It’s mind-boggling how many opportunities the Oklahoma City Thunder missed out on throughout the last eight years. From trading Eric Bledsoe, James Harden, Reggie Jackson and losing Kevin Durant to unexpected postseason struggles. It seems like the organization nails it on Draft Night but then can’t build a lasting roster. So in a situation like that it is fair to blame either the coaching staff or the general manager.
But that’s where it gets interesting. The Thunder has had only two coaches in its short history – Scott Brooks and Billy Donovan. Brooks had a great tenure as head coach – with exception of his first season back in 2008-09. The very next one was marked by his successful Coach of the Year campaign and the rise of the Thunder. From that season until 2014-2015 OKC did not miss the playoffs and even went to the Finals once. When the team did not qualify for the postseason (with a 45-37 record – a stat that got them the sixth seed in the ‘17 playoffs) Brooks was sacked. Then came Billy Donovan. A two time NCAA champion he got the Thunder to the WCF in his first year. The very next one he managed to weather the post-Durant storm but lost in the first round of the playoffs. Now he is taking the task of utilizing OKC’s Big Three. We are yet to evaluate how he will handle the situation.
But we are still looking for that weak link in Oklahoma. If the coaching is doing OK then it has to be the general manager. Well, it is in a way but not entirely. Sam Presti has one major mistake and it’s trading James Harden because of the luxury tax. This decision will stain his resume even though it may have been heavily influenced by owner Klay Bennett. Apart from that Presti has been phenomenal. The Thunder made all the right picks in the draft under his watch. After Kevin Durant left without notice it was the GM who virtually saved the franchise. Instead of blowing it up, Presti made a great trade moving Serge Ibaka for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis. Then he got Westbrook to sign an extension which eventually led to a max contract for years to come. Last summer Presti pulled off two major trades acquiring both Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. Meanwhile he also made sure that OKC would have some bench presence by signing Raymond Felton and Patrick Paterson. To sum up, he has quickly filled the void and put the team back into competing mode. This is something only a good general manager can pull off.
At the end of the day the Oklahoma City Thunder has turned a new leaf. The Kevin Durant era is done. The team has a new franchise player and his name is Russell Westbrook. And right now he is placed in the best environment to grow into a leader. The fans and the community love him. The organization was willing to pay him top dollar for years to come. Billy Donovan and the rest of the team let him play out of his mind so that he can secure the MVP trophy. To top it off, Sam Presti showed he truly cares about competing in a stacked conference by acquiring two prime all-star players. If you are Russell Westbrook you have nothing more to ask for. Money, star teammates, fans’ love and team’s trust.
So while the Thunder is entering the Westbrook Era it is time to expect more from the franchise player. And it has nothing to do with his on court performance. After all Westbrook has been ranked as a Top three point guard in the league by major sports media and analysts. But there have been questions regarding his role as a leader and recruiter. This is a major aspect (injuries aside) that will define his legacy and it’s high time it’s addressed.
Sam Presti made sure Westbrook was not competing all by himself. That is a fact. Paul George and Carmelo Anthony are great teammates. However, they are both players with expiring contracts. Another thing is that they have cut ties with their former teams and their respective fan bases. Which means that come free agency they will no longer be the bad guys if they want to leave. This is a growing concern for OKC and Sam Presti.
Right now Paul George has the highest chances of leaving before the next season. He would be an unrestricted free agent and every team that has at least $20 million in free cap space would try to sign him. The LA Lakers appear to be front runners in that regard. Last year the organization was fines $500k for tampering. Earlier in January when the Lakers played against the Thunder at STAPLES Center the crowd was cheering for Paul George when he went to the free throw line. That’s how bad they want him! In addition he is born in Los Angeles and has expressed on numerous occasions he wanted to play there. Yet in order to get him in a Thunder jersey, Sam Presti had to part ways with two very solid players. And now the team is very close to losing George.
Now is the time Russell Westbrook has to show up as a leader and recruiter. Usually, when you are the reigning MVP you attract players to your team. So it would be a horrible look for Westbrook if he is left by an all-star player. And that star player would go to a team that is by no means a competitor. It would hurt the Thunder badly as the absence of Paul George would be yet another void to fill.
Same goes for Carmelo Anthony – an elite player who is slowly exiting his prime. His name is constantly brought up in a potential team-up with LeBron James and Chris Paul. It is no secret how close Anthony is with those two. The only things that may convince him to stay is the salary he would be payed ($27,928,140) and the fact OKC is a legit contender. Carmelo is more likely to stay for the next season as virtually no other team can pay him as much. But what can happen after that season remains a mystery.
As a franchise player Russell Westbrook has to come to grips with his situation. Oklahoma City has been deemed a “small market”. Without success it is hardly as attractive as Houston or teams on the West Coast. Another thing – OKC has been having winning records for a while now. Which translates into fewer draft picks. So it’s hard to imagine that a huge young piece would be selected anytime soon. And last but not least – losing George would send a bad message all over the league. It would be the second time Westbrook is left hanging by a star player. When Durant left it was a complex situation. But if PG leaves it would pretty much mean he doesn’t like playing with Russell.
At the end of the day it is up to Westbrook to save the Thunder from sinking long term. He has to show he is willing to share the limelight and make players around him better. As a prominent franchise player he has to elevate some of Sam Presti’s worries by assuring OKC is attractive to free agents. There is plenty of proof what would happen otherwise.
Let’s look back into the not so distant past in two other cities. Back in 2014 when Derrick Rose was the Bulls’ franchise player even after all his injuries. However, he was as inactive off the court as you can imagine. For example, he did not show up in 2014 postseason and did not help Chicago in recruiting Carmelo Anthony. All he had to say about it – “It’s not my job!”. Yet when he started missing games the Bulls only had Jimmy Butler who was still developing. That’s how Rose’s lack of recruiting resulted in a missed opportunity for the Bulls. Carmelo Anthony is guilty for a very similar thing. As a New York Knick he was the established star but could not attract any marquee names to the Big Apple. So he was stuck with what the team had to offer. And wasn’t really involved in helping the organization. In 2012 after a lot of noise the Knicks did not match Jeremy Lin’s offer from the Rockets and let him go. Thus, the phenomenon “Linsanity” ended abruptly. Lin would later share he was “very, very sad” about the turn of events. Where was Carmelo Anthony in all of that? He wasn’t really feeling it to begin with. Just in the period following Houston’s $25 million for three years offer Anthony said “at this point there’s a lot going on, I stay away from that part right now.”
That was the point when Carmelo Anthony did not step up to his leader role and did not help his team with the end decision. After that situation the Knicks chose Jason Kidd and Raymond Felton for their back court. Neither of them would average better numbers than Lin.
The mentioned cases are good examples what can happen when the franchise player remains uninvolved. This could be a vital lesson for Westbrook. He represents a great organization that is doing everything in its power to remain successful. Unfortunately, avoiding the media and letting other teams lure in his teammates may hurt him and the Thunder. It would be a great shame if his prime years go away in shallow postseason attempts. At the end of the day, it depends on him to improve his own situation.