A few hours before free agency began, the Oklahoma City Thunder were trapped, staring a slow descent in the face.
Kevin Durant? Gone. Russell Westbrook as the MVP? Great. Russell Westbrook with just one year left on his contract and no guarantees that he’d want to stick around beyond then? Not so much.
Plus, a payroll that was slotted in at around $110 million without free agents Taj Gibson and Andre Roberson, all for a team that won 47 games only because of Westbrook’s triple-double rampage? In that small market, where going over the luxury tax was a no-no when KD and James Harden were there? That’s the kind of cap hell that’d swallow almost any general manager whole.
It did not swallow Sam Presti. Instead, the Thunder’s general manager traded for Paul George, performing a Jedi mind trick on the Pacers to accept the modest package of Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis. No picks (the Thunder didn’t really have any to trade). No other key starters. Just those two.
In one fell swoop, Presti gave the Thunder the possibility of actually doing something meaningful. OKC is hardly out of the woods after Durant left last summer since George could easily walk to the Lakers next year and break Thunder fans hearts again, but at least they have hope their team can do something meaningful again.
How did Presti pull this off?
Rewind to 12 months ago, before Durant broke OKC’s heart and left for the Bay Area. At the time, the Thunder’s golden generation was in peril. Westbrook and Durant were as good as ever, but Serge Ibaka just finished slogging through a difficult season where his athleticism declined and his role dwindled to accommodate Steven Adams. With just one year left on a team-friendly $12 million per year contract, Ibaka was prepared to cash in and his reps were making noise about wanting out.
That put the Thunder were in a tough spot, because Presti hates subjecting his small-market team to the whims of unrestricted free agency. (It makes the KD situation rather tragic, from a certain point of view). Rather than overpay Ibaka or lose him for nothing, Presti worked out a deal with the desperate Orlando Magic to send Ibaka for Victor Oladipo, Ersan Ilyasova, and the rights to Domantas Sabonis. (Ilyasova was later flipped to Philadelphia for Jerami Grant, a promising combo forward.)
The hope was that Oladipo would pair well as a tag-team partner for Westbrook and Sabonis would beef up the frontcourt. Instead, Oladipo had an uneven season after signing a four-year, $84 million contract extension, and Sabonis lost his starting spot to trade deadline acquisition Taj Gibson.
With Westbrook’s prime winding down, the timeline had to change. Not many general managers would consider trading two players they were proud to acquire the year before for a potential one-year rental.
But Sam Presti isn’t most general managers. In the end, he pivoted from a potentially onerous long-term deal for Ibaka into Paul George. Not bad.
It’s a risk, but it’s one the Thunder had to take
This could end terribly for the Thunder. George has made no secret of his desire to join the Lakers once he becomes a free agent next year, and the Thunder have no assurances he’ll change his mind. Imagine being a Thunder fan and watching two top-15 players walk out the door for nothing in the span of three summers. That’s what Presti is risking.
But the alternative path simply wasn’t viable. Westbrook, despite his public loyalty to Oklahoma City last summer, was only under contract for one more year. If he didn’t agree to a designated maximum extension this summer, he’d be a huge risk to depart and leave the Thunder with nothing. Time was nearly up on building a team that gave him any sort of chance of competing deep into the playoffs in Oklahoma City.
Even if Westbrook could be coaxed into staying, the Thunder had few avenues toward improvement. Oladipo and Adams were about to begin four-year contracts that totaled a whopping $184 million. Enes Kanter, a 20-minute reserve, still has two years and $36.5 million left on his deal. Gibson was likely leaving, and Roberson, an all-defensive ace who teams ignore like the plague on the other end, was up for a fat new deal this summer as well. The Thunder were staring at cap hell and a hefty luxury-tax bill for multiple seasons, all for a team Westbrook dragged to 47 wins.
Instead of that mess, they have Paul George, the perfect sidekick for Westbrook. George might leave in a year, but at least the Thunder have a chance to do some real damage while Westbrook is still at the peak of his powers. After losing Durant in devastating fashion, that’s all Thunder fans can ask. The alternative is no chance at all.
That’s why Thunder fans should thank Sam Presti. He pulled a rabbit out of his hat.