The Oklahoma City Thunder traded for Carmelo Anthony on Saturday. But this story starts five years ago.
Coming off of an appearance in the 2012 NBA Finals, the Thunder traded James Harden, drowning a potential superteam in its baptismal water. The Thunder, locked in a tiny NBA market by choice, couldn’t afford to pay the luxury tax for a decade, even if it meant competing for and even winning championships. GM Sam Presti was unable to convince Harden, a budding star, to take less than his value and make the numbers work. He flipped Harden for a cheaper option and picks.
The Thunder never made it back to the NBA Finals, despite Kevin Durant becoming one of the two best basketball players in the world and Russell Westbrook realizing every atom of his potential.
Harden, meanwhile, became a true superstar, with two MVP runner-ups under his belt. The Golden State Warriors, with little financial restraint or concern, built the realest superteam ever, by drafting as well as OKC’s Presti had and keeping everyone of import.
As Durant approached free agency in 2016, Presti’s bosses opened up the vault as the Thunder paid luxury tax for the first time since moving to OKC. It almost worked: the Thunder were a Klay Thompson explosion from getting back to the Finals. But they fell, and then the Warriors fell to LeBron James and the Cavaliers, and Durant decided to join Golden State.
The fear in Oklahoma City is that Westbrook too will leave. He’s a free agent in 2018 and hasn’t signed a $207 million extension on the table. So five years after the original sin of trading Harden over financial concerns, the Thunder are throwing every penny available — and, one imagines, pennies not available — at this team, this year, right now.
In June, the Thunder traded Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis for Paul George. Like Westbrook, George will be a free agent in 2018. Trading for George was essentially an attempt to build a contender right now to convince Westbrook (and perhaps George) to stay in Oklahoma City long-term. The Carmelo trade is similar: Anthony can opt out of his deal and become a free agent in 2018. He has relationships with Westbrook and PG-13 through USA Basketball, All-Star teams, and (with Russ) Jordan Brand.
This is important, too: Melo has cachet with stars of Westbrook and George’s generation. He’s the type of player far more respected by other players than by many analysts. If this works — and it might — everyone could re-up next summer and we could have real challengers for the Warriors, Rockets, and Cavaliers.
In the meantime, there is a lot of signaling happening in OKC. Per cap expert Bobby Marks, the Thunder’s luxury tax bill is at $27.8 million for the 2017-18 season. That’s huge for any team, let alone a franchise situated in the No. 41 media market in the United States. While there is plenty of time for the Thunder to move salary by the February trade deadline, Presti and his bosses are signaling to Westbrook, George, and fans that this franchise is committed to spending enough to compete with Golden State.
With a soft NBA salary cap, unprecedented fan knowledge, and interest in the financial side of the sport, and a 24/7 rumor mill about potential trades, management showing its commitment to success by paying up has become increasingly important. Even wildly effective managers like Danny Ainge catch heat over caution in this environment. With the Warriors looking like a dynasty in the making, fans of competitive teams demand their franchises try to keep up. Most teams are responding, as seen by the incredible volume of high-profile players moved in the past 18 months.
The Thunder probably should have just opened up the vault five years ago and kept Harden. But the past is in the past. With limited assets, Presti has built nothing less than an intriguing top-four seed that will keep Chesapeake Energy Arena packed to the gills and local ratings high. And maybe, just maybe, with the right breaks, a perfect fit between Westbrook and George, and a Melo renaissance, this Thunder team could be special enough to do what the post-Harden Thunder teams never could.