NBA Free Agency: The Overnight Rebuild in OKC

In: Paul George, Patrick Patterson

Out: Victor Oladipo, Damontas Sabonis, Taj Gibson

Still to come: Rudy Gay? Deandre Jordan? Boogie Cousins??

The Oklahoma City Thunder have pulled off a coup over the last week, taking a middling +.500 team built around a single superstar and retooling their identity around a second ball-playing superstar and an underrated stretch four on a great contract.

The Paul George trade has been written about and dissected every which way by far better writers (especially here by Zach Lowe), and goes to show that not all storylines are pre-ordained. With all of the talk of the Lakers and Celtics, Presti’s play for George was largely unpredicted, and came as one of the first bombshells of the free agency period.

The fact that George may be a one year rental before he bolts for the Lakers is largely a moot point — he is there for the 2017–2018 season, and he turns this Thunder team into a serious competitor, even in a talent-crammed West. George’s arrival ticks a bunch of boxes for Oklahoma City:

  • His play (and presumed success) alongside Westbrook will remind other superstars that there are options outside the major markets where you can build your value and win now.
  • He will sell tickets and provide a new franchise storyline that doesn’t involve Westbrook running the same show back and doing it all himself again in 2017–2018.
  • If Presti can make another major acquisition, either during the offseason or at the trade deadline, or if Steven Adams makes the leap, the Thunder are in a position to not just make a deep playoff run in the West next season, but to win it all.

It might seem like a bunch of hype, but I would encourage you to consider two things before you threw this prediction out:

  • Westbrook’s leap last year in terms of performance and production means that the ceiling for this team is higher than the ceiling in Durant’s final year, when the Thunder came close to knocking off the Warriors in the Western Conference finals. George offers Durant-esque length, good-almost-great ballhandling, solid shooting and excellent defense. He will diminish the need for Westbrook to shoot every time, space the floor and free up Adams to improve his offense. Tactically, the addition of George to OKC could not make more sense.
  • In Golden State’s two championships over the last three years, they have been incredibly fortunate with injuries, despite having a roster that has a somewhat sketchy injury history. Durant’s foot, Curry’s knee, Iguodala’s back and aging body — no one’s praying for an injury, but it’s a fact that there’s an injury history with this group, same way there is with every team (the Thunder included). That said, we saw what happened when Steph tweaked a knee in 2016 — Lebron took advantage, and Cleveland has a ring.

Of course, the best thing for OKC to do right now would be to keep going and add a third star piece. That’s going to be tough given the Thunder’s cap situation — after making the excellent move to sign Toronto Raptors free agent Patrick Patterson to a team-friendly $16.4M deal yesterday, OCK is butting up against the luxury cap.

However, either now or at the trade deadline, they have some options.

— — — —

Rudy Gay

There’s been widely reported interest between both sides, with the current sticking point being salary. And while Gay would provide shooting off the bench and veteran locker room leadership, I can’t see this working out well. Gay is 30, wants a three year deal, and is coming off a couple of sub-par seasons in Sacramento and surgery to his achilles. These deals don’t usually work out well (see Matthews, Wesley).

Deandre Jordan

Jordan was reportedly shopped in the week leading up to free agency as the Clippers looked to reboot after the Chris Paul trade. With Blake Griffin now returning to the Clips, the need to move Deandre in Doc’s eyes may have waned. If they were interested, OKC would make for an interesting landing spot. A trade of Enes Kanter/Doug McDermott/a pick for Jordan’s rebounding and offensive prowess could work, and being able to always have Adams or Jordan on the floor would make the Thunder a matchup nightmare.

Demarcus Cousins

Hear me out now. Flash forward eight months to the trade deadline, and swap out Jordan’s name for Boogie’s. Imagine a world where the Pelicans are a .350 win team, Davis and Cousins are actively making each other worse, Alvin Gentry and Dell Demps have been fired, the team is hitting the reset button and scrambling for any assets they can get out of the expiring Cousins contract. Who says no?

— — — —

Regardless of whether the Thunder add a third piece, the George trade sets the franchise up to start a new narrative. For years, analysts and pundits have referred to all iterations of this team as variants of its first big 3: Durant, Westbrook and James Harden. All the successes and failures of the organization, from making it to the NBA finals in 2012 to the Harden trade to not being able to retain Durant in 2016 free agency, were all framed as part of a longer story around those three players.

Adding Paul George allows that story to finally end, and for the narrative to reset and start again. A new day is dawning in Oklahoma.