Christmastime is here, but the Thunder have been booted from the schedule of nationally televised holiday games. Since the usual visions of Conference Finals preview matchups aren’t dancing in our heads, we thought we’d offer some jolly reflections for Daily Thunder readers.
Not all things Christmas are merry. Krampus scares the children, the Sticky Bandits case the neighborhood, and the most dastardly game turns the spirit of giving into the specter of taking: Dirty Santa, the theft-happy twist on the curse-passing traditional, White Elephant.
In that vein, I asked my friend, writer and Bulls fan, Adam Murr to play our own modified form of this holiday classic: Franchise Dirty White Elephant.
The rules: on your turn, you steal one aspect of the other franchise and stick them with something from yours. You can’t time warp (i.e. Cray can’t add prime Luc Longley to the current Thunder) but you can take the past. So Luc Longley’s threepeat is up for grabs. As our guest, Adam got the first turn.
In the game of Dirty Santa, where the objective is to give the worst items to your opponent (friend), I think any Bulls fan has plenty to offer. Between the Thunder’s playoff success, forward-thinking front office, consistently good draft picks, and savvy trades, there isn’t much I wouldn’t give to trade fan places with you, but alas, I see red. And without further delay, my first pick.
Thunder get: the tenure of Derrick Rose, our ROY, MVP number 1 pick
Bulls receive: the tenure of Russell Westbrook, your MVP and triple-double mascot
There were about four seasons where you could have swapped these two players and both teams would have roughly the same number of wins and playoff success as they actually had. Before the ACL injury, Rose’s stats were nearly identical to Westbrook’s and their games were frequently compared. They came out of the gate with explosive speed, aerial finesse, and easy-to-like awkward charm.3
But I didn’t just swap their injury history because, while I don’t question the negative consequences those injuries have had on Rose’s career, I also don’t believe he would have kept ascending the way Westbrook did for several more years.
Westbrook’s critics have hounded him since day one, and they’ve seemed to pick up steam again over the last couple years, but he has nevertheless been a relevant, newsworthy player for several more years than Rose has.
Bulls get: the Sonics record books
Thunder receive: the pre-2009 Bulls record books
Seattle has a proud2
history. But for the Oklahoma City fanbase, it’s like a classic hot rod we keep hidden away in the garage because it was involved in a notorious hit and run. We weren’t behind the wheel, but the crash was our means of inheriting the old treasure (along with a flashy new sports car). Maybe that nice little tally of Gary Payton steals and Jack Sickma rebounds will soften the blow when we jack two threepeats and the scoring accolades of the greatest player ever from Chicago’s shelf.
Thunder get: Phil Jackson’s legacy
Bulls receive: An honest look from free agents
This is part of the reason why I’m not welcome in Bulls circles anymore. It certainly smacks of recency bias, but I’d trade the legacy that Phil Jackson has in Chicago for free agents to give us a real look in when they are on the market. I’ll admit that I’m losing a lot here, but if you live by the code of always looking to the future, it starts to become a little clear. Phil’s contributions to Chicago have helped shape the best possible picture anyone has in their heads of the Bulls. However, I so enjoyed his hot mess years in New York, the Carmelo drama, the LeBron tiff, and the first Porzingis fissures, with the perspective that Phil was the heel. Between all that and his refusal to adapt to a non-triangle scheme with the Knicks, I’ll never again feel the warm fuzzies I used to get when thinking of of his heyday in Chicago. Oh, and it would be nice if free agents seriously considered us for anything. Come on, AD, the water is lukewarm. Jump on in.
Bulls get: Oklahoma City’s market size/share
Thunder receive: Chicago’s market size/share
This feels like a win-win. The Thunder have shed their cheep cheep reputation, doling out astronomical tax bills for teams on the periphery of title contention the last couple seasons. That wasn’t always a reality, though, as concerns over the shifting market, cap, and realities of life in a small city, have caused concern and caution for the Thunder. They’ve tried to anticipate and respond to their environment with things like first round draft-and-stashes and yeah, the Harden trade. Meanwhile Chicago is a huge spotlight hog with lucrative local revenue, but has an owner who dodges the tax line like he’s selling seats in Muskogee. This gives the Thunder some financial breathing room and less insecurity as a major team, and it gives Jerry Reinsdorf an excuse to rub his pennies together without enraging so many of his team’s fans.
Thunder get: Chicago’s effects from their worst trade in the last 15 years (LaMarcus Aldridge)
Bulls receive: OKC’s effects from the worst trade in their history (Harden, obviously)
Look, there are no winners here, and as a Chicago fan, I’m used to that. In all seriousness, I may be taking on more bad than I’ve dished out on this exchange because Harden staying on OKC is probably the most popular what-if scenario for fans since it occurred. Weighing that question could amount to weighing how many banners you could have hanging in the Chesapeake Energy Arena right now. Aldridge being traded was painful at the time and for several years afterward, but him being drafted onto what would become the Thibs Bulls just a few years later raises many questions about what that team would have become. The Bulls likely wouldn’t have been bad enough to land that first pick to get Rose with, and thinking about sandwiching LaMarcus between Joakim Noah and Luol Deng certainly presents some spacing issues, but was spacing going to be their biggest problem? I could keep meandering in this conversation I’m having with myself since that’s the point of these hypotheticals, but now I’m just sad, so I’ll end it here.
Bulls get: Terrance Ferguson
Thunder receive: Ryan Arcidiacono
I thought this was a fitting way to end a White Elephant exchange. No one wants someone to bring actual garbage to the exchange, but no one’s bringing their 70” LED TV, either. The sweet spot is stuff that you wouldn’t throw away, but wouldn’t miss if it ended up in someone else’s closet. Ferguson may or may not have plateaued as a player, but it’s hard for Thunder fans to get excited about Andre Roberson-lite on a non-contending team. He’s a better player than the Arch of Dimes, but solid defense and 1.3 made threes per game don’t make me say yippee ki yay. We’ve never had a Linsanity-type breakout from a fun player flying close to the sun; I want one. And since Billy Donovan isn’t slicking his hair back anymore, Arcidiacono has a whole style lane to himself in OKC.
At first glance, I thought I had come out easily ahead. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Sam Presti were unscathed, and any losses in Thunder history (okay, losing the Brodie is gigantic) are offset by gains in acquired legacy from one of the most storied franchises in basketball. Plus, I never have to think about the Harden trade again! But a virtual Harden-for-Westbrook swap leaves me cold. And as annoyingly enduring as that trade has been as an incessant what-if, it’s also produced the most endearing feature of the Thunder as we know them: Steven Adams.
Feeling like OKC would forever be spurned by players inclined to attend operas in Chicago, regardless of how well the team performed, was something I was prepared to accept for eternity. But the last few seasons of star acquisition and retention just happened. Having tasted that, losing it so soon is a huge bummer. And getting stuck with the legacy warts, on top of the glory, is the toughest. Sure, I snatched old records. But the contemporary legend-to-laughing-stock turn for Jackson is much more harmful to the team’s trajectory than any achievements retroactively etched in stone are helpful. As flawed as the Thunder’s past and present are, I think I’d rather have stuck it out to see the OKC future on the current timeline than accept this devil’s bargain.
With my help, the Bulls essentially lost their legacy. To any normal Bulls fan, that’s losing everything, and why I’ve ostracized myself from the city of Chicago.
While I love making homer arguments, I don’t see any gain in arguing that Zach Lavine is better than, say, Donovan Mitchell. In part because it’s fruitless, but also because it’s blatantly untrue. And that’s the problem with being a fan of a team that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2017 and isn’t likely to in the near future. Every claim of potential or promise feels ultimately spurious and unwarranted until it isn’t. Rose was a fun #1 pick because he almost immediately had an impact. The same cannot be said about Lauri Markkanen, Wendell Carter, Jr., and (especially) Coby White, although I am loving watching his weird game on an NBA court.
So, back to where I started: a legacy is only worth saving if there is some hope for the future… and since Garpax and Reinsdorf are still in control, I’m done holding my breath. So, give me that small market, irrelevant win history, and the Ferg. We won’t look any worse right now.
We invite you to let us know what you think of our dastardly choices in the comments, and to try this exercise out for size with your hoops frenemies when the non-Thunder Christmas Day games get boring.