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State of the City: OKC waits for its new coach

State of the City: OKC waits for its new coach


It took more than half an hour for Sam Presti to say anything truly illuminating during his news conference Wednesday to discuss firing Scott Brooks. And it came during an answer to a question about Enes Kanter.

Presti spoke of making personnel changes before the trade deadline in the context of the new television money “striking” the system, which is causing the salary cap to skyrocket. That single word — or really the root of that word, strike — said more about why Presti is doing what he’s doing than anything else he’s said publicly since the start of the season.

The massive wave of money is crashing into the NBA salary management landscape like a tsunami. It’s a violent, sudden and disruptive change. The landscape will look completely different during and after the tsunami strikes the system.

It’s not a coincidence that Presti chose such a forceful word. The notoriously detail-oriented and precise Presti (a more polite way of calling him a control freak) used great care in deciding what to say and how to say it during that news conference and during every other public appearance.

Every team, no matter what their current salary cap situation, is about to be awash in money and the CBA room to spend it. The moves teams made to hoard cap space before the free agency period won’t really be necessary until salaries catch up to the new reality. Cap space then becomes less valuable — top-tier talent were courted by only a handful of teams with cap space in recent summers, but there will be a long line of teams with money to spend in the next couple of seasons. Having money to spend on marquee free agents won’t make teams stand out.

It’s attractive to think that top-level talent would want to come to Oklahoma City to play alongside Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. And for some players, that may be the case. But two other things will be working against OKC in that scenario. The first is that lots of top teams with their own duos and trios to help sell their pitch to free agents will be competing for the same guys. And the other is that free agents in every sport have always flocked to the same cities for the same reasons, when possible, and that hasn’t changed and won’t change. OKC will have little advantage over anyone else.

Hence the urgency in trading for guys like Kanter and Dion Waiters, and to a lesser degree Kyle Singler. Those are all guys the Thunder can almost certainly lock up for the foreseeable future unless the team doesn’t want to. The only wild card is if a guy like Kanter chooses to sign the one-year qualifying offer, taking a short-term risk in order to have a chance to sign an even bigger contract a year later thanks to the money tsunami.

Turning an unhappy camper like Reggie Jackson and some low first-round picks into having the chance to control talents like Kanter and Waiters (assuming the Thunder can slowly convince Waiters to drop his bad habits) could have been the last chance the Thunder really had to make no-doubt, long-term upgrades to the roster before Westbrook could leave in 2017, not to mention Durant in 2016. The 2015 and 2016 trade deadlines are the only real chances left in the next several seasons for Presti to add the kind of piece he would otherwise only really be able to get in free agency or a crazy ping pong ball bounce this spring. [quote]

The same urgency is doubtlessly what cost Brooks his job. I think Zach Lowe said it well on Grantland: the Thunder could have won a title with Brooks already had a couple of different things gone differently, and the Thunder could have won a title next season with Brooks as well. But in the stratosphere of the NBA elite, when the difference between teams is razor thin, Presti ultimately concluded that he needed someone other than Brooks in order to consider in-game coaching as one of the strengths that could tip the balance in OKC’s favor. The urgency to find the right mix now — with at least one more season guaranteed with the current core — means the Brooks era is over for the Thunder.

The narrative that OKC is a team in decline had started to go mainstream — at least, it had migrated from notoriously fickle NBA Twitter and Bill Simmons to some more-than-passing mentions in semi- to fully-respectable venues. That’s an irritating idea to me. What team wouldn’t decline with the injuries the Thunder suffered this season? Any decline could be staved off with even average health in the 2015-16 season.

A more convincing narrative is that the Thunder had stagnated. It’s still not a slam dunk — who knows what would have happened without the postseason injuries to Westbrook in 2013 and Serge Ibaka in 2014, for one thing. But the feeling of stagnation was palpable nonetheless.

Whatever narrative anyone tries to assign to the team now, stagnation certainly won’t be one of them. Changing the only coach that OKC has ever really known is as jarring to Thunder fans as any move this side of the James Harden trade, and maybe more so.

But whether it’s a decline — which it certainly isn’t now — comes down to the elephant in the room: KD’s foot.

I was standing outside of a preschool in a semi-rural South African township a month ago when a laborer working on a playground came up to me and a friend and asked us where we were from. We told him we were from Oklahoma.

“The only thing I know about Oklahoma,” the guy said, “is the basketball team. Thunder. Kevin Durant.”

That effect is hard to value in more ways than one. There’s the fact that you literally cannot buy that sort of publicity. There’s nothing OKC could buy or pay for, realistically, that would cause some guy in a poor part of South Africa to have heard of us. But it’s also fair to say the value of him knowing is pretty nebulous. It’s not like the local community can always monetize that sort of publicity.

What you can say definitively though is that Oklahoma City’s a badass basketball team with badass players has transformed the local image, and also our self-image. OKC stands toe-to-toe with the biggest cities in America on a global stage. The rise of the Thunder may not have much of a link that you can prove to the city’s modern renaissance, but most everyone around here would agree that we walk around with our chests puffed out just a little more because of the Thunder. I’m convinced that ego boost has at least contributed in some way to the confidence and entrepreneurial “Why not us, and why not here” attitude that has helped transform our community.

That civic pride, and the Thunder’s place in it, has become part of our cultural bedrock almost overnight. Presti’s place as a member of the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum Board of Directors isn’t just some random appointment to give to the famous guy. It means something here, and it clearly means something to him. The Thunder belong to the community here in ways that few teams around the country do to theirs. If people who live elsewhere can’t understand how that happened in just seven years, that’s just because they don’t live here.

The rocketship ride to the top that it felt like the Thunder was taking us on ended some time ago. It’s more of a realistic professional sports existence now. There’s no inevitable march to the top. There’s the knowledge of how precarious it is when you reach those heights.

The tiny bone in KD’s foot shows just how precarious it can be. To a great extent, how that turns out is beyond anyone’s control. He’ll get the best medical care money can buy, and the bone will either heal, or it won’t.

Guys like Brook Lopez have had the same treatment issues with the Jones fracture that KD has had so far. But it’s a tall guy and his foot. There’s reason to worry. Westbrook, fierce and beloved, is as important to the Thunder’s fortunes as Durant. But they, and we, know they both have to be healthy for OKC to contend.

What Presti can control, he’s controlling. He’s looking for the agent of change to put the Thunder over the top. He’s not content to stand pat. He’s showing the world, and his free-agent-to-be superstars, that he’ll make hard choices if he thinks they need to be made.

The future of a franchise that’s already inextricably linked with its city is at stake. Now, all we can do is wait to see who is walking through that door.

No pressure, coach.