The Oklahoma City Thunder did not get lucky in the 2021 draft lottery, ending up with the sixth overall pick after a season filled with losing.
The Thunder may be perfectly happy to spend the No. 6 picks if their preferred prospect will still be available at that point.
If Oklahoma City wants to get higher in the draft, no team in the NBA is better equipped to trade up. The Thunder have a bevy of future draft picks to toss at fellow teams if they feel a strong need to get higher in the draft.
In fact, there has been some buzz on #NBATwitter that the Thunder need to trade up to avoid a roster crunch. The Thunder have eleven players under contract for next season and have six picks in the upcoming draft: No. 6, 16, and 18 in the first round, and No. 34, No. 36, and No. 55 in the second round.
If they draft six players and add it to their eleven on the roster, they’ll have seventeen players on the roster - over the NBA’s limit! Sam Presti has really backed himself into a corner here!
Not really. Even if the Thunder doesn’t make a trade, likely, all six of their picks don’t end up on the roster immediately.
The player selected as #55 will presumably struggle to make the roster, as players selected in that range tend to. Even the players selected as #34 and #36 could end up on two-way contracts, spending significant time in the G-League.
And if Presti spends all six picks, feels like he’s struck gold with all six, and wants to keep them all, he can easily slim down the roster in other ways.
The “Eleven Players under contract for next season” figure includes non-guaranteed contracts for Charlie Brown Jr. and Gabriel Deck, who Presti could easily waive if he needs to create a roster spot.
Kenrich Willaims and Isaiah Roby are also non-guaranteed, though Presti would presumably want to keep them around after both players had fairly impressive showings in the 2020-21 season.
If push came to shove, though and Presti absolutely needed to create roster spots, he can comfortably do so.
So Presti won’t be forced into any bad trades out of desperation. I still think it’s more likely than not the Thunder will be involved in at least one draft-day trade, simply because Presti has the ammunition to do so and has never been shy about going after the guys he wants.
We could see three types of trades: a trade involving No. 6 and other stuff to move up in the lottery, a trade packaging No. 16 and No. 18 for a higher pick, and various second-round pick transactions.
The second-round pick stuff is pretty straightforward.
If Presti really does think he might have a roster crunch this season and doesn’t see any overseas players draft and bring over in a couple of years, he can swap one or more of these picks for future picks from teams looking to get into the second round this year.
These transactions happen every year in the second round after most fans have tuned out for the evening.
Presti could try to use picks No. 16 and No. 18 along with No. 6 to move into the top 5, but historically the price for moving up in the top 5 has been higher than two middling first-rounders.
Teams willing to move out of the top 5 will be looking at future draft picks that have a chance of being top 5 in their own right as to compensation. But Presti could put No. 16 and 18 together to get a pick in the 10-12 range.
This has happened a few times in recent memory: in 2017, The Kings traded No. 10 to the Blazers for No. 15 and 20. The Blazers used No. 10 to draft Zach Collins, while Sacramento selected future OKC legend Justin Jackson at No. 15 and Harry Giles at No. 20.
I can see this type of move appealing to Presti, particularly if a player is available at No. 11, who he thinks has real star potential. While I don’t think OKC’s roster crunch means they are forced to make a trade, OKC is facing down a situation where their entire roster (except Kemba Walker) are young players looking for minutes, and there aren’t enough to go around.
As much as fans like to imagine drafting is the just process of finding a good player and picking him, part of success or failure for many players is opportunity and situation.
If OKC gets two guys at No. 16 and No. 18 who both require a lot of time to develop, they may not reach their ceiling in OKC due to the sheer number of players in need of developmental minutes. Swapping two guys for one (and that one guy potentially having more overall talent) helps mitigate that risk.
It takes two to tango. Is there a team in that range willing to make this kind of deal? New Orleans at #10 would probably prefer to move that pick for an established player who helps them win next season.
The Hornets at No. 11 and the Spurs at No. 12 have a high number of young players on the roster already, but if one of those teams thinks there’s gold to be found around 16 and 18, you could see this type of deal getting done.
The move that has Thunder fans dreaming, however, is a move up into the top 5. The price will not be low, though also not as expensive as you might think.
In 2019, the Hawks famously traded No. 3 to the Mavericks for No. 5, and a top 5 protected Mavericks pick the following season.
The Mavs, of course, drafted Luka Doncic No. 3, while the Hawks took Trae Young at No. 5 and Cam Reddish at No. 10 the next year.
The question is, does Presti want to offer up OKC’s own pick next year or try to get the deal done with his treasure chest of other team’s picks? Despite everything OKC has accumulated, their own pick next season may still be the most valuable thing they have.
Any team moving back in the lottery is also in the midst of a rebuild and will likely want the additional assets gained to transition into a young player soon to keep the rebuild moving.
The picks OKC owns get more exciting the further out they get- in 2022, for instance, OKC will get the Clippers to pick (likely in the 20s if Kawhi Leonard returns as expected), and the Suns pick top 12 protected (also likely in the 20’s).
Those picks probably don’t move the needle for a team trading down in the lottery. OKC has the Rockets pick (top 4 protected) in 2024, which could be high, but that’s a long way off for a rebuilding team- and with Houston having the No. 2 pick this year, they could be emerging from their own rebuild by 2024 (though if there’s an ownership group you can expect to make a rebuild take longer, it would be Houston’s).
So the asset that will most have the other team’s eyes is OKC’s own pick for next year. Is Presti willing to give that up for, say, the No. 3 pick in the draft?
I think he should be hesitant to do so. OKC has many exciting players on the roster who could develop into big-time players - Poku, Maledon, or Bazley, for instance.
But for next season, the only really established high-level NBA players on the roster are Shai-Gilgeous Alexander, whatever they can get out of Kemba Walker, and Lu Dort (defensively at least).
Even with the No. 3 pick aboard, that strikes me as a team likely to end up in the lottery again, and perhaps the lower end of the lottery.
It was one thing to make that trade for Luka, who the Mavericks correctly projected as a generational, franchise-transforming talent.
Not only did getting him to change their trajectory in the long term, but he was also good enough right away that the picks the Mavericks gave away the next season were likely to be worse, and indeed, that pick only became #10.
Are you confident OKC would finish with the 20th best record in the league with a team built around SGA, a recovering Kemba Walker, and Jonathan Kuminga? I’m not sure I am.
OKC could try to put protections around the pick as the Mavs did, but they’d still need to be prepared for having another season like the 2020-21 season and coming up with nothing to show for it aside from the Suns and Clippers picks.
If I was Presti, and I saw a true star available at No. 3 (if, for instance, he could have Jalen Green there, and Presti sees Green as the best player in the draft). I’d be looking to offer No. 6 and the Rockets 2026 pick, plus maybe the Suns pick next year as a sweetener. Does that get it done if you’re the Cavaliers or the Raptors?
Those teams only make that deal if they see little difference between the third and sixth pick and are happy to get assets for it. If those teams are locked into a guy at No. 3 or No. 4, they’re unlikely to move off it unless Presti throws in a lot more- think four or five future picks instead of two.
That’s probably too steep of a price to pay unless Presti thinks he’s found a true Durant level star that everyone else is missing.
Failing that, Presti might be better off holding onto No. 6 and hoping for better lottery luck next year. The trade for Luka made sense because it was Luka. None of the players in this year’s draft, even Cade Cunningham, appear to be Luka level.
For that reason, the likeliest option seems to be OKC staying put.