It is only a matter of time before the final nail is hammered into Oklahoma City’s coffin. Death comes in threes and following their Western Conference Finals collapse the Thunder have already lost Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka. Russell Westbrook is the last man standing in OKC, but chances are he will not be around for much longer.
Thunder GM Sam Presti has already been put through the fleeing superstar ringer before. By now he should know what to expect and is most likely already planning an exit strategy for Westbrook who can walk at the end of next season. Presti has already tried both methods of dealing with superstar free agents.
Selling coveted assets is a dicey game. As a general manager you have to be the best used car salesman. Get above market value and you’re a genius (i.e. Serge Ibaka heist). Sell below market value (i.e. James Harden) or don’t sell at all (i.e. Kevin Durant), grab a high caliber gun and wish for a better life.
Given his seasoned knowledge, Presti should know how to handle his final blue chip. Cash it in at the best possible time to the highest bidder. Presti has used this method of thinking when prepping for the exits of Harden and Ibaka which produced completely opposite results. With Durant he was too optimistic and ultimately got burned for thinking with his heart.
With Westbrook, Presti has to walk the tight rope of winning at the moment and setting his team up for the inevitable rebuild. Reports suggest that Westbrook’s feelings toward the team has not changed in the aftermath of Durant’s departure. If anything he feels this is his team more than it ever has been. If that is indeed the case it would be impossible for Presti not to expect a 2001 Allen Iverson-run from Westbrook next season.
Will Presti have the balls to pull the trigger on a Godfather offer from the LA Lakers if Westbrook is in full blown Terminator mode and the Thunder are breathing down the Warriors’ neck? What if Phil Jackson becomes so entranced with Westbrook he offers Kristaps Porzingis (Side note: if the word ‘Porzingis’ is mentioned in ANY trade rumors this year Knicks fans should destroy MSG)?
On the flip side what if the Thunder stumble out of the gate? What if that promising young defensive core of Steven Adams, Andre Roberson, and Victor Oladipo isn’t what they thought it’d be? What if Westbrook struggles and his stock plummets like the pound? What if he pulls a Carmelo Anthony and hands Presti small list of teams he would promise to re-sign with at the end of the season? Presti should be aware of these things before he takes any action.
I. Who’s In Your Player’s Ear?
The source of most player’s actions can be found in who they keep around them. If Westbrook’s entourage has grand aspirations for life outside basketball chances are OKC is not in the cards. Also, are players from other teams talking to Westbrook? Last season the Warriors—mainly Draymond Green coincidentally– were in constant contact with Durant. While most (including the Thunder) dismissed the thought of Durant joining the defending top dogs the constant chatter in the ear played a role in the end.
II. What’s The Word On The Street
In addition to Warriors’ players recruiting Durant there was talk among executives that the Warriors’ front office was planning to pursue him. Regardless of what the rumor is everything must be taken remotely serious. If word trickles down that a team is hot on Westbrook, or Westbrook plans on testing free agency, ramp up the trade talks and cash in.
III. Send Out Feelers
The Thunder will never get equal value for Westbrook. This is something that Presti has most likely come to terms with. The goal for the Thunder is to cash in at the most opportune time. Trading before the season could yield great offers on paper like the Harden trade appeared to be in 2012. Then the season started and the world realized the Thunder traded the best shooting guard in the league for a trail mix of mediocrity and Steven Adams.
To dodge a Harden trade remix Presti has to play a game of chicken. Engage in trade talks before the season, but do not commit to anything. Have a set list of what is considered close to equal value. This is where the true suitors will emerge and allow Presti narrow his search of assets.
IV. Personal Deadline
Waiting until the league’s trade deadline at the tail end of February is not the best place looking for a deal. Sometimes your team can get lucky like the Denver Nuggets were and get a somewhat even exchange for you star. But for that to happen you’d need two desperate suitors with assets.
If the Thunder set a personal deadline to see where the team is at in the season (ideally around December or January) it will be much easier to talk themselves into a trade. This does two things—it keeps the upper hand in negotiations (more time to negotiate versus the league imposed deadline) and allows the league landscape to settle. The worst thing that can happen is the Thunder trade Westbrook and then a big four from the Warriors goes down for the season.
The key for Presti and the Thunder are too walk the tight rope of playing for now and looking towards the future. If they can do that everything else will sort itself out.