Now what?

By Michael Kinney

In a span of 11 years the Oklahoma City Thunder rose from the depths of one of the worst season’s in NBA to become a title contender and one of the most exciting franchises in the league.

At their pinnacle in 2012, the Thunder made it to the NBA championship on the backs of four young superstars. And even though they lost to the Miami Heat in five games, it looked like Oklahoma City was destined to be the next dynasty and collect a bunch of rings.

But then a quirky thing took place on the way to that glorious future. Life happened.

Egos, money, questionable decisions, injuries and bad luck all seemed to hit the Thunder at different points and the talk of the small-market wonder team disappeared as frustration and angst took its place.

That era officially came to an end when Oklahoma City traded guard Russell Westbrook to the Houston Rockets. Westbrook was the last remaining cog of the four stars that had carried the franchise to the precipice of the promise land.

Along with Westbrook, James Harden, Serge Ibaka and Kevin Durant are all now with large market teams in big cities looking to compete for NBA titles. Durant and Ibaka have already tasted what being a champion taste like while Harden and Westbrook are hoping their reunion in Houston will lead to their first title.

But unfortunately for Thunder fans, none of that ultimate success will take place in Oklahoma City.

What is hard for many Oklahoma City fans to get over is that of the four players, the Thunder ended up trading three of them away. Durant is the only one who left via free agency.

Throw in players such as Paul George, Victor Oladipo and Enes Kanter, and Oklahoma City has traded away some impressive talent in its 11-year history.

It has left fans asking what happened? How did this budding dynasty get off course?

The answer for many is the exact fears the NBA had when first making the decision to allow the franchise to leave Seattle and move to Oklahoma City. It’s the small market vs big market battle.

One look at the major player moves this offseason show a distinct tendency of smaller marker teams losing their stars to big markets. Whether it’s by free agency or demanding trades, marquee players are heading to the bright lights of a large metropolis.

According to Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, this type of player movement is only going to continue.

“Some feel that the player movement we have seen, particularly players asking to be traded or leaving teams that have the ability to pay them more money is a problem,” Cuban wrote in his blog. “I don’t. I think it is exactly what we should expect and it reflects what is happening in the job market across industries in our country.”

Through the past decade, Oklahoma City hasn’t felt the full effect of this trend. When they lost players such as Harden, Ibaka and Durant, Presti found ways to wheel and deal and bring in Oladipo and George. And they also had Westbrook to fall back on.

But this offseason, George’s unexpected and painfully bad timing trade demand threw the entire process in flux. The Thunder shouldn’t have given into the bully tactic, but once they did and Westbrook made it known he wanted out, the Thunder had no way to replace them with equal talent.

So now, Oklahoma City has compiled eight first round picks and four pick swaps from their destruction of the team. That gives them the potential of 15 first round picks from 2020 to 2026.

Oklahoma City can use those picks to make trade and bring in big name stars, but they will end up in exactly the same position as they were with George. Someone who really didn’t want to be in Oklahoma City and used the franchise to get his max contract before forcing his way out.

That is Oklahoma City’s future if they continue down that same path.

In order for the Thunder to get back to being title contenders, they may have to take a page from their past. Starting with Durant, the Seattle Supersonics/Oklahoma City Thunder had a three year stretch of almost unprecedented drafts. While Durant was obvious, Westbrook, Ibaka and Harden were reaches in many analyst estimations.

Since then, Oklahoma City’s draft resume has been suspect at best. Since 2010, the only players they have drafted who spent significant time in the Thunder starting lineup have been Reggie Jackson (2011), Steven Adams (2013), Andre Roberson (2013) and Terrance Ferguson (2017). The rest have been dealt away or languished on the roster of the Oklahoma City Blue (D-, G-League).

It may seem impossible that the Thunder will ever be able to collect a young, hungry crew like Durant, Ibaka, Westbrook and Harden again. But that has to be their goal with all of the draft assets they have accumulated.

The only hope of small market teams like the Thunder are to draft great and get as much out of their homegrown talent for as long as they can hold onto them.

But history has told them that at some point, the players will want to leave and the Thunder and its fan base need to be prepared for it.

Michael Kinney is a Freelance Content Provider

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