rarely broken up both parts of a star duo. It’s hard enough to get multiple stars on the same team. Once that’s in place, few teams or players want to end the arrangement.

But the Thunder looked stuck. They were already deep into the tax and didn’t get out of the first round. They were too expensive to upgrade further, too good to tank.

George did Oklahoma City a favor by ushering in its next era. The Thunder got Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Danilo Gallinari (who could be flipped) and a massive haul of draft picks from the Clippers. Westbrook netted even more draft considerations from Houston. Oklahoma City has a tremendous head start on its rebuild.

That’s the benefit of trading high-level players before they decline out of stardom.

But that’s also a scary plan. It’s difficult to disrupt a status quo that includes such good players and even moderate playoff success. Few teams or players have the guts for that.

George and Westbrook found even better team situations. They didn’t feel beholden to the Thunder and exercised their rights to push their way out.

Oklahoma City dove in headfirst into that plan in a way no other team ever has. It might be painful in the short term, but the Thunder will be better in the long run because of it.

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