Well, well, well. I don’t want to say, “I told you so.”
From the very beginning of the season, documented in columns on this site and a handful of Down to Dunk podcasts, you can see and hear me say that I didn’t believe the Thunder would make a trade at the deadline. Each time you’ll find that my comment was met with immediate and enthusiastic resistance. The common refrain was, “We can’t afford not to make a move!”
I can understand that. The Thunder is about as inconsistent as any team with three stars can be, and isn’t making any progress on the Wolves or Spurs for the all-important third seed in the west. Now a full four games behind in the loss column with around 25 games to play, it altogether seems unlikely. Then there’s the season-ending injury of Andre Roberson to contend with, without a great replacement option for him in the starting lineup. Etcetera, etcetera.
The bottom line is, yeah, the Thunder would’ve loved to acquire an elite shooting guard that can hit shots and play great defense and take this team to the next level. It was just never in the cards. Why?
First, fanbases always have an unrealistic evaluation of the players on their favorite team. It’s unavoidable, and not unique to Oklahoma City. The Thunder simply didn’t have any viable trade assets to offer for a player of the game-changing caliber. Think about the way we’ve talked about these players amongst ourselves these past couple of weeks. We says things like “Abrines can’t guard anyone” or “Huestis can’t make a shot” and then moments later fire up the trade machine and pop in Abrines alongside Kyle freaking Singler and wonder why the heck the so-and-so team wouldn’t make that deal. Oh but we’ll throw in a second round pick! It’s hypocritical.
The team could’ve made a trade, sure. But it would’ve needed to include Steven Adams or Paul George in order to receive anyone truly impactful in return. Now how are you feeling, Thunder fans? Hit a little too close to home? It should! That’s how trades work. Two teams have to agree to terms that are beneficial to both sides.
Despite the desire to always be striving for greatness, one simply cannot have it all. If you’re going to have a team with four legitimate star players on it, as the Thunder has in Russ, PG, Melo, and Steven (who very much belongs on the list), you’re going to have to make some compromises and get lucky on the surrounding pieces. Just ask the Clippers, who tried about about a million different options to fit alongside Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, Deandre Jordan, and J.J. Redick and were never able to muster enough depth to contend.
Or you have to get astronomically lucky, as the Warriors did with dozens of fortuitous occurrences happening in perfect synchronicity: Steph Curry’s unfairly cheap long-term contract, a last-second hold on the Kevin Love-for-Klay Thompson trade, Steve Kerr wanting to get back into coaching and shunning his mentor Phil Jackson and the Knicks, a perfect bill of health for several consecutive seasons, the consultancy of a legend in Jerry West, who just so happens to have a similar history to a prized free agent and swings in with a crucial phone call, and the proximity to Silicon Valley money that can bankroll a ludicrous luxury tax bill.
Besides, the Thunder decided to make moves during the offseason, which, in my opinion, is the far better time to do it. After all of the roster turnover and strategic adjustments made to accommodate the new players it would’ve been lunacy to make another big change. This is not NBA 2K, after all, where you punch in the different players and go. These are people’s lives, and all of those off-court relationship elements matter when you have an ecosystem as fragile as the Thunder’s.
It took 30, 40 games for chemistry to show up with the team’s current iteration, so with just 26 games remaining would it be smart to remove a couple of rotational pieces and bring in a player to the starting lineup who demands seven to 11 shots per game? How thin and ineffective would the bench units be then?
A trade would essentially hit the reset button on the team dynamic, as well as their established roles. It brings up so many questions: How do shots get divvied up? What spots on the court are those shots coming from? What are the rotations? When is the right time for that new player to back cut for a lob from Westbrook and a dunk and when will that clog up a driving lane? Which players are best for him to switch picks with, and when does he need to fight through?
Here’s some actual reporting from Royce Young, in which the organization echoes this sentiment:
As unsatisfactory as the team’s performance has been at times this year, it’s important to keep an eye on the real objective, and that’s a deep playoff run. On that front, the following stat seems pretty relevant:
The Thunder is 5-0 with a 16.6-point average margin of victory against the Cavs, Raptors, Rockets and Warriors. When the team locks in and turns that effort level up to full throttle, it can leave practically any opponent in its wake.
It needs to be said that adding a buyout free agent wouldn’t cause the same issues whatsoever. You’ve got the team, a unit, adding one outside piece. Instead of a shaken up roster that all needs to mesh together, it’s a single player who is willingly choosing to fit himself into the team’s scheme. He knows the deal. And the team doesn’t sacrifice any depth. Certainly, if the team can recruit a useful player who will fit in well, they absolutely should.
If not, all hope is not lost. Last week I wrote about why Josh Huestis is the best available option to start on the current roster. Since that piece was published, as if Billy Donovan himself reads Wake Up Call, Huestis has been injected into the starting lineup for both games this week. One of those was a resounding victory over the Warriors, in which he pitched in 6 points and 5 rebounds, and the other was the ugly blowout loss to the Lakers without two stars playing, in which he posted the team’s only individual positive box score plus-minus of +2, while the team’s other option in Alex Abrines was an almost unfathomable -28.
As I said last week, it’s not a perfect solution. But it’s also not entirely giving up on the season. All of the preseason goals, including making the Western Conference Finals and re-signing Paul George, are still attainable.
Fine, I’ll say it: I told you so.