Thunder hope bold draft night deal pays off in keeping Durant

Thunder preparing for future by trading Ibaka? (1:27)

Jeff Goodman and Michael Wilbon break down the Thunder's decision to trade Serge Ibaka to the Magic for Victor Oladipo, Ersan Ilyasova and the rights to Domantas Sabonis. (1:27)

OKLAHOMA CITY —- One thing that was reaffirmed on draft night: Sam Presti does not general manage out of fear.

The Oklahoma City Thunder GM pulled the stunner of the night, sending Serge Ibaka to the Orlando Magic for Victor Oladipo, Ersan Ilyasova and 11th overall pick Domantas Sabonis.

There were rumblings around the league on Thursday that the Thunder were shopping Ibaka, and while for the most part they were simply fielding calls and turning down offers, they had one on the table early in the afternoon that they loved. The front office spent the next few hours discussing exactly what everyone else is right now: How would this impact Kevin Durant's decision?

The final verdict? Positively.

The Thunder didn’t make this bold move as a precautionary Plan B to prepare for a teardown should Durant leave. They did it to strengthen their position. They did to state their early case that they aren't interested in assuming the status quo is enough to re-sign him.

Presti said on Thursday after the smoke had cleared that he wasn’t going to speculate on how Durant perceived the deal, but couldn’t entirely dodge the question of if he consulted his superstar.

“As I’ve said throughout the offseason so far, we have a lot of conversations with our players throughout the year, and I wouldn’t get into the details of those,” Presti said. “But I also have to make the decisions that I think are best for the franchise. But we’re talking to those guys throughout the year about the team all the time.”

The Thunder didn’t make this move without a heavy amount of confidence that Durant was going to be at least OK with it. He already likes Oladipo -- he once upon a time compared him to Dwyane Wade -- and even mentored him in the past (they’re both from the Washington D.C. area).

But it’s also about Ibaka, and the stuttering relationship he had in the locker room in OKC. Ibaka was a core member of the team, no question. He was drafted 24th overall in 2008, the same draft OKC took Russell Westbrook 4th, and joined the team in 2009. He’s been a starter since 2010. He’s played in 524 games for Oklahoma City, including 89 playoff games. He’s been an integral part of their four Western Conference finals runs, one of which he played on a torn calf against the Spurs in 2014 after being ruled out for the entire postseason. Presti has called him a “founding father” of the organization. He’s become one of the most unique players in the league, a shot-blocking 3-and-D big man that is as gifted as any switching onto guards on the perimeter. The Thunder are trading an excellent player; it’s a risk, especially considering the success they’ve experienced with him.

But this season, Ibaka’s role changed. He became a full-time stretch-4. He was asked to transfer the ball from one side of the floor to the other, to reconsider early clock jumpers. He struggled with the transition, complaining in March about touches. He called this season the “toughest of his career” at exit interviews in early June. He’s set to become a free agent next summer, and the growing feeling was he was going to be looking to somewhere other than Oklahoma City to sign.

Again, what does that Durant guy think? His relationship with Ibaka never really existed anywhere besides on the court, and for both Durant and Westbrook, Ibaka was often a target of on-court rebuking. The Thunder stars were often frustrated with Ibaka’s mental mistakes, with heated arguments breaking out in huddles regularly. Durant is a team player, and defends anyone wearing the same jersey as him, but behind the scenes he was always open to moving Ibaka. In the summer of 2013, Durant spent a week working out with Kevin Love, and told some close to him he’d trade Ibaka for Love.

In a practical sense, the trade is a slam dunk, a home run, an insert-whatever-other-sports-metaphor-you-want. The Thunder had four options with Ibaka:

  1. Bring him back and give it another shot with him as their evolving stretch-4, despite the fact he was growing increasingly dissatisfied with his role and was almost a certainty to leave in free agency next summer.

  2. Bring him back and look to deal him at the trade deadline.

  3. Bring him back and probably have to max him next summer, and still watch him walk.

  4. Trade him now and get as much back as possible.

They went with option 4, and what they got back was Oladipo, a 24-year-old they can either hand an extension to this summer or wait until restricted free agency next summer to match another team's offer. They also get Sabonis, a 20-year-old skilled big that some around the league are calling “Pau Gasol-ish.” And they get Ilyasova, a 29-year-old stretch-4 that they could waive for $400,000 before July 1, or keep to basically play the offensive role Ibaka did last season.

The Thunder got younger. They got deeper. And they probably got better.

Presti called it a “unique opportunity” on Thursday, noting how the development of Steven Adams and Andre Roberson enabled the front office to have the confidence to pull the trigger. That’s really what this trade is about. The Thunder have something in Adams, a 22-year-old freak seven-footer, that can slot down to play power forward alongside Enes Kanter, or stay at his traditional spot as one of the most imposing, physical centers in the league.

Oh, and of course, they’re going to have to pay him. The Thunder aren’t letting Adams get away, identifying him as a franchise cornerstone (like Ibaka once was, but hey) and repeatedly noting that his makeup is a perfect culture fit. With the big Kiwi headed for a massive payday either this summer or next, the Thunder were facing a financial reckoning. They already had the third-highest payroll in the league this season, and if they re-sign Durant, re-sign Dion Waiters, extend Adams and Roberson, and then re-sign Westbrook and Ibaka next summer, they’d be looking at a luxury tax bill that would make even Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov queasy.

Presti’s message was made clear, again: If he trades you in a contract season, it means you probably don’t want to be in OKC anymore. He’s uncompromising and unwavering in operating the organization alongside his core values, and one tenant is: If you want to be there, you’ll probably stay there. He didn’t blink in trading James Harden; he didn’t stutter in doing the same with Reggie Jackson. And he didn’t hesitate to move Ibaka. It’s fearless management and a commitment to the goal, rather than a reaction to the unknown. If the question is what Durant will think about this, the answer should be pretty simple: Wouldn’t you want to play under a general manager like that?