When the 2019-20 NBA season tips off, the Oklahoma City Thunder will have a vastly different look after an offseason of roster shake-ups. Gone is All-Star forward and Kia MVP candidate Paul George (who was traded to the LA Clippers). And gone as well is former Kia MVP winner and franchise icon Russell Westbrook (who was traded to the Houston Rockets).
In making those moves, the Thunder amassed a trove of future Draft picks. They also picked up All-Star point guard Chris Paul (via the Westbrook trade with the Rockets) and Danilo Gallinari and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (via the Clippers). But after many years of being a playoff team and, at times, a legitimate Finals contender, Oklahoma City seems poised for a step back next season -- and perhaps beyond.
In an article published by The Oklahoman newspaper, Thunder GM Sam Presti penned his thoughts on the offseason and the road that lies ahead for his franchise. He also spoke with local media about the franchise's overhaul on Thursday, addressing George's trade to the Clippers and other topics.
In the piece in The Oklahoman, Presti praised how the Thunder's success over the past 11 seasons have "brought confidence and recognition to a city and a state that has too often been overlooked."
He then wrote about the transition phase the Thunder are in and how small-market teams like Oklahoma City face "strategic challenges" and operate with "strategic disadvantages." Here's more of what Presti wrote in his piece in The Oklahoman:
This summer, the story of the Oklahoma City Thunder is transitioning to a new phase. Over the last few weeks, we have parted ways with foundational players — people who have represented our city to the world, who have sacrificed for us and flourished on our behalf. Although this has been painful, I also believe that — given the circumstances — it was necessary. In saying goodbye to the past, we have begun to chart our future. The next great Thunder team is out there somewhere, but it will take time to seize and discipline to ultimately sustain.
Oklahoma City expects, and deserves, extraordinary success. Delivering this is what drives us. But I want to be transparent and realistic about the process that meeting these types of expectations may require. Despite our city’s rapid rise and growth, Oklahoma City remains the second-smallest market in the NBA. While this brings many benefits, it also poses strategic challenges. Given the way the league’s system is designed, small market teams operate with significant disadvantages. There is no reason to pretend otherwise. This in no way means we cannot be extraordinarily successful — we, and several other small to mid-market teams, are our own best examples of the ability to overcome these realities. It simply means we must be thinking differently, optimistically, finding our advantages by other means.
In order to build — and then sustain — a truly great basketball team, it requires a method. This method is not guesswork or a convenient message that miscasts other’s good fortune as a repeatable skill. To build true excellence in any industry, and then sustain it, requires trading on time and playing the empirical odds. This will require strategic discipline and thoughtful patience, but these are values our organization has always held high. That’s how longevity is earned. It is important to remember that.
It will take us time, now, to reposition, replenish and then ultimately rebuild our team. Things will inevitably get harder from here. At some point during this transition, we may not have the kind of team you’ve been used to. But we will be fearless, focused, and relentless in seeking opportunities to improve our long-term position.
In an interview with ESPN's Rachel Nichols on Wednesday, George categorized his trade from OKC to L.A. as a mutual decision between he and the Thunder. Presti pushed back against that a bit on Thursday, saying he didn't necessarily agree with that and that the team did not want to trade George.
Presti said from what he was told that the "opportunity to play with Kawhi, the opportunity to go to L.A. were the biggest factors for him. We understand that and were able to make the most of the situation."
Sam Presti politely says he doesn't really agree with Paul George's use of the term "mutual" in trading him. He notes it wasn't adversarial, but certainly not something the Thunder wanted to do.— Royce Young (@royceyoung) July 25, 2019
Presti on PG describing OKC situation as “time was up” and “stagnant,” says loves PG and from what he was told “the opportunity to play with Kawhi, opportunity to go to LA were the biggest factors for him. We understand that and were able to make the most of the situation.”— Erik Horne (@ErikHorneOK) July 25, 2019
The run in Oklahoma City under Westbrook wasn’t supposed to end yet, but George left first for the Clippers, opening the door for an earlier-than-expected reboot. Thunder forward Jerami Grant was traded before Westbrook, and now Oklahoma City has added multiple first-round picks for its rebuilding project. It will take time and coach Billy Donovan will get plenty of chances to tinker with his lineup and give young players experience.
In his article in The Oklahoman, Presti said the goal now is to build a team that will be successful again. In doing so, Presti wrote, there will be the "temptation to take shortcuts, to look for quick fixes, and to reach out for instant gratification." However, Presti said that is something he wants to avoid as his goal is to "reposition and replenish the organization to allow for optimal future success."
"Over the past two weeks, our reactions and adaptations have provided us a starting point," Presti wrote in the newspaper. "But the real work has yet to begin. Our goal is sustainable, long-term, collective excellence. The people of Oklahoma City should be able to one day watch the rise of another great team, as they have watched the rise of their rebuilt downtown, with the knowledge that they are witnessing something not only great but enduring. Invest today for a sustainable tomorrow."
Westbrook was the last remaining player from the team that moved from Seattle to Oklahoma City in 2008. In recent seasons, Kevin Durant, James Harden, Serge Ibaka, George and others have left the team via trades or free agency. Westbrook spent his entire 11-year career with the Thunder, despite earlier chances to leave. With Westbrook, the Thunder won at least 45 games for 10 straight years and reached the Western Conference finals four times, including a run to the NBA Finals in 2012.
Most of all, Westbrook will be remembered as the one who had stayed. He signed an extension in 2016, then signed a long-term deal in 2017, forever endearing himself to Oklahoma City fans who felt burned by Durant’s departure for rival Golden State.
Durant, Westbrook and Harden teamed up to introduce the Thunder as a league power early this decade. At their height, the young trio led the franchise to The Finals seven years ago, a loss to the Miami Heat. Now Westbrook is reunited with Harden.
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.