Dan Wolken USA TODAY
Published 2:12 PM EDT Jul 6, 2019
Oklahoma City Thunder general manager Sam Presti is just 42, which might still qualify him for wonderboy status under different circumstances. But at this point in his life cycle as an NBA executive, you can only imagine he’s been aged in dog years.
The chain of events that have led the Thunder from Presti’s would-be dynasty into a decomposing carcass of a contender aren’t entirely anyone’s fault. They probably weren’t even avoidable.
But the moment is here for the Thunder in the wake of trading Paul George to the Los Angeles Clippers for promising guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and a mountain of draft assets: It’s time to part with Russell Westbrook, too.
With Presti in charge, starting over has never been the goal for Oklahoma City. Even when the Thunder shipped James Harden to the Houston Rockets, even when Kevin Durant walked out the door, the mantra has been whatever it takes to fashion a team that could compete for a title if everything broke the right way.
But realistically, that chance is gone. There’s no path back to the top. And Oklahoma City faces the choice that every successful franchise will eventually have to stare down: Keep chasing mediocrity or start preparing for the future?
For the Thunder, which has invested everything in Westbrook and cashed in all kinds of assets to put other sensible pieces around him, this should be an easy choice. Pull the plug now and start over. Get out while you can.
When Westbrook agreed to his $206 million “supermax” contract with Oklahoma City in the fall of 2017, this was always the risk: That without a commitment from a second star, his contract would ultimately be an anchor as he aged into his 30s and the violent athleticism his game is built around began to deteriorate.
Re-signing George the following summer — and validating Presti’s gamble to trade for him in the final year of his contract — should have alleviated those concerns for the foreseeable future. Westbrook and George: That was the team, and regardless of what Presti could do on the margins, it was going to be a pretty good one.
But Kawhi Leonard’s intervention, and George’s subsequent trade request, has changed the equation.
- CLIPPERS: Kawhi Leonard heading to L.A., but not the Lakers
- ZILLGITT: Shocking moves shake up NBA’s balance of power
- PETER: Will Lakers be second fiddle in L.A.?
From a pure asset perspective, Presti did well under the circumstances. Five first-round draft picks (two via Miami), two potential pick swaps with the Clippers plus Gilgeous-Alexander and Danilo Gallinari is a haul that gives the Thunder options and time.
But using those assets to turn around and chase another mid-level star or try to cling to the eighth seed in the Western Conference seems like a waste of time. Even with his problematic contract, the window of opportunity to get something of value for the 30-year-old Westbrook is now.
Could the Knicks be tempted to give up some of their accumulated draft capital and young players to get a do-over on their disastrous venture into free agency? The Miami Heat seems particularly thirsty for a second superstar to pair with Jimmy Butler, and it doesn’t seem like another one is going to come available this summer. Even the Orlando Magic, which has a lot of interesting stuff to trade but no point guard, might be a good fit.
Make no mistake: None of this is going to make up for the opportunity Oklahoma City has lost. Presti has spent years being aggressive in acquiring players and flipping assets with one goal in mind, and now that goal has been ripped away through no fault of his own.
Sometimes in the NBA, the most difficult thing for a front office is knowing when it’s time to rebuild. There’s a fear, particularly in a small market like Oklahoma City that has only experienced success since moving from Seattle, that fans won’t stomach a full roster tear-down so they do whatever it takes to stay on the playoff fringe as long as possible.
On the other hand, there’s real value in being consistently good in the NBA and putting an entertaining product on the floor, even if there’s no chance of winning a title. Sometimes, going into tank mode only ensures you stay there for a really long time (see Suns, Phoenix).
But Westbrook trying to grind out the end of his prime with second-tier supporting players on a team going nowhere seems like a rather unpleasant mix, particularly as the largesse of his contract handcuffs Oklahoma City from being able to make significant roster additions.
Throughout his tenure, Presti has always had a next move, has always been able to create space and find openings to stay relevant. But getting the rug pulled from under him by George really does feel like the end of the road for the Thunder as we knew them.
Pivoting to a full rebuild won’t be easy, but building something new around Gilgeous-Alexander and other young players a Westbrook trade might be able to yield would be a pretty decent start.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken
- Russell Westbrook to sit out Rockets' preseason opener
- Russell Westbrook to sit out Rockets' second preseason game
- Russell Westbrook scheduled to appear on 'The Tonight Show'
- Russell Westbrook hails Oklahoma City Thunder response after NBA team hold on to beat Barcelona in nail-biter
- Opinion: Time goes by, but not guilt
- Opinion: Time for a rethink on taxes
- Opinion: Just a first step to rebuilding trust
- Opinion: Time for an Olympic revolution
- Opinion: Time for more pride in German constitution
- Opinion: Time to step up support for police