If Oklahoma City decides to hit the fast-forward button, it means upgrading the roster in the short term and potentially bringing in another top-tier talent like Donovan Mitchell or Jalen Brown. This will likely require them to give up their valuable venture capital and some of their young and growing prospects.
This can seriously affect the flexibility of the franchise going forward. Having such a star would also devour precious developmental bandwidth at a time when many of the team members are still in their early 20s or younger; Without knowing exactly how these guys will develop, he can throw a wrench into the system, not allowing full consideration in terms of fit and chemistry. While media attention and attendance for the game is sure to increase, the consequences of such a move could hurt Thunder’s endeavor to build a sustainably successful team.
Time and time again, we’ve seen other organizations push the chips too early only to excel as a mediocre playoff team, or worse. The Knicks in 2010-11 replaced young Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler to add Carmelo Anthony. New York would embark on the playoffs in its first three seasons with Anthony as its top scorer, but won only one post-season game in the first two years before losing the Western Conference Finals 2-4 to Indiana. This team did not participate in the playoffs again for the next eight years.
Perhaps the most relevant example is the 2016-2017 Timberwolves trading with young Zach Lavine, a choice that has become Lauri Markkanen, and Kris Dunn to add 28-year-old Jimmy Butler to a franchise in development mode. Butler’s move led to one disappointing appearance. This caused a lot of tension and frustration inside the locker room and ended up in the former Chicago Bull that played less than 70 games before being shipped to Philadelphia for diminishing returns.
Although unlikely, another avenue that Oklahoma City could choose to explore is the free agent market. Barring a major change, Thunder is currently scheduled to have about $40 million to spend in its upcoming off-season and that number could easily go up. This is enough dough for a large fish reel. Since it would likely take a very big show for four years, choosing this route could potentially lead to some of the same problems mentioned earlier and make some very difficult decisions when it comes time to re-sign the final draft picks Chet Holmgren, Tre Man and Josh Jedi, etc.
If Oklahoma City continues down its path with its decision to rebuild through the draft, it will likely take a little longer to put a producer on the ground capable of contending for the title. As much as the excitement surrounding Thunder mini-guns, no one – not even the front office – is sure what these players could be. One or two might turn out to be stars and deliver exactly what the franchise was looking for before deciding to press the pedal to metal. Or maybe they don’t. And while this may lead to increased frustration with parts of the fan base, patience in figuring this out can pay off in a big way.
With Shai Gilgeous-Alexander on a path that appears to be headed toward the moon and the fact that he’s locked up for the next five years, the team can be patient as the team works to turn rookie contracts into meaningful players in the NBA. The advantages of building through the Thunder Project are numerous.
Start-up-scale contracts are the least expensive way to acquire talent, freeing up money in the off-season to make moves if needed, and allowing franchisees to avoid the luxury tax. Oklahoma City also benefits from an existing Collective Bargaining Agreement, or CBA, that financially incentivizes players to sign with the original team that drafted them—a huge boon for franchises operating in smaller markets.
In addition, there is a control feature. Signing or trading for a big-name free agent account in the off-season might be the exciting move, but the franchise has no control over whether that player will walk or stay with the team at the end of his contract, creating a sense of uncertainty.
However, the handling of starter contracts and maximum contracts is different. Starter contracts come with bird rights, which give the front office the option to go over the salary cap if they want to re-sign these players. Players with maximum contracts, such as Gilgeous-Alexander, can also be affected due to language in the CBA that allows franchisees to throw more money at their stars.
Domestic teams, or teams created through NBA Draft, have had great success over long periods in the past due to things like continuity and synergy that come from the same players who have been playing together for years. San Antonio, the Golden State, and even an earlier version of Thunder come to mind. In the early 2000s, Tottenham were able to put together Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. This trio was the focal point of the team that would dominate for years, consistently running successful playoffs, leading to four NBA championships.
Over the past decade, Warriors have also been able to do the same by crafting Steve Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. Although no reminder is likely needed, the younger Sam Presty was penned by Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, and James Harden. Although not everyone stayed put as the Warriors and Spurs, the Thunder repeat still enjoyed several qualifying berths, reaching the Conference Finals three times, and the Finals once.
Given the history, the current CBA, and the state of the franchise, it seems wise to be patient and let the new blood in Oklahoma City brew. Who do you know? Thunder may already have Tim Duncan or Steph Curry next on the list. For now, it appears to be in the team’s best interest to maintain flexibility and keep options open.
Armed with a surplus of trial capital over the next few years and game-changing prospects on the horizon like Victor Wimpanyama and Scott Henderson, the Thunder would be wise to approach the short-term in the same way they did last season and let the development process drive the ship. When the time comes, the franchisee will have the resources to enter into a dispute.
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