In the space of one week, the entire NBA power dynamics shifted from west to east, then back to west. First the Brooklyn Nets made a mockery of the New York Knicks by signing both Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. Then the Los Angeles Clippers pulled a true power move by signing NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard and trading to partner him with Paul George, another top-15 talent in the NBA.
After the dust had settled, the league and its fans evaluated the enormity of these decisions. Chief among them was the direction in which the Oklahoma City Thunder are heading.
Having acquired George in a trade only two years earlier and convinced him to sign an extension just last year, Russell Westbrook and Co. were again left forlorn by a superstar departure from the team. James Harden, Durant, and now George. Realistically, the Thunder are miles away from contending for a championship at the moment. Now on the hook for the rest of Westbrook’s contract (4 years, $170 million), they must rebuild while hamstrung by the salary cap.
One step back, two steps forward
Financial flexibility is key to completing a rebuild. Look at the Nets, who created space for two max contracts to entice Durant and Irving. The Thunder do not have this luxury, nor do they have a roster that could theoretically compete with the new powerhouses in L.A., or a fully healthy Golden State Warriors side.
The best advice for the Thunder is to break the team up and trade away Westbrook and Steven Adams. Both have been fine servants to the team, with Westbrook’s MVP season in 2017 a particular highlight. However, both players eat up nearly $60 million in cap space for next year collectively. With the salary cap set at $109.4 million next season, there is little room for building real talent around them.
In the George trade, the Thunder acquired five first-round picks from the Clippers – four unprotected – and can swap picks in 2023 and 2025. Additionally, they get Danilo Gallinari and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Should they trade Westbrook and Adams to acquire more picks, the franchise’s direction immediately shifts. The Thunder would have the three key ingredients in a rebuild: A plethora of quality picks, a young talent with All-Star potential on a great contract in Gilgeous-Alexander, and cap flexibility.
The hardest part of this plan is that the Thunder must finally admit that they let a golden generation slip through their fingers with only one NBA Finals appearance and zero titles. The three superstars they drafted will have each won MVPs, but only one will have done so with the Thunder. Durant has two NBA titles and an immediate opportunity for another when he returns from injury. Harden and the Houston Rockets look closer to a championship than OKC.
Should Westbrook be traded, he’ll continue to gather triple-doubles elsewhere. All the while, the Thunder will look on at their works and despair.
The scouting and stockpiling should begin in earnest now. Trade Westbrook, and the Thunder will afford themselves the possibility to escape repeated first-round exits in future playoffs. As much as it will hurt to know what could’ve been, there may be some comfort in seeing what could be. Maybe they’ll knock three or four drafts out of the park in a row like they did from 2007-09. The likelihood of doing so will only increase with more picks. Currently, the Thunder have thirteen first-round picks in the next seven drafts (including one they acquired from the Denver Nuggets), two of which may be given to another team, and another which is lottery protected (Heat ’23). A Westbrook trade would exponentially improve their chances of drafting the next Durant, Harden, and Westbrook.
Rebuilding is a chore for players, front offices and fans alike. Considering how close the Thunder once got to greatness, it will be especially rough to start over. Oklahoma City must start their rebuild by removing their cornerstone.