Oklahoma City Thunder: The Kentucky Wildcats of the NBA

By: Chris O’Brien

When the NBA instituted their age restriction policy, it put the top programs in college basketball in an interesting position. By not allowing players to enter the NBA Draft right out of high school, this meant that 10-15 players a year would be joining the college ranks as essentially rental superstars. Freshman phenoms. One-and-dones.

Kentucky Head Coach John Calipari was revolutionary at the time by saying, “Alright, if these are the rules, I’ll embrace it. I’ll market Kentucky as the college for guys who don’t really want to go to college.” Since that time, Kentucky has continued to roll out a new roster each year with 3-5 NBA draft picks. Their one-and-done alumni (Anthony Davis, John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Devin Booker, Karl-Anthony Towns) are now a who’s who of NBA All-Stars, potential MVPS and, if they were to team up together, would probably win an Olympic Gold Medal, hell, maybe even an NBA Title.

And, in defense of Calipari, he didn’t get a say in the NBA’s rule. None of the NCAA coaches did. His argument is that he is in the career advancement business, so come to Kentucky, play for a year, compete for a title, then go ink a massive contract less than a year later. What other college degrees can offer that type of ROI? His players are majoring in basketball and getting their degree by summer.

Plus, now in 2017 when I look at the college landscape, Kansas, Duke, UCLA have also embraced one-and-dones. UCLA has even raised their hand to become a basketball infomercial for Big Baller Brand. One-and-dones are the new rule of the land. You can still try to win without them, but it’s a real steep climb.

Now let’s shift back to the NBA.

The NBA seems to be made up of two groups: the cities/organizations that can attract superstar free agents and the cities that can’t.

Example of teams that can: Los Angeles, Boston, Golden State, Houston, San Antonio, Cleveland*, New York*, Miami

*I put Cleveland here because they did bring LeBron back from Miami, Kevin Love was willing to be traded there, and Dan Gilbert is willing to pay a crazy amount of luxury tax. Then New York “in theory” should be able to attract superstars. They’re the biggest market. They’ve still got Madison Square Garden. They’re just also still a mess. 

Examples of teams that can’t: Utah, Indiana, Orlando, Sacramento, Milwaukee, Detroit, Minnesota*

*Minnesota did lose Kevin Garnett, then Kevin Love, but this summer Thibs somewhat shocked the NBA world by successfully trading for Jimmy Butler without giving up Wiggins or Towns. It’ll be interesting to see over the next few years if Minnesota can become like a San Antonio Jr.; small market team, with Hall-of-Fame talent, competing for rings. 

It puts teams in the “can’t” category in an interesting position. If you can’t land the top 10-15 players in the NBA, you’re left with a couple of choices:

  1. Overpay, give max contract deals to the guys ranked No. 16 – 40… or guys ranked No. 41 – 200.
  2. Draft well. Like Philly now having Embiid-Fultz-Simmons. This was OKC back in the day with Durant-Russ-Harden. We saw how OKC ended up. Fans in Philly are hoping for a different story. But you look at the NBA landscape, a good handful of top young talent is on smaller market team. Anthony Davis in New Orleans. Booker in Phoenix. Greek Freak in Milwaukee.
  3. Just go all-in on old school “teamwork, tough defense, that’s what wins championships.” It’s not about superstars.

And that was it. Those were the only options to choose from.

Until this summer when Oklahoma City successfully traded for Paul George. Even though George to the Lakers in 2018 seemed, and still seems,  somewhat inevitable, the Thunder were willing to bring him in on a lease, see if Russ + PG13 + Steven Adams could compete with the Warriors, and hey, if it’s only for a year, only a one-and-done, so be it. The fans are receiving a better product for this season, what more can you do as a GM?

I don’t know what the official plan is in OKC, but I actually really like this “rent-a-star” idea as a business model. If you use the MVP award as the ultimate metric for who the best player on the planet is (I know that’s flawed, but let’s just use it for argument sake) then the Thunder already have him on the roster in Russell Westbrook. Historically speaking, the last 25 years of the NBA has been all about keeping your MVP happy; from Shaq to Kobe to LeBron to Durant to now Westbrook. And if the reality is hey, soooo, we can’t really sign you another top tier star long-term, but we can go out and get you solid role players, we can try to draft well, we can… we know how that story ends.

Instead of trying to keep up with the Joneses, buying a new Ferarri every year, why not lease one instead? Say to Russell, “Look, each year we are going to pair you with another Top 15 guy. Maybe two. The players may change year-to-year, but you will always have the right pieces. We’ll become the Kentucky of the NBA.”

Stories already have come out that OKC is in discussions for a Carmelo trade. I’m drifting into hypotheticals now, but what if Cousins says he wants to be traded to the Wizards, or Anthony Davis wants to go home to Chicago, OKC can swoop in and say, “Hey, we get it, but why not come here for a season (or half a season) see if you can win a title and then be on your way.”

It would be pretty fun to be the OKC GM, because you weirdly have a ton of leverage. Like this year’s All-Star break, Presti can call up the Lakers and say, “You know, we’re having a great season. We are second in the West. Paul George is loving it here, I’ve even heard he might take that player option next season. The whole L.A. thing is slipping away. Unless… how ’bout Ingram, Caldwell Pope, Randle and/or your 2018 first round pick. No? Ok, well, best of luck to you. Hope your plan works out. Sorry, Paul George is calling me on the other line, wants to talk about the future.”

Turn it into a retail sale; make other teams feel like it’s a great deal that’s about to disappear. I guarantee the Lakers would call back in a panic.

Would Paul George be upset to be constantly included in trade talks? Not at all. It’s a mutual agreement. This isn’t long-term, we’re trying to help each other out. In the immortal words of Bob Seger, “I used her, she used me, neither one cared. We were gettin’ our share.”

Now get ready for the ultimate hypothetical. Buckle up. This one is, admittingly, ridiculous, but I want to take you down this crazy path just for the hell of it.

Let’s say this Kyrie trade to Phoenix happens and Cleveland starts the year with Eric Bledsoe and Josh Jackson as the replacement pieces for Uncle Drew. And let’s say Cleveland struggles out of the gate, trying to figure things out. Like 17-13 or 27-23 type of struggle. Every media site starts beating heavier on the “LeBron to LA” drum. Then LeBron shows up to the Ohio State vs. Michigan football game rocking a throwback Magic Johnson Lakers jersey. Twitter explodes. A story comes out right around the All-Star break that LeBron wants out. He’s going to try and win one more title in Cleveland, but after this season ends, it’s true, he’s going to put on the purple and gold.

Cleveland goes into a panic, they are about to lose the King… again. So they start looking for trades. The Lakers front office pops the champagne. Lavar Ball sends LeBron a Big Baller Brand shoe with the note, “Hey, just think about it, alright?”

This is when OKC picks up the phone, gives the Lakers a call.

“Hey, congrats on the LeBron news. Or, it wasn’t really clear to me, was he saying he’s one hundred percent coming to the Lakers or just that he’s picked Los Angeles because he’s got a home there and such?”

“No, he was wearing a Magic Johnson jersey at that game,” Lakers respond.

“Right, right. But I mean, with the Clippers he’d have a better frontcourt ready with Blake and DeAndre. I feel like that’s the key against the Warriors, right? Out-rebound them? Then maybe he gets the banana boat crew, Melo, D-Wade, and then CP3 to come back to the Clippers. I don’t know. I just wasn’t sure if he had picked a team that’s all. Hey, sorry, getting another call, I’ll give you a callback.”

Lakers stew. Thunder doesn’t call back. Lakers finally pick-up the phone, dial out.

“Alright, so why’d you even call us?” Lakers ask.

“Here’s what I’m thinking. LeBron wants to play with Paul George in L.A., right? And George says he’ll sign long-term with your team. So why not get that all in motion? We’ll go ahead and send you Paul George today, but you’ve got to send us Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle, and we’ll take the Brook Lopez expiring contract. How’s that sound?”

“Sounds like you’re gutting our starting five.”

“Alright cool. Well, we’re in no hurry. We’re sitting here second in the West, Paul’s happy. He’s surprised how happy he is here. We were chatting about the player option just yesterday. But if you feel like LeBron’s good with your current starting five, hey, best of luck to you.”

Phone call ends. OKC calls Cleveland.

“Hey, how’s it going Cleveland? Sorry about the LeBron stuff. Can you believe he’s doing that again? Oh, one hundred percent. It’s exactly like Season 2 of Flavor of Love when Flavor Flav brought back New York only to dump her again. Ok, back to business. What if I could get you Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle, and get you Lopez’ expiring for that much-needed cap relief. You want Lonzo? I mean, we can try. You think Lavar will let him sign long-term in Cleveland? Alright, how about this, Ingram/Lonzo/Lopez + their first round pick.”

Lakers back on the line. LA says, why do we need you, we can just trade directly with Cleveland. OKC says it’s a pride thing, Dan Gilbert doesn’t want to make the direct deal. Plus, again, Paul George is happy. You might get LeBron, but not PG. This deal secures PG now, puts the chips in place for LeBron in the summer.

LA mulls it over. Panics. Pulls the trigger. The final deal looks like this:

Los Angeles Lakers get – Paul George. + Richard Jefferson and Channing Frye (LeBron’s buddies and business partners with the Road Trippin’ podcast).

Cleveland gets – Lonzo. Ingram. First rounder. Lopez. (Lavar goes on an epic Twitter rant. We’re not going to Cleveland!)

Oklahoma City gets – LeBron James. For 1/2 a season.

Again, it’s a rental, but now the Thunder roll out the two best players on the planet, mutually bonded on their hatred of the Warriors. LeBron + Westbrook + Adams vs. Golden State’s Big Four, I mean things could get real interesting in the Western Conference Finals.

And yeah, this hypothetical OKC LeBron thing has about the same percent chance of happening as Kyrie being right about us living on a flat earth, but think about all the other players who will be free agents in 2018, 2019, 2020. OKC can look around the league, keep picking out the disgruntled superstars, and offer them a temporary break; a chance to compete for a title without a long-term commitment. It’s like the NBA version of friends-with-benefits.

It’s harder than ever to be a small market team in the NBA. In a lot of ways, it feels like the Oklahoma Citys, Indiana’s, Minnesota’s, and Utahs of the league are serving as the unofficial farm system for the big cities. There are plenty of reasons to be upset about this or make totally reasonable excuses to your fans for why you have to keep blowing things up, start over, put your hopes and dreams on the NBA Draft Lottery.

Or, you could innovate. Oklahoma City’s one-and-done strategy could be the perfect way to keep Russ happy all while keeping up with the Joneses.

I wrote a short book about a year ago that takes a deeper dive into what the NBA should do to make the league more competitive. It’s available for a dollar on Amazon.com. Thanks for stopping by! Tune in Monday for Alex Barker’s third installment of his trip to Las Vegas Summer League. 


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