A quick scan through the league for teams under the most pressure heading to the 2017-2018 season , and one is likely to miss Oklahoma City Thunder on the list. With teams like Houston Rockets, Cleveland Cavaliers, Boston Celtics and Minnesota Timberwolves ranked high on the list, OKC is largely passed over.
However, the team is under a lot of pressure to improve on last season’s first round exit at the playoffs. Unlike the franchises mentioned above, the Thunder checks in with a low profile thanks to relatively low key transfer transactions at a time teams in the Western Conference particularly have made big signings.
Houston Rockets signings are highlighted by Chris Paul’s move from Los Angeles Clippers while Boston and Cleveland swapped All Star Point Guards in Isaiah Thomas and Kyrie Irving. Minnesota Timberwolves have Jimmy Butler, Jeff Teague, Taj Gibson and Jamal Crawford on board to end the longest playoff drought in the NBA.
Despite making a series of moves this offseason, OKC got attention on the market for prying Indiana Pacers Forward Paul George from the Cavaliers in exchange for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis. Reason behind the George purchase is simple; MVP Russell Westbrook needs help and needs it fast. Giving the scoring triple double threat dynamo ample help not only increases the chances of the Thunder winning more games, it also reduces the wear and tear on his Westbrook’s body to keep him around for the future.
General Manager Sam Presti has done a tremendous job in his time as the big guy in the young franchise getting the team competitive despite the losses of James Harden, Serge Ibaka and most importantly, Kevin Durant. However, Presti’s biggest challenge comes at the end of the upcoming season where George and Westbrook could become unrestricted free agents. The key word here is could because while George is a shoe in free agent at season’s end, Westbrook’s situation is dicey and difficult to tell since OKC’s leader is yet to sign a five year extension deal.
Unlike George who stands to earn a lot more by staying patient, Russell will earn just about the same amount-five year, $201 million- whether he signs before the season tips off or in 2018’s offseason. In recent times where parallels can be drawn between basketball and football, OKC can pass for Barcelona with its main star- Lionel Messi- pondering on signing a new deal just like Westbrook is holding out on penning his signature to a new deal over a cloudy future. Should OK fail to impress George, he could walk away same way an abysmal season could give Westbrook the cue to leave the city for his hometown, Los Angeles.
In essence, the Thunder risks losing both All Stars in one window; due to the peculiar and perilous situation of the team, reports have emerged Oklahoma is open to the idea of trading Westbrook to Cleveland in exchange for a bounty package of JR Smith, Iman Shumpert, Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder and a 2018 Draft First Round pick.
As crazy as it sounds, Oklahoma City is better off agreeing to such a deal since the team is on the verge of slumping into a seemingly long rebuild since the team has very little upside beyond a few second tier players. Cleveland was up until the Kyrie Irving trade in this position with LeBron James’ pending free agency decision. However, new Manager Koby Altman passed the test by putting the Cavaliers in a position to compete now-thanks to the additions of Thomas, Crowder and possibly Dwyane Wade- to preparing for the future without LeBron courtesy next year’s lottery pick and long term deals for Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson. Despite stock piling a wealth of draft picks over the years, OKC’s chest isn’t as heavy as it used to be meaning the team has very little to build around for the future unlike before.
Beyond the projected starting five of Westbrook, Andre Roberson, Paul George, Patrick Patterson and Steven Adams, the Thunder’s talent pool drops off sharply outside Enes Kanter with veterans Raymond Felton, Nick Collison and Kyle Singler dotting the roster. Count in players on rookie scale contracts like Alex Abrines, Semaj Christon, Terrance Ferguson and Dakari Johnson and Oklahoma could be fielding a side capable of losing to some of the best college teams around just like Philadelphia Sixers were some years ago. Oklahoma City Thunder needs the next season to work very well because its future as an upper tier contender or the Western Conference’s version of Sam Hinkie’s “Believe in the Process” era out East, hinges on it.
By Yaw Adjei-Mintah
@YawMintYM on Twitter