With Russell Westbrook and Paul George leading the charge, the Oklahoma City Thunder were widely thought to be serious championship contenders as recently as two seasons ago. And that wasn’t even the first time in recent years. Prior to teaming up with George, Westbrook was one half of a dynamic duo that also featured Kevin Durant. Just a few years before that, that twosome was actually a four-headed monster that also included James Harden and Serge Ibaka.
Ultimately, the Thunder fumbled their attempt at a super team. But they received a hugely generous gift from the basketball gods – Oklahoma City brilliantly liquidated their remaining stars (and others) and stockpiled 15 first-round draft picks in the next seven years (including their own).
In case you missed it, they accomplished that feat by sending Paul George to the Clippers for three unprotected first-round picks (2022, 2024 and 2026, as well as Miami’s lottery-protected 2023 pick), two first-round pick swaps (2023 and 2025), along with Danilo Gallinari and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Additionally, Oklahoma City sent Russell Westbrook to Houston for Chris Paul, two unprotected first-round picks (2024 and 2026), and two first-round pick swaps (2021 and 2025).
Clearly, the Thunder have been playing 4D chess while the rest of the league was playing checkers. But now they’ve created an entirely different problem, albeit a good one: How can the Thunder maximize all of their extra draft picks over the course of the next seven years while building a symbiotic team that has chemistry and a similarly-aged core?
Sure, first-round picks are highly-sought after assets. But if the goal is winning a championship, it’s hard to imagine adding a steady stream of rookies to a team without messing with the chemistry. Further, the Thunder already have a few pieces they’ll probably want to include and build around – Gilgeous-Alexander, Lu Dort, Hamidou Diallo – making it even harder to fathom a rookie joining the team in the 2026 NBA Draft and contributing meaningful minutes if the team succeeds in its goal of building a contender.
Granted, the Thunder will almost certainly look to move Chris Paul given his age and how well he played in 2019-20. They will also consider moving Steven Adams and Dennis Schröder before they become free agents following next season – both are 27 and will likely command relatively pricey contracts.
Boston still has a number of assets to look forward to using, and they’ve positioned themselves incredibly well via future picks – but it can still be a dangerous game. Exhibit one is the Kings’ 2019 first-round pick (owned by the Celtics), which dropped to 14th overall thanks to a surprisingly successful season from Sacramento. The same thing happened again with the Grizzlies (top-6 protected) 2020 pick. Memphis had an extremely successful season with little chance of regressing next year thanks to rookie phenom Ja Morant. And the Celtics will again receive the 14th overall pick in the 2020 NBA Draft instead of a (once assumed to be) top-3 pick.
While luck is a major factor in future picks, there is still serious legitimacy in collecting as many as possible – but teams must see them for the assets they are instead of aimlessly amassing them without a plan to use them to improve. And as much as the uncertainty that goes hand-in-hand with COVID-19 could result in teams doing little to shake things up, the Thunder would be well-served by examining all possible scenarios, beginning immediately.
Let’s walk through a few realistic scenarios the Thunder could pursue to jumpstart their rebuild:
Lauri Markkanen, 23 – Chicago Bulls
Markkanen fits the Thunder’s timeline perfectly. He’s also exactly the type of big man teams are looking for these days. He’s 7’0’ tall and stretches the floor incredibly well, shooting 35.6 percent on 3.15 three-point attempts per game in his three-year career – and that includes a career-low of 34.4 percent in 2019-20. And while he’s not an overly skilled shot blocker, he averages 7.6 rebounds per game over his career.
Chicago and Markkenan appeared poised for a break up as recently as March. The Bulls thinking on Markkenan may have changed with their shift from former head coach Jim Boylen to Billy Donovan, but the damage is done in their relationship. Once a player is thought to be on the move, offers and inquiries inevitably follow. Might the Bulls hold out for an over-the-top offer? Maybe. But it would behoove the Thunder to at least ask.
It goes without saying that they don’t want to overpay, but considering their treasure trove of draft picks, the Thunder would probably define that concept differently than most other teams.
The Thunder could realistically build an offer around one of their 2023 first-round picks – either their own or the Clippers’ pick, which could be of interest to Chicago given the current uncertainty around the Clippers. A deal for Markkenan would probably require additional draft capital (and matching salaries), but giving up another highly valued pick is unadvisable.
If Markkanen requires too much and/or the Thunder prefer a more dynamic player, there’s also…
Marvin Bagley III, 21 – Sacramento Kings
Bagley was seen as a future star as of the 2018 NBA Draft (2nd overall selection). Fast forward a few years and the Kings look flat-out foolish for selecting him over Luka Doncic – but considering Doncic’s success, that’s not even a criticism of Bagley.
Bagley missed considerable time in 2019-20 due to a foot injury, but his numbers through 13 games were mostly flat when compared to his rookie season. He averaged 14.9 points and 7.6 rebounds per game as a rookie while posting 14.2 points and 7.5 rebounds for his sophomore season.
Unfortunately for the Thunder, Bagley is still viewed as an asset with significant upside. The Kings could see swapping Bagley for future picks as delaying an inevitable rebuild but offering multiple picks could coerce them into a deal. If the Kings insist on holding out for a top pick in the current draft, Oklahoma City could package multiple future assets (and maybe the 25th overall pick in 2020) in an attempt to move into the top-10. They could then package that pick with other assets (depending on how high up in the lottery they move) for Bagley.
Ultimately, the Thunder will be forced to pay more for Bagley than Markkanen, so they would only do so if they are sure he’s their guy. Bagley and Markkanen both compliment the 22-year-old Gilgeous-Alexander nicely, and adding either should cement a second (or third depending on your thoughts about Dort) long-term starter for the Thunder.
But wait, there’s more.
Thanks to the aforementioned limited superstar talent in the 2020 draft class and the uncertainty around the salary cap, lots of teams will probably explore moving down in the 2020 NBA Draft. That makes for a buyers market and the Thunder are primed to be buyers for the foreseeable future.
In the draft this year, they should look toward Anthony Edwards or Deni Avdija. Edwards is an ultra-talented scorer with elite strength and athleticism for his age. Avdija is a big wing (6-foot-9) with a high basketball IQ whose passing, ball-handling and shot creation are all standout skills. Neither is a sure thing, but both would be high-ceiling prospects who would complement Gilgeous-Alexander (and Markkanen or Bagley.)
Ultimately, the Thunder should think long and hard before executing any of the aforementioned deals. But if they like Markkanen, Bagley and/or Edwards and Avdija, this offseason might be the time to make their move. Sitting on a well-stocked cupboard of future picks is a nice luxury, but it’s dramatically outweighed by competing for a championship.
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