LAS VEGAS – Raise a glass, all, to the decade-long run of the Oklahoma City Thunder, a rise that began with a feisty first-round playoff loss to the Lakers, in 2010, and ends with a demoralizing defeat by Portland, in 2019, with a whole bunch of stuff in between. From James Harden to Serge Ibaka, Kevin Durant to, now, Russell Westbrook, the exodus from Oklahoma City is now complete, the era officially over.
On Thursday, Oklahoma City completed one of the speediest—if not stunning—tear downs in NBA history. Less than a week after agreeing to ship Paul George to Los Angeles for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Danilo Gallinari and a record haul of draft picks—and days after quietly moving Jerami Grant to Denver for another first-round pick—the Thunder ended Russell Westbrook’s 11-year run in Oklahoma, trading the 2016-17 MVP to Houston for Chris Paul, two protected first-round draft picks and two pick swaps, an NBA source confirmed to SI.com.
The Thunder are officially out of championship contention.
And Oklahoma City is better for it.
Did anyone who watched the Thunder play the last two seasons think that team was winning anything? There were plenty of excuses for the first-round flameouts. Carmelo Anthony was scapegoated a year ago; George’s bum shoulder was blamed for an embarrassing performance against Portland. Thunder officials will remind you that the team never recovered from the loss of Andre Roberson, injured midway through the ’17-18 season and who didn’t step on the floor in the most recent one.
OK, sure. But this team needed more, and with the Thunder deep into the luxury tax, help wasn’t coming. Sure, Oklahoma City was gearing up to make a run, agreeing to deals with Mike Muscala and Alec Burks early in free agency, tacking a couple more shooters on the roster. But those aren’t difference makers and there was mounting evidence that the Westbrook-George pairing had a ceiling.
The Thunder knew this. Sam Presti—Oklahoma City’s calculating GM—understood. There were reasons to give that team another year, to see if a healthy George, a returning Roberson and another year of continuity could yield results in a suddenly wide-open west. The Thunder promised George they would fight for championships when they re-signed him, and Westbrook has never settled for anything less. But if OKC’s season fizzled again, Presti was likely going to have to shop his stars next summer—without the suitors that were available in this one.
ESPN described Presti as “crestfallen” by George’s trade request. Disappointed, maybe. Presti and the Thunder organization put in yeoman’s work keeping George in the fold. But that request was manna from heaven, a gift from the basketball gods, and the team knew it. Presti could deal with two teams—the Clippers and Raptors—desperate to sign Kawhi Leonard, knowing that acquiring George was the only way to do it. He had the Rockets, a team with internal issues, needing to shake things up. Houston doubled as Westbrook’s preferred destination, no small wrinkle since Presti was never, ever going to ship his former franchise player to a destination he didn’t like.
Oklahoma City dealt two franchise cornerstones, and it’s hard to see how they could have got back more in return. They officially tumble from the ranks of the contenders but are armed to the teeth with what you need to build a team to rejoin them.
Make no mistake: The pressure is on Presti now. The Thunder are playing the long game here, but short term results are vital. Oklahoma City’s draft capital—what projects to be 15 first-round picks and four swaps in the next seven years, per ESPN’s Bobby Marks—is impressive, but picks eventually become people, and the Thunder need to land the right ones. Presti’s drafts have been mixed bags. He built a powerhouse around Durant and Westbrook by snaring Ibaka, and Reggie Jackson with late first-round picks, while turning Harden into the pick that became Steven Adams. But recent whiffs (Perry Jones, Mitch McGary, Cameron Payne) have set the franchise back.
Goes without saying, but let’s: Oklahoma City is going to have to hit on more than it misses.
There is the matter of Paul, too. It’s unlikely Paul will want to spend the twilight of his career with the rebuilding Thunder. Presti plans to meet with Paul’s agent, Leon Rose, in the coming days. Expect Oklahoma City to be willing partners in a trade. Miami, perhaps. Do not expect the Thunder to buy Paul out. Oklahoma City has no problem being competitive next season. With Paul, it would be hard for them not to be. Paul supplants Westbrook, Danilo Gallinari replaces George and while no one will be planning a ticker-tape parade through Bricktown, throw Gilgeous-Alexander, Adams, Roberson and Dennis Schroder into the mix and that’s not a team spiraling to the bottom. If Paul wants out, someone is going to have to come get him.
A new era dawns in Oklahoma City, and there will be different ways people remember the old one. They were the upstarts, the overachievers, the small market outsiders who vanquished the conference establishment, building an improbable power. They were the underachievers, a team of unfulfilled promise, forever haunted by the Harden trade and the thought of what could have been.
On Thursday, news of the deal broke while I was recording a podcast with Wizards coach Scott Brooks. Brooks was part of the fabric of those Oklahoma City teams, a patient, tough-minded developmental coach who brought the best out of a young roster. I asked Brooks: Does he ever wonder what could have been?
“Absolutely,” Brooks said. “You can always play the what-if game. And when you do that, the hypotheticals, they always play to your favor. I say, ‘We would have won five championships.’ But that’s easy for all of us to say. There were tough decisions that had to be made, and they were made.”
Indeed. Oklahoma City made another decision this week, and Russell Westbrook is gone. A long chapter closes for the Thunder. A new one begins.