If Sam Presti and Carmelo Anthony could go back in time to right their biggest wrong – Presti five years ago, Melo three – they wouldn’t need each other so much right now. There is euphoria in Oklahoma City for the second time in three months because the stealth-moving Presti once again made a trade that the rest of the league didn’t see happening, a trade that essentially hands a pen to Russell Westbrook for that still-unsigned largest contract in history and asks, “How ‘bout now?” And there is even more excitement for Carmelo Anthony, Hoodie Melo, or whatever version of himself he plans to bring to middle America after a failed homecoming with the New York Knicks.
Of all the zany, unexpected moves that the NBA has blessed fans with since the end of last season – Kyrie Irving in Boston, Chris Paul in Houston, Jimmy Butler in Minnesota – Anthony on the Oklahoma City Thunder with Russell Westbrook and Paul George is a scenario that hardly anyone could’ve imagined or predicted. Not even the presence of Thunder vice president and assistant general manager Troy Weaver, the man who lured Anthony to Syracuse back in the day, could’ve made this current incarnation of the Thunder seem conceivable before it actually happened. But we’re here because Anthony’s preferred trade destination, the Houston Rockets, was unable to persuade the Knicks that Ryan Anderson was enough for an aging, 10-time all-star. And Presti realized he needed one more significant piece to show Westbrook – and the newly-acquired George – that the organization is serious about doing whatever it takes to win.
Presti and majority owner Clay Bennett have gone all in – to the tune of a nearly $27.8 million luxury tax bill – to make the Thunder a legit championship contender in the post-Kevin Durant era. And Anthony, desperate to salvage something out of an NBA career that stalled in New York with regards to team success, has finally bought into the super-team, all-star alliance concept that has dominated much of his 15 years in the league.
For so long, Anthony was resistant, wanting to win his way. After making this move, he has to hope that he didn’t wait too long to relent to the trend. Anthony will have to win Russ’ way in Oklahoma City, where the league’s reigning MVP and triple-double machine controls the tempo, doles out the assists and finally has a unit that rivals the talent from the last Thunder team that reached the NBA Finals.
Presti holds the distinction of drafting three MVP-caliber players in consecutive NBA drafts. Durant and Westbrook both have Maurice Podoloff trophies, while James Harden has twice been runner-up. But the Thunder has been unable to return to the Finals since dealing Harden, a pre-prime superstar, to a conference rival in 2012. The regret over making that move – when the luxury tax payment of keeping Harden would’ve been essentially negated by a new television deal negotiated shortly thereafter – remains. Presti hasn’t let the mistake paralyze him. He aggressively pursued former high lottery picks in trades, since the Thunder was always picking in the late 20s, but hasn’t hesitated to move on from Dion Waiters, Victor Oladipo and now Enes Kanter when it doesn’t work out.
The Thunder landed two all-stars this summer without surrendering so much as a first-round pick, which speaks to Presti’s skill as an executive – and why Westbrook wasn’t quick to bail on the organization after Durant left. But this Oklahoma City team is unlike any other Presti has assembled.
Though the latest superstar trio is sure to generate some thrills, or at least intrigue, Presti’s dream was to build Oklahoma City in the San Antonio model. Durant was to play the role of Tim Duncan (humble, committed superstar), Westbrook would be Tony Parker (next in line for the takeover) and Harden would be Manu Ginobili (the lefty wild card). The Thunder would rule and be the envy of the league. The trio would be loyal and pass off MVP trophies like batons. Other organizations would seek to duplicate what Presti had done and struggle to disrupt their reign. That never happened, unfortunately. What was once Durant, Westbrook and Harden is now Westbrook, George and Anthony.
In his last few seasons with the Thunder, Durant was highly defensive of the organization for making the Harden deal and bristled whenever he was asked about it. Durant would tell others to get over it and move on, but the reason he’s in Golden State right now is partly because he was unable to do exactly that. The Warriors became what the Thunder was supposed to be, thanks to luck and timing. Stephen Curry had the best bargain contract in the league because of those early ankle woes, and both Draymond Green and Klay Thompson signed deals for less than the max, leaving the slightest window for Durant to come swooping in to turn something that was already problematic into something insurmountable.
Presti has built one of the league’s model franchises, regardless of market size, but this season is the Thunder’s opportunity to prove that Oklahoma City can also be a free-agent destination – something that recently couldn’t even be assisted by having Durant and Westbrook on the roster. George could walk after this season and Westbrook could also do the same, so much is riding on Anthony’s ability to blend with some accomplished talent and help the Thunder become a worthy challenger to the Warriors. That’s a lot to ask of Anthony but he is likewise placing his faith in the Thunder.
Anthony has long been about his paper, before all else. He was never willing to sacrifice financially for the sake of winning. He took the full five-year maximum extension in 2006 when LeBron James and Dwyane Wade took shorter deals to sooner become free agents. He forced his way on to New York – depleting the franchise from several valuable assets – so that he could sign another maximum extension, rather than sign as a free agent with a stacked Knicks team that could’ve had Amaré Stoudemire, Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, Ray Felton and Timofey Mozgov in 2011 (all but one of those pieces went to Denver). And, he spurned better teams to stay in New York for the most money in 2014 – a decision that inevitably made him so eager to leave that he was willing to embrace a small market to escape.
Going for the most money wasn’t wrong. The earning window for professional athletes is narrow and Anthony overcame enough to take that opportunity. Also, Anthony had no idea that Phil Jackson would treat him like a jerk and behave even worse as an executive. Anthony surrendered the last few years of his prime to an organization that did little to maximize his talents. Three years of losing forced Anthony to ponder how much differently he’d be perceived, how much more rewarding the latter part of his career would’ve been had he just joined the Bulls, or teamed with one of his buddies, much earlier. Anthony lost games, but not his drive. Waiving his no-trade clause to join the Thunder is proof that he doesn’t want to waste his twilight. He needs to win.
Presti and Anthony don’t have time to look back on what could’ve been. All they have is right now, together, with a team that has the talent to be special. Their paths were never intended to cross. Their union will be mystifying for some time. But both are taking a gamble that they got it right this time.
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