How the Thunder has minimized the madness of trading superstars

How the Thunder has minimized the madness of trading superstars

In a league where superstar trades often feature public demands and drama behind the scenes, the Thunder has managed to deal star players — including three current Clippers — in relative silence.

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

| Dec 21, 2023, 6:00am CST

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

Dec 21, 2023, 6:00am CST

OKLAHOMA CITY — On the day he was introduced as an L.A. Clipper, Paul George said the decision that sent him there was “mutual.” 

Sam Presti — the Thunder general manager who’d negotiated the trade sent him there and brought back Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and a haul of draft assets— would go on to dispute the word choice. 

“I know he used the word ‘mutual,’” Presti said in the seismic summer of 2019, when Oklahoma City dealt George and Russell Westbrook to kick off a rebuild. “I don’t necessarily agree with that.” 

He didn’t “necessarily agree.” 

That’s what passes for superstar trade drama around here. 

As OKC prepares for a Thursday meeting with the Clippers — now the home of George, Westbrook and fellow ex-Thunder James Harden — it’s notable just how quietly all three departed the prairie. 

There was no public politicking for a move. No passive-aggressive t-shirts. No sitting out games, nor mailing some in. 

Not every superstar trade elsewhere in the NBA is contentious. Sometimes they end amicably. 

But the lack of theatrics in Oklahoma City is a remarkable contrast to many of the superstar separations in recent years. 

There were some rumblings that George and Westbrook were discontent in the summer of 2019. That buzz built around the time of the draft, never amounted to much and blew over. And by the following month, both players had landed in basketball homes where they wanted to go: George, a Southern California native, to the Clippers; Westbrook to Houston to team up with Harden. 

It doesn’t always happen with so little angst. 

Consider the 2018 Timberwolves practice that featured Jimmy Butler barking at then-Minnesota GM Scott Layden, “You (expletive) need me! You can’t win without me!” according to ESPN reports. Butler would be traded a month later to Philadelphia. 

Then there’s the circus of Anthony Davis’ final season in New Orleans, when he made an in-season trade by informing the Pelicans he wouldn’t re-sign with them in the summer. 

The team sat him for multiple games before the NBA expressed concern about a healthy star sitting out, necessitating a statement from then-GM Dell Demps saying Davis would play to “preserve the integrity of the game and align our organization with NBA policies.” Davis showed up for the Pels’ season finale wearing a shirt that read “That’s All, Folks.” He’d later say someone it picked out for him. 

If you need a more recent example, look back to Harden’s exit from Philadelphia at the start of this season. In August, the disgruntled star called 76ers president Daryl Morey “a liar” and said, “I will never be a part of an organization he’s a part of.” 

The result was a deal that sent Harden to the Clippers in his native Los Angeles. It marked the fourth time he’s been traded. 

None has been quieter than the first, the trade that sent him from Oklahoma City to Houston — where Morey was the general manager — in a deal so stealthy that The Oklahoman already had gone to press with a season preview section that featured Harden but published after he’d been moved. 

Requests (or demands) with varying degrees of publicity have preceded every Harden trade since. Before the deal that sent Harden to the Clippers, ESPN documented his history of trade requests. The story was more than 1,400 words long. 

So what’s different about departing Oklahoma City? 

The easy answer is Presti. 

He heads one of the NBA’s most locked-down organizations, a franchise secretive enough that even journalistic news-breakers who spoil the draft often go social-media silent when the Thunder is on the clock. 

But a lack of leaks isn’t the only factor in a peaceful parting. 

The Thunder long has been intentional about the process, and communication is the key. 

When Oklahoma City acquired Chris Paul — part of the trade that sent Westbrook to Houston, the first of his four post-Thunder stops — it immediately leveled with the legendary point guard. 

If there was no trade available before the season, he’d spend the year in OKC, where, as The Athletic detailed in a 2021 story, he essentially could play as much or as little as he wanted. 

Paul opted to play a lot during that pandemic-shortened season. And when the Thunder lost in the playoffs, he recorded a video as he departed the NBA bubble in Orlando, using part of the message to thank Presti for being “straightforward with me from day one.” 

The Thunder traded Paul to Phoenix that offseason, and after the Suns’ Game 6 win to clinch the Western Conference Finals, Paul in his postgame news conference offered “a big thanks to Sam Presti for even allowing all this to happen.”

Before the 2020-21 season, the Thunder acquired center Al Horford from the Sixers in a move Philly — and new team president Morey — made to get out from under Horford’s massive contract. OKC played 28 games and sat for the team’s final 28, a decision he said he and the organization reached mutually. 

After the season, the Thunder traded Horford to Boston, where he was a key piece of a team that made the NBA Finals. 

“I think the biggest thing is the great communication that we’ve had here since I got here,” Horford said. “Right from the very beginning, Sam has been very open with me, transparent, and they’ve made me feel like family here, very comfortable with everything.” 

Those endorsements are important. 

The Thunder always has understood the challenge of doing business in one of the NBA’s smallest markets. Rosters here are built via the draft and trades. It’s unlikely ever to be a free-agent destination. 

The culture matters. The player experience is essential.

And flexibility is essential. The Thunder has proven willing to pivot when a player’s time is up in OKC. 

But a smooth exit means an open line of communication between Presti and the players. 

When the captain of the ship is communicative, a star needn’t publicly rock the boat to change course. 

The Thunder’s 2012 trade of Harden has been dissected to death, but two factors almost certainly mattered: Harden’s desire for his maximum possible contract — OKC had offered him a four-year deal at $4.5 million less than the max — and his hope to play a bigger role in running a team than could be afforded him with Westbrook at point guard. 

But the deal happened in silence, and when Harden left he thanked Oklahoma City on Twitter, calling his teammates and fans “amazing.” 

When George requested a trade — to play with Kawhi Leonard, not necessarily for the Clippers — Presti was caught off guard. But after the initial shock and an in-person meeting, as ESPN reported, he agreed to work with George to find trades to pair him with Leonard. 

The return in the resulting deal included Gilgeous-Alexander, now an All-NBA guard and Thunder cornerstone. 

That’s the best-case scenario. 

But it’s Westbrook whose trade away from OKC could be a blueprint for a star’s departure. 

It happened quietly. There were no anonymous slings or arrows leaked in either direction. In a statement released after the trade, Presti called Westbrook “the most important player in the brief history of the Oklahoma City Thunder.” 

At his introductory news conference in Houston, Westbrook called the process of getting there “collaborative.” 

“The people, the organization have never done me wrong,” Westbrook said of the Thunder. “They always stood up for me and my family and always had my back, and I’m very, very grateful and I don’t take that for granted.” 

In stark contrast to his messy exit from the Lakers, Westbrook’s divorce with OKC was as smooth a separation as either party could hope to have. And it no doubt is part of the reason why Westbrook jerseys still pepper the Paycom Center stands every game night, why he’ll likely get a warm welcome Thursday. 

The Thunder hasn’t always wanted to trade star players. The feeling about when it’s time to move on isn’t always mutual. 

But the road out of town typically has been smooth. And in today’s NBA, there’s something to be said for that. 

Share with your crowd
Brett Dawson, the Thunder beat writer at Sellout Crowd, has covered basketball for more than 20 seasons at the pro and college levels. He previously worked the Thunder beat at The Oklahoman and The Athletic and also has covered the New Orleans Pelicans, Los Angeles Lakers and L.A. Clippers. He’s covered college programs at Louisville, Illinois and Kentucky, his alma mater. He taught sports journalism for a year at the prestigious Missouri School of Journalism. You can reach him at [email protected] or find him sipping a stout or an IPA at one of Oklahoma City’s better breweries.

The latest from Sellout Crowd

  • Feb 25, 2024; Stillwater, Okla, USA; Oklahoma State coach John Smith, left, and associate head coach Coleman Scott, right, react on the sidelines at a wrestling match against Iowa in Gallagher Iba Arena . Mandatory Credit: Mitch Alcala-The Oklahoman

    Lessons from Iowa loss: What should OSU’s postseason expectations be?

  • Oklahoma catcher Kinzie Hansen (9) rounds first for a double during an NCAA softball game between Oklahoma (OU) and Liberty on opening day of Oklahoma softball stadium Love's Field in Norman, Okla., on Friday, March 1, 2024.

    Love’s Field, Oklahoma’s new, $47.1 million ‘palace’, got the opening day it deserves

  • Miami infielder Jenna Golembiewski (2) celebrates hitting a home run during an NCAA softball game between the University of Oklahoma (OU) and Miami University on opening day of Oklahoma softball stadium Love's Field in Norman, Okla., on Friday, March 1, 2024.

    Meet Miami (Ohio) slugger Karli Spaid, the answer to an OU trivia question

  • Nov 19, 2022; Norman, Oklahoma, USA; Oklahoma State head coach Mike Gundy and Oklahoma head coach Brent Venables speak before a game at Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Sarah Phipps-USA TODAY Sports

    How Brent Venables and Mike Gundy play the portal game | Mind Games with Guerin Emig

  • Jan 4, 2023; Orlando, Florida, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder center Mike Muscala (33) shoots a three point basket against Orlando Magic center Wendell Carter Jr. (34) during the second quarter at Amway Center. Mandatory Credit: Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports

    Why the Thunder is bringing back sharp-shooting center Mike Muscala

The latest from Sellout Crowd

  • Feb 25, 2024; Stillwater, Okla, USA; Oklahoma State coach John Smith, left, and associate head coach Coleman Scott, right, react on the sidelines at a wrestling match against Iowa in Gallagher Iba Arena . Mandatory Credit: Mitch Alcala-The Oklahoman

    Lessons from Iowa loss: What should OSU’s postseason expectations be?

  • Oklahoma catcher Kinzie Hansen (9) rounds first for a double during an NCAA softball game between Oklahoma (OU) and Liberty on opening day of Oklahoma softball stadium Love's Field in Norman, Okla., on Friday, March 1, 2024.

    Love’s Field, Oklahoma’s new, $47.1 million ‘palace’, got the opening day it deserves

  • Miami infielder Jenna Golembiewski (2) celebrates hitting a home run during an NCAA softball game between the University of Oklahoma (OU) and Miami University on opening day of Oklahoma softball stadium Love's Field in Norman, Okla., on Friday, March 1, 2024.

    Meet Miami (Ohio) slugger Karli Spaid, the answer to an OU trivia question

  • Nov 19, 2022; Norman, Oklahoma, USA; Oklahoma State head coach Mike Gundy and Oklahoma head coach Brent Venables speak before a game at Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Sarah Phipps-USA TODAY Sports

    How Brent Venables and Mike Gundy play the portal game | Mind Games with Guerin Emig

  • Jan 4, 2023; Orlando, Florida, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder center Mike Muscala (33) shoots a three point basket against Orlando Magic center Wendell Carter Jr. (34) during the second quarter at Amway Center. Mandatory Credit: Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports

    Why the Thunder is bringing back sharp-shooting center Mike Muscala