One year ago, the NBA world was celebrating the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Small market OKC had gambled on trading for Paul George when his people had warned everyone he wanted to go to Southern California. Then, after one season next to Russell Westbrook, George signed up for four more. He was staying, the Thunder had their two stars and were relevant again. Oklahoma City had won.
One year later, just earlier this week, George’s agent Aaron Mintz walked into the office of team president Sam Presti and demanded a trade. Specifically to the Los Angeles Clippers. George wanted to go home after all and now team up with his friend Kawhi Leonard. The Thunder were flat-out blindsided by the request. George denied this was about issues between him and Westbrook (despite some rumors of disenfranchisement between the two).
Whatever the reason he asked out, the Thunder had no choice but to comply, a season with an unhappy George moping around would be bad for everybody.
Presti played the Clippers off the Raptors and got a serious haul: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (who the Clippers are very high on), Danilo Gallinari, and five first-round picks (the Clippers first-round pick unprotected in 2022, 2024 and 2026, the Miami Heat’s unprotected 2021 pick and Miami’s lottery-protected 2023 first-round pick, plus the right to swap picks in 2023 and 2025).
The question facing the Thunder is now what?
They are already a team $16.2 million into the luxury tax, something ownership would pay to stay in a title chase in the wide-open West. But now?
Do they try to stay relevant, watch Russell Westbrook chase another triple-double season, and count on Steven Adams, Gallinari, and the rest of the role players can push them into the playoffs again? The Thunder, as currently constructed, are not a bad team. Yet, even if they make the postseason, after two straight years of first-round eliminations is the goal a third one of those, the most likely outcome for this roster in a very deep West?
Or, do they think about trading Russell Westbrook and hitting the reset button?
Westbrook and his agent sat down with Presti to talk about all of that already, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.
Oklahoma City’s All-Star guard Russell Westbrook and his agent, Thad Foucher, are engaged with Thunder GM Sam Presti about the next steps of Westbrook’s career, including the possibility of a trade prior to the start of next season, league sources told ESPN.
The two sides have 11 years of history together and both understand that the time has likely come to explore trade possibilities for Westbrook, league sources tell ESPN.
Wojnarowski says the chance of the retooling of the roster, as was done after Kevin Durant left, is “unlikely.”
Trading Westbrook, especially before next season, is much easier said than done.
Westbrook is owed $38.2 million this season and then $41 million in 2020-21, $43.9 million in 2021-22, and a player option for $46.7 million in 2022-23. Or, 169.8 million over the next four years taking him out to age 35, assuming he picks up his option year (which is a safe assumption).
Throw in his ball-dominant style that has frustrated some teammates in the past and not every organization is going to want to get in on the Westbrook sweepstakes. That said, next summer is a weak free agent class and there will be teams that will have cap space them but decide it’s worth it to take on that salary now to land a superstar.
Whatever happens with the Thunder, Presti and company will not be rushed into a poor decision. There will be no immediate action in reaction to George demanding a trade. Presti is too smart for that.
But keep an eye on the Thunder as we move through the summer. Westbrook is on the market now.