The Oklahoma City Thunder were meant to be heading into the lottery and a rebuild. Trades to send Paul George and Russell Westbrook to Los Angeles and Houston respectively allowed Sam Presti to collect an unprecedented haul of draft picks as well as 2018 first-round selection Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
Although the roster was far from tank-worthy, the expectation was that the newly acquired Chris Paul and Danilo Gallinari would be dealt during the 2019/20 season. Steven Adams and Dennis Schroeder were trade candidates, too.
Paul has led the way, along with the future-All-Star Gilgeous-Alexander, for the Thunder to be far more than a rebuilding team. Currently sitting in a comfortable seventh in the Western Conference, Oklahoma City are poised to make it five consecutive playoff appearances despite dealing two All-NBA superstars in George and Westbrook.
Presti has been put in a wonderful position by the performances of Paul and co. OKC are in a unique situation: they are good basketball team sitting on a treasure chest of picks.
The Thunder front office have options, a luxury that few of their peers possess. FanDuel price them at +420 to make the playoffs – it remains possible that Presti trades away Paul, Schroeder, Adams and Gallinari before 6th February.
The five first-rounders received for George, the two for Westbrook and Denver’s 2020 pick for Jerami Grant put Presti in the position to improve the team if he so wishes. It is an unusual set of circumstances, and while this season’s overachievement has been great for the franchise, it presents a set of challenges for the Thunder front office.
Moving players to add to their already gaudy collection of picks might be the obvious move for a team that won’t win the title in 2020 (The Thunder are +12500 to win the Finals with Bet365). Potentially throwing away a playoff spot isn’t easy for any franchise, however, and particularly a fan base that is accustomed to postseason basketball.
There are franchises that would give anything to sneak into the seven or eight seed, regardless of their title chances. Despite what the path of the franchise seemed to be at the start of the season, weakening a team when they are in playoff position would be a brave, and perhaps foolish, move.
Presti isn’t under pressure to bring in more assets. There’s a case to be made for selling high on Paul (if anyone will take that contract), and moving Gallinari’s expiring, however. Schroeder is +400 to win Sixth Man of the Year with 888Sport – could a team be lured into giving up a couple of picks for a season and a half of his scoring off the bench?
There’s a balancing act between enjoying this surprisingly positive season and acquiring more picks or young players for the next true title contender. Gilgeous-Alexander is the centrepiece for Presti to construct that next great Thunder team around – making decisions that are best for his development might be the best thought process Presti can have over the next few weeks.
Learning and working with Paul is beneficial, but are the Thunder in a rush to make Gilgeous-Alexander the primary ball handler? Billy Donovan has experimented with three-guard line-ups, using Gilgeous-Alexander, Paul and Schroeder. Oklahoma City have played just under 220 minutes with those three on the floor together, and they have outscored opponents by 24.5 points per 100 possessions.
It might not be Gilgeous-Alexander’s team yet, but this roster is giving him opportunity to play in a variety of line-ups, both as the main ball-handler and working on his game off the ball. Moving Paul, Gallinari, Schroeder or even Adams (though a trade seems very unlikely), would limit Donovan’s flexibility.
More draft assets might help to put pieces around Gilgeous-Alexander in the future. Playoff experience, and competing on a well-coached team, have benefits for his development that are not necessarily quantifiable.
Moulding Gilgeous-Alexander into the rounded, All-NBA superstar many suspect he can become should be the Thunder’s priority. Keeping this team together – for the next few months at least – is probably the best way to do that, but Presti has all his options open. Teams will be calling about Gallinari and Schroeder, and rumours will circle about Paul.
The possibility of the Thunder adding rather than subtracting shouldn’t be forgotten, though. Andre Roberson’s expiring salary and picks could be used to bring in another young talent or a veteran to help their playoff push like Davis Bertans.
George and Westbrook did the Thunder a favour. Paul’s contract might be almost impossible to trade, but he’s helped out by reminding those who needed it just how good he still is. Gilgeous-Alexander has the potential to be an elite force on both ends of the floor. Their draft capital throughout the 2020s takes pressure off Presti and opens up paths other teams cannot even consider.
Anything is possible for the Thunder in the coming weeks. An eventful few months have put them in an almost unheard-of position, but as long as they continue to win games, they are one of the most fascinating teams in the NBA on and off-court.
By Sam Cox