Three years ago, I wrote a “Now What?” column on the futures of the Oklahoma City Thunder and Indiana Pacers. In 2014, they were the teams that reached their respective Conference Finals, but were no match for the San Antonio Spurs and Miami Heat, who went on to meet in the NBA Finals for the second straight year. Neither team has advanced farther than they did in 2014. While the Thunder remained competitive, they still lost Kevin Durant in free agency last summer. The steady decline of the Pacers led to Paul George informing the team that he intends to leave when he becomes a free agent next summer. With Oklahoma City’s looming threat of Russell Westbrook’s future, GM Sam Presti had to roll the dice. Three years removed from being the third and fourth best teams in the NBA, the Thunder and Pacers traded with each other to attempt to stay relevant, or at least not lose their assets for nothing.
The Pacers sent Paul George to the Thunder for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis. I have a hard time believing that was the best offer Indiana GM Kevin Pritchard could have gotten, but everyone knowing the Pacers were not going to be able to re-sign George left the team with their hands tied. I was surprised they did not get any draft picks in return, but George’s impending free agency significantly diminished his value. At least by trading him to Oklahoma City, he’s out of the Eastern Conference, and not making a team like the Boston Celtics better.
While George made it clear that his first choice when he becomes a free agent is the Los Angeles Lakers, a trade with the Lakers did not make the most sense for a couple of reasons. For one thing, the Lakers would not want to give up more than they have to for a player they can acquire for only money next summer. Free agent destination teams learned from the Carmelo Anthony trade to the New York Knicks in 2011. Melo wanted to go to the Knicks one way or another, but if he left the Denver Nuggets for the Knicks in the summer, he would not be able to make as much money. Instead, the Knicks gave up a bunch of assets to acquire Melo midseason, making the team Melo joined measurably worse when they could have gotten him without giving up anything.
The Lakers presumably also learned from their own trade to acquire Dwight Howard a year before he was to be a free agent in the summer of 2012. When he was with the Orlando Magic, Howard dreamed of being a Laker, leaving Orlando, getting paid, and mingling with celebrities like Shaquille O’Neal did a generation before him. The Magic, to their credit, got out ahead of it and traded Howard to the Lakers so the wouldn’t lose him for nothing, as they did with Shaq. But that disastrous season in Los Angeles showed Howard how dysfunctional the Lakers were, and how miserable he would be playing with Kobe Bryant, and how Lakers fans would have Kobe’s back over his. Howard signed with the Houston Rockets in the summer of 2013, and this time it was the Lakers losing a star player for nothing. One year on a rebuilding Lakers team might just be enough for Paul George to look elsewhere in 2018.
Oklahoma City is no prospective free agent’s dream destination, and Presti knows that. He built that roster initially through the draft, beginning when they were still in Seattle. What they do have is the NBA’s reigning MVP, who led them to 47 regular season wins in spite of Durant’s departure. If Presti wants and chance of keeping Westbrook in OKC, he needs to put a better team around him, and there is no time to do that through the draft. The Golden State Warriors are not going anywhere, and the semi-contenders in the Western Conference need to take bold chances if they want any chance of taking down that juggernaut. The Rockets and Los Angeles Clippers both rolled the dice with the Chris Paul trade earlier this week, and now the Thunder are raising the stakes even higher with the high-risk, high-reward deal for George. If all goes well, the Thunder could get handed the Larry O’Brien Trophy from Adam Silver. If the pieces do not fit, they could go the way of the 2012-13 Lakers, miss the playoffs, and lose George and Westbrook. This is it.
The Lakers will not be terrible forever(I’m assuming), the Minnesota Timberwolves are the young and building team that they Thunder were seven years ago, and LeBron James could leave Cleveland for a Western Conference team next summer. The Warriors have made gamblers of many teams, and even if nobody can catch them, their pursuit has certainly made their rivals more interesting.