“I’m coming! I’m coming!” A simple exchange in what was basically a blowout in February, set the stage for what we’ve seen this offseason from the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Thunder could not do anything when Kevin Durant left them on July 4th, 2016. By the time he made his decision, most of the top notch free agents were already off the board. Instead, the Thunder strategized from that point forward and hoped opportunities would arise from a turbulent NBA landscape. And arise they did.
The summer of 2016 basically set the stage for what happened in Oklahoma City this offseason. When every team was infused with an extra 20 million, moves were made that were almost immediately regretted once the ink dried on those contracts. Finding an extra $20 million in your team’s salary cap is like finding $1000 in between your couch cushions. Some people will make wise decisions with that extra money. But others will treat it like house money and YOLO the hell out of it. Many teams made bad decisions that summer that eventually led to their salary caps being tied up for the next 2-4 seasons.
By the time teams finally realized they had cash-strapped themselves for the foreseeable future, a doomed reality started to set in on the NBA landscape: the Golden State Warriors looked about as unstoppable as any team in recent memory and, to the chagrin of many in the league, were likely to stay together for the next 3-5 seasons. For many teams, this realization forced them into a difficult decision: continue to make their roster better by essentially spending more money or rebuild, with young, cheap players, with the hope that some of those players will develop into superstars and be ready to compete in 3-5 years.
Most teams around the league chose the second option. And with that, decided they better get what they could for the valuable assets they had on their rosters. At the same time, those superstar players who were not on the Warriors or the Cleveland Cavaliers faced a dilemma of their own: continue on the hamster wheel of being just good enough to be great, but not great enough to get past Golden State and Cleveland or find someway to create their own superteams.
Players are extremely aware of their own career mortality. An injury here or a bad contract signing there, and their next 3-5 seasons could be a waste of valuable career time. Some of the league’s superstars weren’t ready to just wait out the next few seasons until the Warriors dynasty started to crumble. Instead they put ultimatums out: trade me or lose me for nothing (essentially, the Kevin Durant plan).
It started with Chris Paul who told the Clippers he would be opting out of his contract. The Clippers, knowing Paul would likely walk, went back to him and looked to see if there was some trade that could be hashed out that would be beneficial for both parties. Enter Houston, who had been looking for another superstar to pair with MVP runner-up James Harden.
Then there was Paul George, who advised the Pacers he would not be re-signing with them when his contract was due to expire after the 2017-18 season and that his preferred destination when that time came would be Los Angeles. With that news out there, any leverage the Pacers had to hold on to George this season and up to the trade deadline completely dissipated. With that reality in front of them, the Pacers jumped on the first deal they thought would get them quality players. Enter the Thunder, who offered a package of Victor Oladipo (who would be on the books for another 4 years) and 2nd year forward Domantas Sabonis.
Gordon Hayward went the Durant route and left his former team high and dry. Hayward decided to join his college coach in Boston and left the Jazz in a position all to familiar to the Thunder. A lot like the players mentioned in this article, Hayward wanted to chance to compete at an elite level and didn’t think he could do that with his former team.
Depending on who you ask, it was unknown whether it was was Carmelo Anthony who was holding the New York Knicks hostage or visa versa. Anthony’s no-trade clause caused so much friction between he and then Knicks’ president Phil Jackson that the situation could only be described as dysfunctional. Anthony knew he wanted to go, but he wasn’t just going to go to any team. He had been trapped on a bad team for years and wanted the right opportunity to compete. Houston seemed like a logical option, but they didn’t have the necessary assets. Enter Oklahoma City, once again. The Thunder offered a package that featured a good, young big (Enes Kanter), a quality shooter (Doug McDermott), and a valuable 2nd round pick to land the 10-time All-Star.
And with that, a superstar team was formed in Oklahoma City. In addition to obtaining those two players, the Thunder also addressed their biggest needs in the form of floor spacers (Patrick Patterson and Terrance Ferguson) and back-up point guard (Raymond Felton). Also, the experience factor on the team increased immensely. The Thunder went from being one of the youngest teams last season to being one of the most veteran ones coming into this season.
That brief five second exchange at halfcourt between Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant became the rallying cry for the organization heading into this season. Westbrook and the Thunder may not have been able to win any of the battles last season. But they learned, they adapted, and they took risks this offseason. The battlefield on the hardwood is set to begin once again. The march has started. We’re coming. We’re coming.