If you’re a Thunder fan, you already hate me.
From the moment you saw this title, you clicked on this to try and figure out why and how much you hated me. Heck, I hated myself as I typed it. How can you do this? How could you even suggest we trade Russell Westbrook?
And yet here we are.
At least I can explain why you hate me.
It’s because we, the greatest fans in the NBA, have been living a fairytale. You know the story. We — the state of Oklahoma in which I was born and raised — never had a professional sports team before 2008, and by 2011 we had one in the Western Conference Finals. It melded a state formerly divided between Sooners and Cowboys.
If that wasn’t enough, we did it with the most lovable group of young players maybe in NBA history. On that 2011 WCF squad Kevin Durant was 22, Westbrook was 22, Harden 21, Ibaka 21 (though recently that’s come into question). The future could not be brighter; the decade was ours.
I feel at liberty to use “we” and “our” when describing the Oklahoma City Thunder franchise, as do all of my fellow Oklahomans. Why? Because the team and the state had bonded in those early years in such a way that we were all one big family, all of the team’s triumphs and trials were our triumphs and trials.
We gave that group, our family, all of our love and devotion. And they gave us the times of our lives. We gave them 18,000 screaming fans at every game, they gave us countless hours and dollars for local charities and disaster relief.
In 2012, the NBA Finals. And though the team was outclassed, there’s one image, one snapshot in time that is burned into the collective memory of all Thunder fans.
For us, this really said it all. Utter disappointment yet overwhelming unity. These weren’t just teammates, they were brothers, knocked down but not defeated.
“Next year we’ll be back,” was the sentiment from the huge homecoming ceremony at the airport when the players returned to Oklahoma City.
The family narrative, force-fed to us, took a huge blow with the departure of James Harden. But the fans were able to justify it by villainizing Harden, who had to be “selfish for letting a few million dollars and the promise of stardom get in the way of the family.” Our family was still strong with KD, Russ, and Ibaka, we just had to disavow Harden. He was a traitor, kicked out of the family.
It was all very unfair. A few months ago Harden opened up, saying at the time his plan was “to be the sixth man forever” because “we had big plans, that we were going to win championships for years.” He cried when he got the phone call that he’d been traded. That’s right, traded, for those that have blocked that from your minds. We traded him.
But the company line remained consistent over the next four years, with general manager Sam Presti and any player or coach who stepped in front of a microphone preaching “family” to all who would listen.
It’s why the team meant so much to us. My grandmother talked about Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook like they are her own grandchildren. She had seen them grow up, just as intently and almost as long as she had watched me.
The idea of family is so cliché and we hear it all the time, but in this case everyone believed it. The other 29 organizations were just teams, just collections of players, just assets, all expendable. For 29 franchises the NBA was a business, but in Oklahoma City it was a family.
That fairytale came to an end on July 4th, 2016.
Kevin Durant left. He left. The distinction is important, because this was different than parting with James Harden. With Harden’s situation we could blame the salary cap restrictions, or Harden wanting to be a star, or the front office for trading him. In Durant’s case, all factors being seemingly equal, he chose to leave.
In one crashing, chaotic, and confusing moment, our delusional fairytale world shattered. We weren’t good enough to convince him to stay, and there wasn’t anything we could do about it. Jerry West had strolled in like Erlich Bachman and sold him on the Silicon Valley dream.
All of that talk about family turned out to be just be talk. We weren’t different, we were a business, to Durant and Westbrook and Sam Presti and everyone else. Business.
In retrospect, the Harden trade was a business move. Trading Serge Ibaka was a business move. The Thunder’s roster on July 5th shows just two players from that 2012 Finals “family”: Russell Westbrook and Nick Collison.
And you know what? That’s a good thing. Sam Presti is a great general manager, who has continued to make great draft picks and trades to ensure that the team was the in best position to compete for a championship.
Fairytales are fun, we love to live in those dreamworlds, but that’s not the way the real world works. Sword-fighting may be more dramatic, but guns tend to be more effective.
And it’s in that spirit that I present to you the most logical business move: the Thunder must trade Russell Westbrook.
I must start by saying this: there is no option or possible scenario that can immediately restore the Thunder to the championship-caliber team they were on July 3rd. That dream is gone.
It’s an incredibly scary thing that the fans of Oklahoma have never had to deal with before. Several questions arise.
Kevin Durant was the Thunder, now that he’s gone what’s our identity?
How can we be just another NBA team?
There was a fire of fandom sparked in 2011 that has raged ever since, but how long will the flames last if no one is stoking them?
The state of Oklahoma has an inferiority complex, at least as it pertains to professional sports. For the longest time, we weren’t good enough to even have a team. Now, we aren’t good enough to convince our hometown hero to stay. Where does that leave us?
We can go back to living our fairytale, that despite Durant leaving Oklahoma City will go on being an elite and attractive franchise in the NBA on the backs of great management and fan support. People in this camp say that we lure Westbrook to stay in the summer of 2017 with the promise of becoming the franchise centerpiece, and then snag Blake Griffin with our available cap space and his desire to play in his home town.
I don’t have any sources, or any inside knowledge, but I do have an anecdote. In the summer of 2013 I was still playing basketball, and I did a summer of workouts with Taylor Griffin, Blake’s older brother.
Taylor was training to get back to the NBA and had a deal with the Santa Cruz Warriors — D-League affiliates of the Golden State Warriors. Here’s what I noticed: he wasn’t too enthused about people constantly harassing him for pictures and autographs, he wasn’t too happy when everyone came to him saying, “hey congratulations to your older brother, he’s doing great!” (again, Taylor is older than Blake), and he didn’t seem too disappointed that he was leaving in the fall to go to live in Santa Cruz, California.
Blake Griffin is the most camera-ready superstar in the NBA, stacking endorsement money so high that early 2000’s rappers wish they were around to write songs about it. And he’s living in Los Angeles, the best possible city in the country for a rich and camera-ready superstar! Why would he leave to come to a team that will almost certainly have a worse record next year than the Clippers?
But if you remain stubborn on the principle of needing to return to your state of origin’s team, wouldn’t that logic apply to Westbrook leaving the Thunder to go to any of the California teams? You can’t have it both ways.
Besides, between Durant and Westbrook, Russ was the one that we were more worried about leaving. There’s nothing to substantiate that other than just “a sense,” a collective feeling that Thunder fans all have, that he’s drawn to the bright lights and bigger city. But it scared us before. It terrifies us now.
With initial reports indicating that Westbrook won’t considering signing an extension before next summer, the Thunder simply can’t run the risk of losing him for nothing.
Plus, there’s a path here back to relevance. The 2017 NBA Draft has been long lauded as the best draft class since Lebron’s 2003 class, and it happens to be coming at a time when there aren’t too many teams willing to tank for higher picks.
Consider the dumpster teams: the Lakers have put one of their owner’s jobs on the line if they are not competitive, the Sixers management-shakeup is calling for wins, and the Nets don’t own their pick.
It’s hard to believe Presti couldn’t fetch one of the top three picks in the draft for Westbrook, an MVP-caliber point guard in the prime of his career. To Boston (owner of the Nets pick) who craves a superstar, to the Lakers who crave Westbrook, or the Sixers who crave a point guard. While people think that Westbrook’s inclination to leave lowers his trade value, teams with high draft picks will have to value him higher because of their certain inability to land him on the open market in free agency. Likely his trade value with these teams would be higher, and possibly Presti could land additional young pieces.
With Westbrook gone, the Thunder would be wise to tank in an incredibly deep Western Conference. They couldn’t touch the top tier of Warriors, Spurs, Clippers, or Timberwolves. From a talent perspective, you can’t put them over the up-and-coming Timberwolves or Jazz, or teams with a superstar like the Rockets, Grizzlies or Pelicans either. That’s nine teams right there. What’s the point of fighting for No. 10 with the Suns, Nuggets, Kings, and Lakers?
The Thunder have what those teams don’t have, and that’s built up good-will with the fans. While it won’t last forever, the franchise has at least earned one down year to tank.
Now, with two top-five draft picks in hand, Sam Presti can pick from a draft that scouts have said holds as many as six or seven potential all-stars. His track record of evaluating draft picks speaks for itself: not only Durant, Westbrook, Harden, and Ibaka, but also Reggie Jackson, Steven Adams, and Cam Payne?
Landing potentially two superstar prospects with solid young players around them like the aforementioned Kiwi Warrior, Payne, Enes Kanter and new additions Victor Oladipo and Domantis Sabonis presents the best possible route to returning to championship form.
Not to mention all of the experience and growth that players like Adams or Oladipo will have in the “tank year” with chances to shine. And with our two “superstars” on their rookie contracts, that leaves plenty of cap room to resign budding stars Adams and Oladipo to sizable deals while still keeping the cap flexibility for any free agents who wish to join the now promising young Thunder.
Look at the cases of Denver after losing Carmelo Anthony, or Orlando after losing Dwight Howard. History tells us that small market teams are incapable of landing superstars in free agency, as much as it tells us that you need superstars to win championships in this league. Having two cracks at landing another transcendent superstar is Oklahoma City’s best bet.
This plan doesn’t come without risk or pain. For starters, the media narrative would be brutal. As the losses piled up, writers would barrage the players, coaches, and executives with pieces about the failures of the organization.
After the litany of scorn, it won’t take long for the franchise to retreat to the shadows of irrelevance. It may take a couple years for our two young superstars to develop, in which time national news outlets and conversation will rarely mention the small-market team that had so rapidly declined.
It’s painful to even consider hitting the reset button, after so many years of success. But as I said, the dreams of the past died on July 4th, 2016. This plan gives us at least a conceivable path back to contendership.
Consider the alternative path.
We hold on to Westbrook and remain a solid but not spectacular team. After a decent year highlighted mostly by Westbrook’s massive individual accomplishments, we make it into the playoffs as a seven or eight seed, where we get trounced by the Warriors or Spurs or Clippers. Westbrook leaves in the summer of 2017 for a team that can compete for rings.
Now the roster is back to where we had to chalked up before, fighting for #10 in the west. Except instead of two top picks, the team has only their own draft pick, and it’s in the 15–19 range thanks to the 44ish wins the team eked out. With no prospects for a future, Oladipo and Adams leave in free agency for big deals with other teams. Years of rebuild and terrible records follow, at which point Oklahomans lose interest and go back to being Sooners or Cowboys.
It would be at that point that Thunder hit rock bottom.
Do you still hate me? Am I still crazy?
Listen, as a loyal fan I’m going to keep on loving Russell Westbrook. For the time being, he’s my only hero.
But for the good of our future and his, trade the man.