If anything takes the edge off Oklahoma City’s 15-and-15 record, it’s that nobody expected this to work out perfectly. When GM Sam Presti traded for Paul George and Carmelo Anthony over the summer, the popular consensus was that you make those moves every time. Victor Oladipo was an overpaid role player and Domantas Sabonis was described by Zach Lowe as a mildly intriguing prospect. Enes Kanter is empty calories and Doug McDermott has been a much sweeter shooter with the Knicks than he ever was with the Thunder. Presti was swapping out just-okay talent for one of the best forwards in the league and whatever Melo had left in the tank. It was the sort of maneuvering that could win the Thunder a title in a different year, but probably not with the Warriors running out Durant, Curry, Green, and Thompson, or with LeBron still at or near the peak of his powers, or with the Rockets adding Chris Paul to an already historically great offense. Worth a flier, though.
With that established: oof. The stats tell one story—Melo is posting the poorest true shooting percentage of his career; Russell Westbrook’s raw numbers are down, as is to be expected, but so is his efficiency; the team is second in the league in isolations and twenty-fourth in offensive rating—and actually watching the Thunder fills in the details. They’re intermittently exciting because they have stars who can take over games, but when one of their big three isn’t cooking, they’re zero fun. The ball doesn’t move. The floor isn’t spaced. The shots are difficult and often clank off the rim. To the extent the Thunder have succeeded this year, it’s been due to their rangy and well-organized defense. When asked to score, they simply haven’t been very good.
It’s hard to figure Russ, Melo, and George won’t improve as a unit over the next fifty-two games of the season, and the Thunder are still likely to make the playoffs, but we’re deep enough into the year to comfortably make the assertion that this experiment isn’t going to live up to its loftiest aims. Oklahoma City would have a hard time beating the Timberwolves or Blazers in a seven-game series. The Warriors and Rockets would lance right through them. The big, faint hope the Thunder started the season with is dead.
You could argue that Sam Presti already won the George and Melo trades because he used them to sign Westbrook to a new deal that binds him to Oklahoma City until 2023. If a moonshot championship run was the organization’s short-term goal, their long-term one was keeping their franchise player. They’ve done that, and now the only utility George and Melo provide is the potential for the Thunder to win a few more games than they did last year, a shot to make it past the first round of the postseason. That might sound like a disappointing return, but maybe it’s not. A team doesn’t need to live up to its fullest potential to be interesting (which the Thunder are) or entertaining (which they aren’t, but could be).
And as increasingly loud as the Paul George trade rumors are getting, even if the Thunder made him available, there aren’t many obvious destinations. It would have to be a title contender (or borderline one) trying to win right now, and they wouldn’t be willing to give up any top-of-the-line assets because George wouldn’t be likely to stick around past this season. Would Oklahoma City be interested in something like Tristan Thompson, Channing Frye, and the Nets pick? That doesn’t seem like enough, and Thompson doesn’t fit next to Steven Adams. The Celtics have a good, young team they won’t want to mess with too much. The Blazers wouldn’t give up anything the Thunder would want. The same is true of the Rockets. In short, Presti wouldn’t be able to get anything close to a haul for George.
For a few offseasons until they finally lost Chris Paul, there were calls for the Lob City Clippers to blow it up. They had considerable talent, but they also kept crashing out of the playoffs and everyone involved in the project seemed more miserable by the year. It made sense that they should move on from a star or two and simply try something else: a youth movement, a new core, a harebrained gamble. While that sentiment had its wisdom, a less frequently vocalized counterpoint hung in the air: blowing it up is easier said than done. You can’t just decide to give up on a player and ship him out the next day for three lottery picks. You need a trade partner, which is to say you usually need two or three trade partners, to drive the price up to where you’d like it to be. Perhaps the Clippers kept Paul, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan together out of stubbornness or a lack of imagination, but it’s possible they just couldn’t find a way to push the self-destruct button and feel good about what they would build in the wake of the wreckage.
The Thunder, obviously, have barely been a thing as currently constituted. There’s no history or sentimental attachment between the fanbase and George. But that isn’t a compelling reason to ship him out for a meager return, even if he is leaving this summer. Holding onto the most outside of outside chances that the Thunder go on a nice run in the spring, look solid while getting bounced in the second round of the playoffs, and George re-signs isn’t preferable to much, but it might be preferable to all other options.
If the Thunder win 45 games and George bolts, is that a failure? On some level, sure, but Sam Presti will still have done an excellent job in aspiring to more during an offseason when it would have been easy to be fatalistic about OKC’s predicament—a Warriors juggernaut, Westbrook in the last year of his contract, etc. He could have resigned himself to a rebuild and spent the next few seasons selling hope. Instead, he put together the best team he could. When you try to test the limits of what you can achieve, that sometimes ends in aggravating disappointment. But that doesn’t mean the attempt itself is a mistake.