While the most important part of Paul George going to the Clippers with Kawhi Leonard was, rightfully, the fact that Paul George and Kawhi Leonard are now on the Clippers, the subtext to the mega-deal was the strong implication that the Thunder are going to look much different by the start of next season. Reports continue to indicate that Russell Westbrook might be next, with OKC brass and Westbrook’s camp starting to explore the possibility of a trade. And while that might actually be easier to facilitate mid-season, after new contracts become movable, the gist is that the Thunder have begun preparations for a new chapter. This is an organization known for playing things close to the vest, but the direction Oklahoma City is heading right now is nothing if not transparent.
Trading George, of course, was something of a stunner—certainly, it wasn’t the plan coming into the off-season—but it was still something close to the best feasible pathway out of luxury-tax purgatory for Oklahoma City. The Thunder were facing steep repeater tax payments, saddled by the negative-value contracts of Dennis Schröder and Andre Roberson and max deals for Westbrook and George. They’re coming off a third straight first-round playoff exit with few tangible pathways to improving the roster. The Thunder haven’t won a series since Kevin Durant left. And while the Westbrook-George pairing worked ostensibly well from a style standpoint, the risks the Thunder took to build a competitive roster around them ran their course. Oklahoma City needed a way out. And in the end, nothing it had but George could create a true avenue to a fresh start.
The Thunder could have tried to run things back, but George’s surprising request became the impetus. More importantly, OKC realized it held maximum leverage in a trade equation that granted the star-thirsty Clippers a shot at contention. Extracting Danilo Gallinari, Shai GIlgeous-Alexander and an absolute haul of first-round draft capital was Sam Presti’s best chance at a reboot. Holding onto an unsettled George would have chanced Leonard joining the Lakers, which would have potentially taken the Clippers off the market as an option, and certainly reduced the return. This trade was never about feting a want-away star—it was about seizing a chance to begin anew. Gilgeous-Alexander has a chance to be a star, or at least a high-end supporting piece. Gallinari’s expiring deal can be flipped again if they choose. And the Thunder now hold extra picks as ammunition for the next six drafts.
That being said, the prospect of dealing Westbrook will be the elephant in the room until it isn’t. Perhaps, the sooner the better. The only way for the Thunder to fully start over is finding a taker for their mercurial, longtime cornerstone, although the odds are that process will be nowhere near as lucrative. There are four years and more than $170 million left on Westbrook’s max contract—a necessary yet hefty decision at the time, but a deal that was always set to depreciate quickly. Westbrook turns 31 in November, carrying years of wear and tear on his body as a result of his max-effort style. On some level, his refusal to change over the years has been admirable. But the NBA is an unforgiving, adapt-or-die league that spares few. He’s produced individually at a historic level, but Westbrook’s bullheaded approach has also been his downfall. Suffice it to say that as he ages, some type of adjustment might be his only parachute.
In the interim, the Thunder have already begun restructuring. With Gallinari now in the fold at power forward, Oklahoma City’s decision to deal the versatile Jerami Grant to Denver on Monday brought them a small move or two away from exiting the luxury tax altogether. The Thunder had been exploring cost-cutting options dating back to before the draft, and they surely aren’t done. But most importantly, the Thunder now possess a massive cachet of first-round picks over the course of the next seven drafts, assets they can use to grease the transaction wheels now or replenish the roster in the long run.
In order (deep breath), OKC owns its own 2020 first (if it falls between 1 and 20); Denver’s 2020 first (top-10 protected); its own 2021 first; Miami’s 2021 first; its own 2022 first (if it falls in the lottery); the Clippers’ 2022 first; Miami’s lottery-protected 2023 first; the right to swap firsts with the Clippers in 2023; its own 2024 first; the Clippers’ 2024 first, the right to swap firsts with the Clippers in 2025; its own 2026 first and yes, the Clippers’ 2026 first. A few weeks ago, the Pelicans’ haul for Anthony Davis seemed groundbreaking. As it turned out, it laid a baseline for the Thunder’s substantial trade demands.
The Clippers swaps and unprotected picks should eventually pay out, with George able to hit free agency in 2021, and Leonard’s new deal expiring in 2023, when he’ll turn 32. This is an unpredictable league, and at some point, OKC figures to wind up with an extra lottery pick or two. Even if that doesn’t come until 2024 or beyond, it’s about drafting well. That will continue to be imperative for a small-market team that lacks optimal free-agent clout. With the extra picks in hand, the Thunder don’t have to fully bottom out to make this work. The extra draft capital, if carried out correctly, will be infinitely more valuable to the health of the franchise than any short-term attempts to win with Westbrook could be.
If Presti indeed opts to move his best player and reset in full, the Thunder could be operating with a truly clean slate for the first time since Westbrook and Durant were on their rookie deals and the franchise relocated from Seattle. The newly-acquired Gilgeous-Alexander and first-round pick Darius Bazley are the only salaries on the books after the 2020-21 season apart from Westbrook (and by extension, whatever they can get back for him). OKC doesn’t necessarily have to trade Russ now, but putting the ball in Gilgeous-Alexander’s hands, trying to develop their younger talent, and making do as a middle-of-the-pack team for a season or two isn’t the worst option. From a big-picture perspective, it beats having to squeeze new results out of the same players for another year, with a roster that had come close to its ceiling. And if the Thunder play the Westbrook situation correctly, what they have left could be the league’s best-positioned rebuild.