Have you ever loaded up MyLEAGUE on NBA 2K and tried to trade for every first-round pick in existence? No? Just me?
Well, I clearly can’t be the only one, as over the last two offseasons, Sam Presti, general manager of the Oklahoma City Thunder, acquired enough future first-round draft picks to spawn memes about eighth-graders in Thunder jerseys. Presti has taken a team dominated by four older players and turned it into a treasure trove of young players and picks. Oklahoma now owns up to 16 first-round picks between now and 2026, a mind-boggling number. But since it’s impossible to draft that many players in such a short time because each team is only awarded one first-round pick per year, one must ask: What will Oklahoma do now?
After the 2018-19 season, Oklahoma looked like a team at a dead end. Its all-star duo of Russell Westbrook and Paul George had fallen short in the first round for the second straight season, and George requested a trade one season after signing a maximum extension.
Oklahoma made the most of its situation, however. George was traded to the Los Angeles Clippers for a monster haul: rising star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, veteran marksman Danilo Gallinari, three first-round picks and two first-round draft swaps. Oklahoma then flipped former MVP Westbrook to the Houston Rockets for Chris Paul, two more first-round picks and two more first-round draft swaps.
Even after a 2020 season that vastly exceeded expectations, Oklahoma continued its rebuild, trading Paul to the Phoenix Suns, sixth man finalist Dennis Schroder to the Los Angeles Lakers and veteran center Steven Adams to the New Orleans Pelicans for more picks and assets. The team has done an excellent job stockpiling assets for the future.
While Oklahoma has enough picks to rebuild through the draft, its current roster is thin on players who can contribute either now or in the future. Gilgeous-Alexander is the obvious exception; the 22-year-old combo guard is now Oklahoma’s franchise cornerstone. One can easily see why, as he seems to be on an All-Star trajectory, averaging 19.0 points, 5.9 rebounds and 3.3 assists in only his second NBA season.
Besides Gilgeous-Alexander, there’s veteran Al Horford, coming off a horrific year with the Philadelphia 76ers and promising young role players Darius Bazley and Luguentz Dort. Evidently, Oklahoma is not looking to compete next season. So, what now?
Oklahoma could simply stand still, tank for a little and hopefully draft well enough to compete down the line. But Presti’s plan likely goes deeper than that.
For one, Oklahoma is now better positioned than any team to trade up in a draft. With all the picks it has acquired, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Oklahoma continue its aggressive strategy to acquire players it really wants over the next few seasons. And since the value of NBA draft picks decreases rapidly after the top ten and lottery, Oklahoma will have a much higher chance of hitting on its picks than any other team.
This possibility is even more enticing when Presti is the one making those high draft picks. This is the guy who once drafted Kevin Durant, James Harden and Russell Westbrook in consecutive drafts. Presti knows how to draft in the lottery and, thanks to all the picks he’s acquired, he’ll be doing that often in the coming years.
In addition, Oklahoma is now more prepared than any team to target a disgruntled superstar. In today’s NBA, it is well known that contracts mean almost nothing to the league’s elite. If a star player wants out, he usually gets his way (just look at George at the Indiana Pacers, Kawhi Leonard at the San Antonio Spurs, Anthony Davis in New Orleans and George again in Oklahoma, to name a few examples).
With its bounty of draft picks, as well as newfound cap space, Oklahoma is poised to pounce on the next unhappy superstar. In my mind, this is one of the main reasons Presti has gathered so many picks. When — not if — the next superstar becomes unhappy in his situation, Oklahoma will be ready and waiting to offer a king’s ransom of draft picks. Moreover, it will still have picks left over to build a playoff roster around the star. This is team-building in the modern NBA.
Regardless of which route Oklahoma takes, it has the right guy leading the team. Since trading Harden for pennies on the dollar in 2012, Presti has been known for fleecing teams. Moreover, he has only missed one lottery pick during his entire tenure (Cameron Payne with the 14th pick in 2015), meaning all these picks will not be flushed down the drain.
Hopefully, Oklahoma can eventually recover its title contender form it lost with Durant’s departure in 2016. Given how Oklahoma is currently positioned, it seems bound to happen — just maybe not for a few years.
Tim Brennan is a freshman in the McDonough School of Business. Around the Association appears online every other week.