OKLAHOMA CITY — Thursday’s meeting with the NBA’s Board of Governors yielded an unsurprising result.
The owners were sitting in front of a proposal that would change the league’s draft lottery, flattening odds for teams with the NBA’s three worst records to land the first pick as well as adding some other quirks. It was part of the ongoing struggle to discourage tanking — even if the rule change may not actually accomplish that.
It will, however, make tanking a less effective method than it was in previous years, potentially hurting small-market clubs more so than large-market ones, who have a better chance to build through free agency.
The rule changes were expected to pass. And they did. Easily.
Only one organization voted against them, choosing in favor of not just its own interests but also a handful of others teams’: The Oklahoma City Thunder, backed by general manager Sam Presti, who was outspoken within the league about how the anti-tanking reform that has now passed could injure small-market franchises. It was Presti maintaining consistency, standing behind a principle he’s backed ever since a more aggressive proposal failed to pass in 2014, in part because of his lobbying against it.
Yet, it was not even the second-most significant professional moment of his week.
Presti began last weekend improbably trading for Carmelo Anthony, bringing a star with a no-trade clause to Oklahoma City just after that same star spent much of the summer pushing for a deal to the Houston Rockets. He concluded the eventful stretch six days later by locking in reigning MVP Russell Westbrook to a five-year extension worth a projected $205 million, the largest contract in NBA history.
It felt like the perfect conclusion to the Thunder’s summer (even if the offseason was technically over with the team four days into training camp when Westbrook signed), a supposed dead period when the Thunder had acquired a four-time All-Star in Paul George, a contributive power forward in Patrick Patterson and an upgrade at backup point guard in Raymond Felton.
The roster transformation from July 4, 2016 to today has to be one of the greatest rebuilding jobs in NBA history, so unlikely that the definition of “rebuild” almost needs to stretch to make the argument.
There’s this trope that’s become popular in sports to define the cycling from era to era within a franchise: Team is good, team gets bad because it loses players or ages, team acquires quality young talent, team improves gradually, team is good again. But what Presti has accomplished is a rebuild, even if the rhythm is inconsistent with ones of the past.
This roster, this team is not the same.
The Thunder lost Kevin Durant, the best player in the history of their franchise. They won 47 games the next year, anyway.
Only three players that were in coach Billy Donovan's rotation during Durant's final year in OKC (Westbrook, Steven Adams and Andre Roberson) project to receive rotation minutes this season. More, the Thunder brought in two new stars because Presti took advantage of teams plunging in leverageless situations, ones which could not be replicated if the basketball gods decided to play out the summer of 2017 a thousand more times. He did it all while either creating or maintaining an environment that was ideal enough for Westbrook to stay.
And making sure he stuck around, even with all the money the Thunder will pay him over the next six years, ensures this franchise will still be relevant one, two, three or four seasons down the line.
Westbrook almost certainly won’t be worth the $43.8 million he’ll receive in the second-to-last year of the five-year deal. The same is true for the $46.7 million player option in year five, his age 34 season. But calculating value per dollar misses the point. It assumes the Thunder were in a position to negotiate the contract down.
They weren’t. They couldn’t. And not just because league rules stipulated that Westbrook could extend only by signing a max contract.
Everyone who could would offer Westbrook the max next summer if the Thunder let him hit free agency. And organizations, as recently as the Utah Jazz with Gordon Hayward this summer, have seen how playing hardball with contracts in the past can hurt pursuit of their own free agents in the present.
There was only one relevant question: Do the Thunder want Westbrook for the largest contract in NBA history or do they want to see him elsewhere, forcing them to bottom out as an organization and rely on a lottery system, one they just voted against because of how it could hurt small-market rebuilds, to try rebuilding?
How could the answer possibly be the latter?
It’s why locking in Westbrook and ensuring the franchise’s immediate future was a goal, a necessity even, all summer. It's why one signature was the ideal conclusion to the wildest professional week of Presti’s career.
Fred Katz is the Thunder beat writer for the Norman Transcript and CNHI Oklahoma as well as a host of the OKC Dream Team, a weekly Thunder podcast that runs every Tuesday. Follow him on Twitter: @FredKatz.