At 14-29, it’s easy to say the Oklahoma City Thunder‘s season is long over. Except, in reality, it’s only just begun.
Sure, the Thunder have young players worth watching on a nightly basis. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Josh Giddey, and Luguentz Dort are three budding stars OKC has reason to be excited about. But no amount of on-court heroics from SGA could compete with what Sam Presti has the ability to pull off by next month’s NBA trade deadline.
The Oklahoma City Thunder are stocking up for the future
Presti has overseen many different eras of Thunder basketball. He was there during OKC’s Finals run of 2012 led by Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden. He was there when Durant spurned the Thunder after coming within one win of a trip to the Finals in 2016. And he was there for the acquisitions of veteran stars like Paul George, Carmelo Anthony, and Chris Paul, all of whom were acquired in the hopes of winning the elusive ring.
But the last two years have been a stark departure from title-chasing. Now, for the first time since his earliest years on the job, Presti has nothing but eyes on the future.
Once George and Westbrook were dealt away in 2019, OKC began to hoard draft picks. That continued with subsequent trades of Paul and Steven Adams, along with draft-day trades like this year’s Alperen Sengun deal.
Following a wild collection of trades, Presti and the Thunder are in the ridiculous position of owning 19 picks across seven years … in the first round alone.
Between 2022 and 2028, the Thunder own 19 first-round picks. They also own 19 second-round picks, giving them 38 total across the next seven drafts. Out of those 19 firsts, eight are just between 2022 and ’23.
OKC’s rebuild doesn’t revolve exclusively around draft picks. With an average age of 23.3, the Thunder have the league’s youngest roster as well. In fact, only veterans Derrick Favors and Mike Muscala have more than four seasons’ worth of NBA experience in OKC’s revamped group.
Could the Thunder actually become buyers at the trade deadline?
Although the record is poor, it is expected. This is a very public rebuild happening in OKC, where struggles now will (hopefully) result in victories down the road.
But given all the assets at their disposal, the Thunder can make the decision to contend whenever they want.
The team is in possession of many first-round picks. An exceptionally young roster is in place. And there’s potential to create around $34 million in space if it so chooses. That’s not to say this is the route the Thunder decide upon, but how many teams could offer a huge collection of draft picks while having the salary flexibility to absorb nearly any star’s contract?
We know OKC wants to build around at least some of its players. Gilgeous-Alexander signed a five-year, $172 million extension in August that kicks in next season. Giddey has been wildly impressive as a rookie and will likely be around for at least three more seasons. Who’s to say the Thunder don’t enter themselves in the Domantas Sabonis sweepstakes and make the Indiana Pacers an offer they can’t refuse? Or approach the Detroit Pistons about a deal for Jerami Grant?
Ironically, both Sabonis and Grant are former Thunder players. But the point still stands. Whenever the Thunder want to add a star and truly begin their ascension into relevance, all they need to do is make a call.
It’s more likely the Thunder will accumulate more draft picks
Yes, it’s fun to imagine a scenario in which Presti sends a boatload of picks to a team like the Portland Trail Blazers in exchange for Damian Lillard. But realistically, that’s not going to happen. Though that doesn’t mean the Thunder won’t be wildly active during next month’s deadline.
As it’s done with high-priced veterans like Al Horford and Kemba Walker, OKC has volunteered itself as the team other clubs can come to if they want to dump salary. With cap space to work with, the Thunder can absorb a player’s salary; whether they keep them or buy them out is up to them. But as a fee, they’ll receive a draft pick or two as an incentive.
As Sam Quinn of CBS Sports pointed out, that could interest a team like the Boston Celtics.
The Celtics likely want to get out from underneath the tax line, so they could shed salary in a trade with OKC and send picks in the process. The Los Angeles Lakers are another team that might need the Thunder to help facilitate a deal. That could mean picks or even a young player like Kendrick Nunn heading OKC’s way as a “thank you for doing business.”
In all likelihood, the Thunder are at least one year away from making a major run at a star either through trade or free agency. But this deadline could allow Presti to acquire several more picks to add to his organization’s impressive arsenal.