In Oklahoma City, today is Russell Westbrook Day, as was yesterday, as is tomorrow and forevermore.
When the beloved Oklahoma City Thunder point guard signed a five-year, $205 million contract extension with the team Sept. 29, the entire city was rightfully thrilled or, more accurately, relieved. Only Westbrook and forward Nick Collison remain from the team that moved to OKC from Seattle in 2008. The NBAs reigning Most Valuable Player is both the key piece to the teams continued on-the-court relevance and the citys oldest and most loyal basketball friend.
Mayor Mick Cornett was so excited about the extension that hours after the deal was announced, he signed an official proclamation naming every day in OKC henceforth Russell Westbrook Day. In a proclamation signed in 2016, Cornett had previously made Aug. 4 the stars municipal holiday.
Basketball optimism is once again at a fever pitch in OKC thanks to a pair of unexpected blockbuster offseason trades that brought established superstars Paul George and Carmelo Anthony to the Thunder. But things seemed considerably bleaker just a year ago.
Kevin Durant went public with his decision to leave the team for the Golden State Warriors on July 4, 2016 a day most city residents will never forget.
Certain jerseys were burned. Certain player-owned restaurants were panned in online Yelp reviews. More seriously, people began to wonder how the city would continue to support the team if its run of success began to diminish. Through the teams entire history in OKC, the Thunder was either among the leagues top contenders or on-track to get there. There was never a time when the teams fortunes seemed on the decline.
These were fears not just raised by anxious OKC residents, but nationally as well. In a Deadspin article published days after Durants decision, writer Kevin Draper wondered if the departure might eventually lead to the teams own future relocation additionally citing a downturned state economy and the death of minority team owner Aubrey McClendon.
For the first time since the [Seattle Supersonics] relocated, Draper wrote, it isnt a given that fans turn out in droves, that even non-sports fans watch the team on TV, that Oklahoma City residents stay engaged in the wider NBA. The franchise no longer has a trump card in its battle for local attention with college football. Because Kevin Durant left, for the first time, building and maintaining the Thunder fan base wont be a given.
The idea sounds laughable in hindsight, but after Durants decision, some analysts and heartbroken fans believed the Thunder should have considered trading Westbrook before he could spurn the team for a larger market and once again leave OKC high and dry with nothing in return.
If the Thunder and team general manager Sam Presti had heeded this advice, it is highly unlikely that its roster would be as star-studded heading into the 2017-18 season. For the time being, the Thunder has schemed its way back to contender status a position to which it is already accustomed.
- Zach Beeker / Oklahoma City Thunder / provided
- Thunder coach Billy Donovan center left will guide the teams new player nucleus, including from left Paul George, Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony.
When including the New Orleans Hornets (now known as the New Orleans Pelicans) two-season stint in the city, State Sen. David Holt, R-Oklahoma City, said the number of stars local fans have had a chance to cheer for is impressive.
Think about the all-time Oklahoma City team that you could field, Holt said. Chris Paul, James Harden, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Paul George, Carmelo Anthony. You could have Peja Stojakovic and David West coming off the bench.
The OKC Republican representing District 30 is the author of the book Big League City: Oklahoma Citys Rise to the NBA and served as Cornetts chief of staff during the teams move from Seattle. He is also a 2018 mayoral candidate hoping to succeed Cornett, who is running for governor.
Holt said the Thunders speedy rise back to prominence is not only good news for the teams win-loss record, but a key development for the citys financial fortunes and national perception.
Its basically a commercial for Oklahoma City thats going to be running in the sports pages and sports talk shows of America for the next year, he said. Thats worth millions of dollars in image-building for our city and helps counteract, quite candidly, bad perceptions that have come out of the state Capitol in the last few years.
Despite fears the Thunder might be entering an extended period of malaise after Durants departure, a record-setting season from Westbrook last year and a dynamite offseason this summer have provided plenty of excitement in OKC.
Holt said he believes the team has been smart in positioning itself for a day when its basketball fortunes are not as bright. By becoming integral to the community, the Thunder brand might be able to transcend its record.
But that theory has still yet to be fully tested. And with quality management, it might not need to be.
Id like to think that we love our Thunder regardless of wins and losses, Holt said, but I dont see any need this year to test the theory.
- Zach Beeker / Oklahoma City Thunder / provided
- Russell Westbrook speaks with teammate Carmelo Anthony, who was acquired through a trade with the New York Knicks in September.
The seeds for the Thunders acquisition of Anthony and George were sown in Summer 2014. In his first offseason as the New York Knicks president of basketball operations, legendary Bulls and Lakers coach Phil Jackson was at a crossroads.
Anthony was a free agent, the Knicks were coming off a middling season and their star was considering an offer of less money from the Chicago Bulls to contend for a title. In Jacksons exuberance to keep Anthony in New York, he included a complete no-trade clause in Anthonys maximum contract, giving Anthony veto power over any potential trade. At the time of the 2014 extension, only Dirk Nowitzki and Kevin Garnett had similar deals. The Knicks had leverage with Anthony in 2014 they could offer him the most years and highest dollar amount on the market but Jackson threw in the no-trade as an unnecessary mea culpa.
Later in the 2014-2015 season, after the Knicks began to devolve under Jacksons leadership, the Thunder made a midseason trade, sending disgruntled point guard Reggie Jackson and receiving Enes Kanter as the highlights of a three-team swap.
Much of the Internet scoffed during the ensuing offseason when the Thunder matched Portlands four-year, $70 million restricted offer to Kanter. It was a lot of money for Kanter, a gifted offensive player with range who consistently ranked as one of the worst defensive centers in the league.
The size of the Thunder frontcourt would become part of the teams identity as the rest of the league was transitioning to small-ball lineups. Steven Adams, Serge Ibaka and Kanter helped the Thunder outrebound the Warriors 160 to 122 in its three wins over Golden State in the 2016 Western Conference Finals, but Klay Thompsons historic heat check in game six ended the Thunders best shot at returning to the NBA Finals.
Before Durant announced his departure that offseason, Presti flipped Ibaka to the Magic for Victor Oladipo and the pick that became forward Domantas Sabonis, both of whom were all that was needed to get George from Indiana after Georges public wish to be traded and perceived desire to return to his native Los Angeles hurt his value on the trade market.
The Thunder positioned itself to take advantage of front office mismanagement across the Eastern Conference. Anthony told SiriusXM radio that a draft night deal was in place to send he and George to the Cavaliers, but the deal fell apart. Cleveland owner Dan Gilbert fired GM David Griffin days before the draft without having a replacement in place.
As the Knicks looked to move Anthony to a team to which he would waive his no-trade clause, the pickings were slim. First, Anthony declared he wanted to be in Houston, but with the Rockets only able to offer the albatross of Ryan Andersons contract to match Anthonys salary, the deal went nowhere fast. Anthony relied on his relationship with George and Thunder assistant GM Troy Weaver, who coached Anthony during his run to a national championship as a freshman at Syracuse, to convince Anthony to agree to a trade to OKC.
The deal couldnt happen without Kanters contract. A deal that was much maligned at the time ended up being integral to the trade because it allowed the salaries, which included Doug McDermonts deal, to match.
- Zach Beeker / Oklahoma City Thunder / provided
- Russell Westbrook signed a five-year, $205 million contract extension in late September, likely cementing the Oklahoma City Thunders competitive relevance for the near future.
Making pieces fit
The offseason overhaul addresses two of the biggest areas of concern for the Thunder after Westbrooks unprecedented NBA season: It helps build depth and gives Westbrook more room to operate driving to the basket.
The Thunder were outscored 51.3 points per 100 possessions when Westbrook sat on the bench during its opening round series loss to the Rockets this past season. With Westbrook on the floor, Oklahoma City outscored Houston in the series.
The addition of George and Anthony gives head coach Billy Donovan the chance to stagger the minutes of his three stars, meaning one of three can be on the court at all times and they can still play crunch time together.
To further agitate Knicks fans, Anthony expressed enthusiasm about starting at power forward at his introductory Thunder press conference after years of bristling at the move in New York, only playing it for long stretches out of injury necessity in the 2012-2013 season, which was also the zenith of team success during his Knicks tenure.
The Thunder swapped Sabonis as power forward his three-point shot cooled considerably after shooting over 40 percent the first month of his rookie season for Anthony, who made 43 percent of his catch-and-shoot three points last season, according to NBA.coms SportVU data. Anthony becomes a much more dangerous partner in the pick and pop than Ibaka or Sabonis for Westbrook, and Westbrooks driving lanes will be that much more clear.
The addition of free agent Patrick Patterson, a career 36 percent three-point shooter, also gives the Thunder the spacing it needs and allows the Thunder to go big, sliding George in as shooting guard in place of defensive specialist Andre Roberson or playing Patterson as a small ball center.
The possibilities of exciting lineups is what led to senior ESPN writer Zach Lowe giving the Thunder the No. 2 ranking in his annual League Pass ranking, and one that never happens without chaos in the Eastern Conference.
For some, the Durant decision was more than a strike against the teams on-court potential; it was a knock against their earning potential.
Audrey Lisle, creative project manager at ID Solutions, which owns the T-shirt printing label and shop 405 Threads, 3821 S. Robinson Ave, experienced this firsthand. The store is known for its Adams and Kanter-modeled Stache Bros and James Harden-themed Fear the Beard shirt designs, both of which passed into obsolescence due to trades.
[When Durant left,] we have the added aspect of the business side of it, too, she said. Were like, What do we do with all of these shirts now?
Lisle said if she has learned anything through 405 Threads five years of printing Thunder-themed merchandise, it is that nothing is certain. Players get hurt or move to other teams when you least expect it. While Anthonys arrival from New York was cheered by many fans, it meant the team had to trade away former Stache Bro Kanter, making the shirt design obsolete. But thats life in the NBA.
We just see it as an opportunity to do new things, Lisle said.
Tree & Leaf Clothing graphic designer Steven Silva said he too was once fearful of what Durants departure might mean for OKC and his companys printing business.
Its like this domino scenario, he said. If Kevin leaves, then the economys bubble bursts, then Russell leaves, then the teams not good and fans stop supporting it and maybe the Thunder leaves and Oklahoma is set back like 20 years. You start spiraling on stuff like that.
As OKC fans know now, that spiral never came. In the heat of Westbrooks record-breaking season last year, Tree & Leaf, 1705 NW 16th St., introduced its popular Notorious MVP shirt design. Last year, Adams could be seen wearing the shirt in a video promoting Westbrooks MVP campaign.
Anytime you can see the players dont hate the shirts that were making, its always cool, Silva said.
The store ordered a large new shipment of the design following Westbrooks extension. Silva said Tree & Leaf is feverously working to develop new shirt designs themed around new arrivals George and Anthony and will continue to develop shirts as the season unfolds.
You can get a Thunder shirt pretty much anywhere, he said. Everyone already has two, three or five in their closet. For us its just like, Well, we need to be thinking of something more creative.
Print headline: Booming business, The Thunders lightning-quick resurgence has Oklahoma City back on the NBA map.