That point of view is understandable. Anthony’s production this past season dipped to its lowest point since his rookie year, and he proved unable to replicate his “Olympic Melo” persona from his highly successful stints with Team USA. He openly chafed at the thought of coming off the bench despite the fact that, had he done so, the Thunder likely would have been better off. In fact, his presence was damaging enough, at least from an on-court standpoint, that trading him could be viewed as a positive in the Thunder’s hopes for improvement.
Still, even with that laundry list of issues, Oklahoma City is unquestionably better off for having had Anthony than never acquiring him from the New York Knicks in the first place.
Why? Because of what Anthony is leaving behind.
Before the Anthony trade, the Thunder was a franchise in a state of flux. Russell Westbrook had yet to sign a long-term contract extension, and there was no guarantee he would. Paul George had been acquired in a blockbuster trade with the Indiana Pacers three months earlier, giving Oklahoma City a second star to pair with Westbrook after Kevin Durant departed in free agency, but there was no indication George would stick around for the long term.
It had been assumed in the weeks leading up to last year’s training camp that Westbrook would do the reasonable thing: wait until this summer, when he would be a free agent, to see what George would do upon hitting the open market before making a decision.
Then Anthony was acquired on the eve of training camp. A week later, Westbrook signed a monumental five-year extension. Then, even after a tumultuous season that ended with the Thunder ousted in the first round of the playoffs, George agreed to a four-year deal to remain in Oklahoma City, and he did so without taking a meeting with another team.
Perhaps those things happen without the Anthony trade. But it was a landmark moment when Anthony was acquired — just as it was a landmark moment when George was acquired a few months earlier. The trades were a couple of massive swings by a small-market franchise that had been left for dead a year earlier, when Durant joined the Golden State Warriors to form the NBA’s version of the Infinity Gauntlet.
Rather than shrugging their shoulders and giving up, though, Thunder General Manager Sam Presti and his front-office team doubled down. In trading for George, and then Anthony, they sent a message to Westbrook and George that flatly stated that they are willing to do whatever it takes, and spend whatever it takes, to win.
Now, even after moving on from Anthony, the Thunder is still going to be the most expensive team in NBA history — probably by at least $20 million for the 2018-19 season — sitting well over $200 million in combined payroll and luxury taxes. That’s significant, and Oklahoma City’s players, most notably Westbrook and George, took note. Even the way the Thunder moved on from Anthony, getting players in return rather than cutting him and saving more money, sent a message.
It’s one thing to pledge you’re going to try to be as competitive as possible. It’s another to actually step up and commit meaningful dollars and resources to the cause. Oklahoma City, in trading for George and Anthony, relied on their actions — and the wallet of owner Clay Bennett — to state their intentions for all to see.
The result was turning the Oklahoma City Thunder back into an elite basketball power, something that was supposed to end when Durant walked out the door.
Even with Anthony now looking at the Thunder in the rearview mirror, the franchise has returned to that stratosphere once again. That’s what happens when you have two all-NBA players under long-term contracts, as the Thunder does now.
That Anthony didn’t fit in Oklahoma City will deservedly be part of his legacy. But the impact he had on the franchise, specifically on keeping Westbrook and George there long term, certainly should be, too.