OKLAHOMA CITY — During the quiet transition from July 5th, 2019, into July 6th, NBA and Thunder fans were thrown into an emotional hyperdrive.
Some slept through it and woke up to the news. Others were already awake in crowded bars (remember that?) enjoying a summer night to then be glued to social media.
Of course, there were a few who were asleep but who are unfortunately addicted to their phones and woke up when the Woj bomb dropped — like this particular sportswriter.
Paul George’s departure from Oklahoma City in exchange for Danilo Gallinari, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and a cornucopia of draft picks was the white flag.
The Thunder, who valiantly withstood the departure of another megastar in Kevin Durant during the summer of 2016, stood behind Russell Westbrook and eventually George. Two first-round exits and some rather embarrassing franchise moments led to the reality of July 6th, 2019.
It was impossible to not interpret George’s trade, and Westbrook’s eventual trade a week later, as the Thunder admitting defeat. Their inevitable march to the basketball hell of the lottery was coming.
But Presti is never one to think so linearly. Presti’s mindset can be described as an attempt at omnipresence — in basketball general manager terms, the ability to be meaningful in the short term as well as the long term.
“What we want to do is be playing meaningful basketball at the end of the year,” Presti said last September. “We want to try to do everything we can to put ourselves in position to optimize the group that we have, and there’s just no shortcuts to that.”
What does ‘meaningful’ mean to the Thunder?
Some believed it to be a desire to not be the Charlotte Hornets — only three playoff appearances in 15 seasons. This small market team in middle-America could not and would not survive with that.
Others saw it as a vain attempt at the futile battle OKC has been fighting since its inception — get stars to stay. Gilgeous-Alexander was billed as the future face of the franchise, so his every need was going to be met.
Perhaps young players, projects and guys with names never heard of would be playing those ‘meaningful’ games. You know, the whole developing thing OKC prides itself on — *coughs* Durant, Westbrook, James Harden, Victor Oladipo, etc.
Presti saw it in the same terms he has always viewed his franchise. In his roster heading into the 2019-20 season lie a collection of savvy-veteran leaders in Steven Adams, Gallinari and Chris Paul to go along with Gilgeous-Alexander, Darius Bazley and, yes, Lu-by-God-Dort. Already, Presti was licking his lips at the potential.
Perhaps there was a scenario where Paul could help both parties — the Thunder and himself. No one expected Paul to be such a caring, loving leader in his current situation. He was 34-going-on-35, which in basketball years puts you at or near the Pearly Gates. His immediate future was not to invest in the young potential of OKC, he wanted to win a title now.
Presti understood what everyone else conveniently forgot — Paul is a professional and a fierce competitor. Oh, and the Thunder are much better than we all thought going into the year.
Why is this important?
No one knows just what the NBA is planning to do with their attempted re-start in Orlando. There is wide speculation that to decrease risk, not all 30 teams would be invited to finish out their seasons.
What if Presti thought in Twitter-fan terms? Tank now for a better future?
Thunder fans would have nothing to look forward to until whenever the draft takes place and the eventual start of the 2020-21 season. OKC would likely be asked to stay home in the event not every team is invited.
What about the actual franchise?
In the event of 20-24 teams being invited, all important eyes will be fixed on the Thunder. General managers and front office types will be salivating at Paul’s status as one who still moves the needle in the NBA. This could help the trade value.
Of course, the Thunder could go ahead and try and win the title. As silly as that sounds, they are playing on even playing ground as everyone else. There will be no home-court advantage hurdle to climb. There will be no travel fatigue to battle. Teams with the best talent and leadership will more than likely win out.
Oklahoma City may not have top-tier talent, but they have the leadership.
The beautiful thing is that in the event of a deep playoff run, all options and future plans remain the same: Develop young talent, maximize future options via trades, draft picks, etc.
“It comes back to the commitment to the process that’s in place and being willing to be patient with that as we go through,” Presti said. “Especially with this much change as we’ve experienced.”
OKC is ready for these turbulent times because they have always prepared for them.
Brady Trantham has covered the Oklahoma City Thunder for The Franchise since April 2018 and for Thunder Digest since 2016. He hosts a Thunder podcast with Madysson Morris “OKC-82 Podcast” which can be found on all podcast outlets, and is a co-host on the Franchise Thunder Insider’s Show on Saturdays from 10-12. Brady is a graduate of the University of Oklahoma class of 2014. Follow him on Twitter @BradyDoesSports