It's time to superimpose Sam Presti's face on that video of LaVar Ball strutting through the WWE stage and sliding into the wrestling ring. Presti, the Oklahoma City Thunder general manager, took the boldest step of the NBA summer, even if he's just following the example set by others. It's good to see him join the self-confidence party.
If you believe the NBA's salary-cap and luxury-tax mechanisms truly level the playing field, then the difference comes down to risk tolerance and expense tolerance. And if we're prone to admiring those who take chances more than those who merely fund projects, we have to love what Presti did. He brought in All-Star Paul George to play with MVP Russell Westbrook with no contractual proof that either will be in Oklahoma City beyond next season.
It might not be the best case of improving now while building for the future (that would be Minnesota's Tom Thibodeau trading for Jimmy Butler). It might not even be as significant as the Houston Rockets pairing Chris Paul and James Harden and making one of the NBA's top teams better. It's certainly the most tone-setting, message-sending move so far. OKC is in for 2017-18, even if it could explode a year from now.
This doesn't mean the Thunder have cracked the code for beating the Golden State Warriors. What it means is they've adopted the Warriors' mentality. Go big or go home.
Presti had been steadfast that it was foolish to try to beat the Warriors at their own game. He didn't try to load up on 3-point shooters or find optimal small lineups. He tacked in a different direction, including tough-rebounding big men, and almost took down the Warriors in the 2016 Western Conference finals. Then the Warriors undid it all by winning Durant's affection in free agency last summer.
So, consciously or not, Presti adopted the same mindset that started the Warriors on the path to juggernaut-dom in the first place: Be bold. The reason the Warriors got where they are is because in 2012 they bet on Stephen Curry and his fragile ankles and guaranteed him $44 million in a four-year contract extension. He was coming off a season in which he couldn't even play in half the games of the lockout-shortened 66-game schedule. The Warriors took the risk and wound up getting a two-time MVP at a bargain rate that gave them the financial freedom to build and maintain a championship contender around him, right until they topped it off with Durant.
The fact that Curry agreed to that deal showed you how worried he was that he might not recover. He believed that he would be fairly compensated, eventually, if he did his part. That's why he never complained while teammates Klay Thompson and Draymond Green signed deals for twice his salary. And now he'll be paid off beyond his wildest dreams, with $201 million coming his way thanks to the hyper new TV rights. He should soak in those dollars. When the Warriors ask if he wants his salary direct-deposited into his bank account, he should have them dump it into an empty swimming pool instead, then do the backstroke through the bucks. But always remember that he followed the safe route in 2012. He didn't gamble; he took the insurance.
It's also why the Los Angeles Clippers should be leery of Blake Griffin's willingness to take their maximum offer of $173 million over five years. The trend for stars in recent years has been for them to bet on themselves with shorter contracts that gave them options to both head elsewhere if they didn't like the team's trend and take advantage of changing financial landscapes in a new TV deal and/or new collective bargaining agreement. His now-ex teammate Chris Paul just did it by opting in to his old contract for one more year to facilitate his trade to Houston.
Durant, LeBron James and even Dwight Howard had all bet on themselves with shorter deals. Griffin is 28, five years older than Curry was when he chose the safe route. Curry had more time to get back on track. He and the Warriors did the deal projecting where he could be at 28. Griffin is already there. He has played in fewer than 70 games in each of the past three regular seasons and had his past two playoffs cut short by injuries.
That might explain why he committed to the Clippers even though they're basically back to where they were six years ago, with Griffin and DeAndre Jordan as the mainstays. Griffin isn't the same player, though. He had fewer dunks the past three seasons combined than he did his rookie year. The athleticism has declined. He knows it, which is why he has become a bigger threat both as a passer and a free-throw shooter. And it very well could be why he chose the best contract in L.A. over a potentially better situation elsewhere. Beware of the prime player unwilling to take risks, while you celebrate the franchises that do.