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The demise of the Thunder is a cautionary tale for the Nuggets

(Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images)

It’s easy to understand why the recent demise of the Thunder has generated snickers amongst Nuggets fans. The franchise getting dismantled as they move into full rebuild mode was widely viewed as welcome news.

Oklahoma City is a division rival, one that has been a thorn in the side of Denver in recent years as the teams have jockeyed for position in the Western Conference. And the team’s best player, Russell Westbrook, has gotten under the skin of many in the Mile High City, breaking records at Pepsi Center, lecturing little kids sitting courtside, tussling with Rocky and generally acting like the Nuggets home court is his domain.

So seeing that team turn into a dumpster fire brought some satisfaction. For the foreseeable future, OKC being on the schedule won’t stir much worry.

But in reality, what happened to the Thunder should be a major cause for concern in Denver. It’s the latest sign that trying to build a championship contender outside of a major market is nearly impossible in today’s NBA.

Oklahoma City did everything right. And it still wasn’t enough.

Getting free agents to look beyond the coasts is difficult. Franchises in Boston, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco and Miami can be dysfunctional for years, but still attract marquee players who are interested in living in those cities. That’s a luxury not available to teams in the middle of the country.

Denver has certainly discovered this fact. Despite having a young, talented roster that appears on the brink of competing for the Western Conference title for years to come, the Nuggets couldn’t get any of the big names on the market this offseason to give them a look; Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Kawhi Leonard and others were too busy building coalitions to solidify the Nets, Clippers and others.

Thus, teams in places other than major media markets have to build from within. They have to scout well, develop players and then try to keep their roster intact.

That’s what Denver has done in recent years, drafting Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray and Gary Harris to form what they hope will be the team’s core for years to come. And it’s certainly what the Thunder did.

In three consecutive drafts, Oklahoma City (or Seattle before they relocated) selected Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden. Combined, those three players have each won a Most Valuable Player award, perhaps the most-impressive trio of draft picks in NBA history.

But despite winning a lot of games together, they couldn’t win a championship. One trip to the NBA Finals in 2012 ended with a loss to the Heat in five games.

Once it became obvious that Oklahoma City wouldn’t be able to keep all three players on the roster, general manager Sam Presti did his best to parlay them into more assets. Harden left for Houston, Durant bailed for Golden State and the Thunder tried to rebuild on the fly around Westbrook.

This included taking a calculated gamble, sending Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis to the Pacers in 2017 for Paul George, despite the fact that the Indiana forward was about to become a free agent and had long been rumored as bound for an L.A. team. Oklahoma City, both the team and the city, rolled out the red carpet in an effort to woo the star into remaining faithful.

It worked. For a year. George re-signed with the Thunder last offseason, inking a four-year, $137-million contract that seemed to give the team a dynamic duo for years to come. It lasted one season.

After getting bounced by the Blazers in last year’s playoffs, George became restless. Wanting out of Oklahoma City, he conspired with Leonard to piece to unite in Los Angeles, forcing a trade to the Clippers. This was the first domino to fall, leading to Westbrook being traded to the Rockets last week.

It marked the end of an era for the Thunder. And it spelled doom for fans in places like Denver, Milwaukee and other markets that are hoping to break into the league’s elite team. It’s a reality check that causes one to wonder if there’s a formula that can actually work long-term outside of Los Angeles, New York and other more-desirable locales.

If drafting three future MVPs can’t bring a championship to a mid-market team, what can?

If rolling the dice in a trade for an All-Star, having thousands greet him at the airport to essentially beg for his loyalty and paying him millions can’t keep a team together in a flyover city, what will?

If having a player become a household name, break long-standing records, win league awards and become a fashion icon all while living in Oklahoma City can’t convince stars that moving to a major market isn’t necessary in order to build a brand, what will?

Denver has had to sit watch as the Clippers, Lakers and Rockets have all vastly improved via free agency and trades this offseason. Meanwhile, Tim Connelly and Company are having to hope that continuity, the acquisition of a second-tier player like Jerami Grant and Michael Porter Jr. finally being able to play are enough for additional steps forward in the Mile High City.

That’s a possibility. But it seems unlikely.

Denver’s young core has played in one combined All-Star Game, with Jokic earning a spot last season. Yet the Nuggets have had to invest heavily just to keep that group together, committing nearly $320 million to buy time in the hopes that they’ll all blossom into stars.

If they do, will they be better than Durant, Harden and Westbrook? That’s unlikely. The Nuggets would be lucky to get a run out of their “big three” that’s anywhere close to what the Thunder got out of their homegrown stars.

The reality is that mid-market teams have to play their cards perfectly, just to remain competitive in the NBA. And even when they do, it’s most likely not going to be enough to build a perennial contender.

The demise of the Thunder was depressing to see. It foreshadowed what’s most likely to come for the Nuggets.