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Two Roads Diverged in a Hardwood Dilemma

Two Roads Diverged in a Hardwood Dilemma

Matt Craig is a Daily Thunder contributor, and is also an editor at Seth’s Draft House. This article was originally published on sethsdrafthouse.com. “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,” begins Robert Frost’s famous poem “The Road Not Taken,” the story of a man at a crossroads both on his walk and in his life. The same could be said for most NBA teams, thanks to the world champion Golden State Warriors, a seemingly unstoppable monolith serving as an impossibly large measuring stick for the rest of the league.

If you peek down one road as far as you can, to where it bends in the undergrowth, you’ll see signs of an arms race. Fully-loaded teams are reaching for even more talent, as if the Cavaliers need a Jimmy Butler or the Spurs a Chris Paul or Kyle Lowry. Down the other path, you’ll find franchises diving head-first into the tank, hoarding a revolving door of assets. Picks are traded for more picks, traded for future picks, as if someday they might actually materialize into flesh-and-blood basketball players.

One road leads to competing with the Warriors, the other to avoiding them.

There stands the Oklahoma City Thunder, peering down each lane, hesitant to commit to stepping in either direction.

Which way should they go?

It’s been 353 days since Kevin Durant decided not to return to the Oklahoma City Thunder (not that anyone’s counting), and any fresh analysis over why he left has been exhausted.

The Sudden Departure needs to be mentioned, however, because it set the foundation for the Thunder’s current salary cap situation. The roster was built with Durant in mind, and large contracts were handed out under an “all-in-to-win-now” premise that went up in smoke after just 353 words in the Players Tribune.

His parting also informs how the organization and the city might handle Russell Westbrook, who is eligible for a contract extension this summer but could find himself on the trade block if he appears likely to bolt in 2018 free agency.

The rest of the young roster — Steven Adams, Alex Abrines, Victor Oladipo, Andre Roberson, Jerami Grant, Enes Kanter, Domantas Sabonis and Doug McDermott are all 25 and under — doesn’t quite fit the timeline for Westbrook, who will turn 29 in November. Waiting out the Warriors’ run isn’t something The Brodie can afford to do.

Which leaves Sam Presti, GM wunderkind-turned-Bill Simmons’ punching bag, in a tough position. The greatest fear in NBA front offices is getting your franchise stuck in limbo, the perpetual state of mediocrity caused by a team unable to contend in the present or build for the future. Presti certainly doesn’t want to do that. In our diverging roads scenario, NBA limbo is like walking backwards on the same road you came from.

Yet he has to do something.

This past season was an 87-game test case in what limbo looks like: A team of good-not-great players fighting and striving every game, overachieving their way to a 6-seed and an inevitable first round playoff exit. Indecision will lead to more of the same.

To me the choice is pretty simple. Trading a player like Westbrook is madness unless you have to, and it’s not like the young players coming behind have proven that they can become the kind of stars who could entertain hope for the future. On top of the fact that even without Westbrook the Thunder are nearly capped out, Oklahoma City hasn’t proven to be a location that is likely to lure in many prized free agents.

So the overcorrection would be an outcry to jump into the Jimmy Butler or Paul George sweepstakes, if they even could, by mortgaging any and all valuable assets for the most immediately gratifying version of win-now. Also a mistake. Are the Warriors going to be worried about Jimmy Butler driving and kicking out to Kyle Singler? Who then has to go down and guard one of Durant, Klay Thompson, or Draymond Green on the other end?

No, the Thunder must build a contender brick by brick. One trade victory at a time. One draft pick at a time. One free agency bargain at a time. One player developed at a time.

Look at how the Warriors were constructed. When Thompson and Green were drafted in 2011 and 2012, the Miami Heat were the monolith. How was anyone going to stop them? The Warriors didn’t over-react and trade for Dwight Howard during his 2012 fiasco, nor did they bottom out for a top-5 pick. They made one good decision at a time, and with patience developed into the unstoppable force we see today.

As for this business about “championship windows,” allow me to direct your attention to the 1990’s San Antonio Spurs, who went through the same process of slowly building an infrastructure as they “wasted” the prime years of their MVP, David Robinson. Robinson and the Spurs went on to win the 1999 NBA Championship after assembling a team and a system, pairing the Admiral with Tim Duncan, a man 10 years his junior. Duncan later won titles with Tony Parker, a man six years younger than him, and Kawhi Leonard, who is even 10 years younger than Parker. Turns out championships are won by talent, not birthdays.

The first step for the Thunder down this road comes tonight, where they hold the 21st pick in the draft. The team desperately needs a backup point guard, they could use at least one player on their roster who can both play defense and make jumpshots (novel concept), and they will want another wing/forward hybrid to fill the shoes of Taj Gibson if they let him walk in free agency. Regardless, whomever they draft must be ready to play right away, as the team can hardly afford a prospect who is two years away from being two years away.

The names that fit this description are Derrick White of Colorado, who our Sam Vecenie has the team taking; Justin Jackson of North Carolina; and Semi Ojeleye of SMU.

Derrick White may be the smartest player in the draft, allowing Billy Donovan to trust him running point with the second unit, and his jumper is smooth enough (39.6% from three) to indicate he could be an excellent complement to Westbrook. Most people don’t know that White was also first team All-PAC 12 defense this year, an honor that his potential teammate and fellow former Colorado Buffalo Andre Roberson also earned.

Vecenie projects Jackson to be drafted before the Thunder are on the clock, but a true three-and-D wing in today’s NBA? That’s gold. As much talk as there is about finding “the next Draymond Green,” I’ll take as many stabs as possible at the next Klay Thompson, also a guy many people thought was soft coming out of college.

Ojeleye has probably never been called soft in his life. He projects to be a younger version of the man who many Thunder fans have at the top of their wish list: Jae Crowder. If he turns out to be 80% as good as Crowder on defense and 120% better on offense, he’d be a steal.

The last thing to remember is to expect the unexpected. Just 12 months ago we were all shocked to learn that Serge Ibaka was being traded, landing the Thunder the 11th pick in last year’s draft as well as Victor Oladipo. The next step down the long road to contention could come in the addition or the subtraction of picks in Thursday’s draft.

Thunder fans can only hope this story ends as neatly as that of Frost’s protagonist:

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and [the Thunder]—
[they] took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Matt will be taking over the @UpTheThunder Twitter account tonight during the draft. Come laugh, cry, and yell along with him starting a little before 6 p.m. CST.