On June 21, 2012 the Miami Heat finished a 4-1 NBA Finals victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder. Despite losing, it seemed like the Thunder were poised for a decade-long run atop the NBA. Oh, how things have changed in the last 10 years.
OKC had then 23-year-old Kevin Durant, 23-year-old Russell Westbrook and 22-year-old James Harden leading that Finals team. In that shortened 2011-12 season, that trio had played in nearly every game and had rolled to the Finals before meeting the Big Three Heat in their second season together.
Shortly before the next season, Harden was traded to the Houston Rockets. Durant and Westbrook were still great, but that Thunder team lacked the third star and lost in the second round. In two of the three seasons that followed, Oklahoma City got painfully close to getting back to the Finals, but fell just short. Then Durant left for the Golden State Warriors. Westbrook became a triple-double machine, but the team couldn’t get out of the first round. Before the 2019-20 season, Westbrook was sent to Houston to team back up with Harden.
That Westbrook trade was meant to be the start of a rebuilding process, as the Thunder had also traded away Paul George that same offseason. But a funny thing happened. Chris Paul was rejuvenated in Oklahoma City, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander took a leap and the Thunder bowed out 4-3 to those Harden-Westbrook Rockets in a competitive first-round series in the bubble.
Still, Sam Presti wasn’t going to let one season influence his long-term plan. The long-time OKC general manager moved Paul to the Phoenix Suns and leaned heavy into the rebuilding process. Now, it’s been two years of full rebuilding, but really three years since Presti started collecting draft picks as if they were Pokémon. Now, nearly three years after the process began, we’re still asking the same question: How many draft picks are enough?
The Draft Picks
After trading Paul George in the deal that netted Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and up to five first-round picks plus two swap options, Presti began a process that sees OKC still sitting on pile of up to 12 extra first-round picks through the 2026 NBA Draft:
- 2022 from LA Clippers
- 2022 from Phoenix Suns
- 2023 from Denver Nuggets (with protections)
- 2023 from Detroit Pistons (with protections)
- 2023 from Washington Wizards (with protections)
- 2024 from Houston Rockets (with protections)
- 2024 from LA Clippers
- 2024 from Utah Jazz (with protections)
- 2025 from Miami Heat (with protections)
- 2025 from Philadelphia 76ers (with protections)
- 2026 from Houston Rockets (with protections)
- 2026 from LA Clippers
In addition to those 12 picks, Oklahoma City also owns all of their own first-round picks. That’s a possibility of 17 first round picks over the next five drafts, with "up to" being the operative phrase here.
Which Picks Will Actually Convey?
Only 5 of the extra 12 firsts are guaranteed to convey to the Thunder (the 2025 Miami pick becomes unprotected after one season of lottery protection). All the rest could turn into assets on paper that don’t look as good when reality comes around.
The 2023 Denver Pick
This pick is lottery protected from 2023 to 2025. As it's hard to see the Nuggets dropping out of the playoffs for three straight seasons, given the presence of Nikola Jokic, we'll assume this pick is well on its way to conveying next year, so, we’re up to six picks that will convey for sure.
The Houston, Utah & Philly Picks
It’s also highly likely the Rockets picks will convey, as they are both top-4 protected. The protections on the Jazz and Sixers picks range from top-4 to top-10 protected. Let’s be optimistic for the Thunder and say all of those picks eventually convey, so we’re at 10-of-12 picks likely going to OKC.
The Detroit Pick
This selection may take a while to convey. The Pistons would have to be one of the 12 best teams in the league over the next two seasons for OKC to get the pick, and that seems unlikely. Then, the protections slide enough that the Thunder should get the pick somewhere between 2025 and 2027.
The Wizards Pick
This selection has some sliding protections (lottery protected in 2023 down as far down as top-8 protected in 2026), but it could take a while for that one to convey too. And here’s the thing, Oklahoma City wants some of these picks to take a while to convey. Otherwise, they’re getting non-lottery picks that don’t hold a ton of value.
How do we know those picks don’t hold a ton of value? At the 2021 NBA Draft, GM Sam Presti tried very hard to move up in the draft. Armed with the sixth, 16th and 18th pick in the 2021 draft, the Thunder reportedly offered all of those picks in an effort to get into the top-4 of the draft. Reports were that Oklahoma City also offered to add in some of their future stash, but were rebuffed.
In the end, not only did the Thunder not move up, but instead traded the 16th pick to the Houston Rockets for even more future first round picks (the Pistons and Wizards picks). The Rockets drafted Alperen Sengun, who looks like a long-term starting center, which is the one position Oklahoma City doesn’t have any young building blocks at.
Valuing the Draft Picks Stash
Now that we’ve gone over what OKC owns, let’s start looking at the value of some of those picks. To be fair, this a very inexact science. For example, who would have thought that the Los Angeles Lakers 2022 pick would look so valuable when the New Orleans Pelicans got it for Anthony Davis only a few years ago? But we can do some projecting.
The Clippers Picks (2024/2026)
Let’s begin with the known picks, starting the Clippers picks. Barring LA missing the playoffs this season and jumping way up in the lottery, the best that pick will be is 11th. If they make the playoffs, that pick will very likely be 15th. Looking down the line, we don’t know what the Clippers will be in 2024 or 2026. It’s pretty likely they’ll be a good team in 2024. They’ve got their key players signed and they should still have at least two more top-tier seasons in them. In 2026, who knows? But it’s fair to note that LA has one of the richest owners in the sport and that he is highly competitive. Don’t expect them to necessarily bottom out in post-Paul George/Kawhi Leonard years. None of these three picks projects to be better than a mid-round pick at best, without some lottery luck.
The 2022 Suns Pick
A 30th overall pick is still a first rounder technically, but it’s the worst first you can have.
The Heat Pick
That future Heat pick could be pretty juicy. They’ll likely have aged out by 2025 or 2026. Ideally for OKC, Miami would be kicking off a rebuild in 2024-25 and wouldn’t deliver a non-lottery pick in 2025. But if the Heat rebuild on the fly, as they are prone to do, that could be exactly what the Thunder get.
- For the unknowns, the Denver pick is certainly going to be a non-lottery pick and probably in the mid-to-high 20s.
- By the time the Pistons and Wizards picks might actually convey, those teams could be pretty good. That means another couple of non-lottery picks.
- The Rockets are basically on the same time horizon as the Thunder. Maybe they still aren’t good if their current rebuild fails and OKC gets a couple of lottery picks. But they’ll never be the best picks, because both are top-4 protected.
- As for the Jazz and Sixers, who knows? But those picks are protected enough that they’ll be mid-lottery at best.
Add it all up, and that stash all of a sudden is a lot more quantity than quality. It’s no wonder Presti had such a hard time moving up the board in 2021.
2022 Cap Space
This is a bit more complicated than many realize. Yes, Oklahoma City is currently sitting on over $22 million in available cap space as this season winds down. But that space has a clock on it. If the Thunder don’t make a deal to take on money at or around the 2022 NBA Draft, that space will evaporate when the league changes over on July 1. But what about when the league year changes to 2022-23? Surely OKC projects to have among the most cap space in the NBA for next season. Not so fast, my friend!
Assuming Derrick Favors opts in for $10.2 million, the Thunder have $65 million in guaranteed money on the books against a cap of $122 million. Nearly half of that comes from Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s rookie scale extension kicking in at $30.5 million in first-year salary in 2022-23. Still, that’s $57 million in space. Let’s get spending! Again, not so fast.
Sticking with players on the roster, it’s highly unlikely the Thunder will move on from any of Theo Maledon, Isaiah Roby or Kenrich Williams. All are on great value contracts for their production/potential. Given he’s shown a little something lately, let’s also add Vit Krejci in too. That adds another $7.4 million to the books for those four players. OKC seems like to Mike Muscala and values having him around. $3.5 million is more than fair for what he brings them. Add him in too.
That brings us to nearly $76 million in committed salary. That’s still $46 million in available cap space. But again…not so fast, my friend! The Thunder have $28.4 million in combined dead money on their 2022-23 cap sheet for Kemba Walker and the final year of the five years of stretched money for Kyle Singler. All of a sudden, we’re down to $17.6 million in available space. Not bad, but not great either. And we’re not done adding yet!
The Thunder currently project to have the fourth, 15th and 30th picks in the draft. Those three picks come with a combined salary of $13.7 million in cap holds.
One more! The Thunder are likely to decline their team option for Lu Dort, so that they can make him a restricted free agent. That will come with a cap hold of about $2.2 million or so. Add that to the books too. That takes us to less than $2 million in cap space. Once a team is that low on cap space, they’ll choose to operate as an over-the-cap team to have access to the full Non-Taxpayer Mid-Level Exception and the Bi-Annual Exception.
2022 Roster Flexibility
If the offseason plays out more or less as listed as above, the Thunder’s roster flexibility is all but gone too. As a matter of fact, they’d have to make some moves just to create enough space to bring in the three first-rounders they may draft. That’s where you could see a decision made to decline Mike Muscala’s team option. Or waive someone like Vit Krejci or Isaiah Roby. But those moves would be about roster spots and not about creating cap space.
Future Cap Space and Roster Flexibility
Without knowing what they’ll do over the next year or so, the Thunder will likely hit the 2023 offseason with somewhere in the range of $95 million in committed salary on the books. They’ll have all their recent first-rounds picks, plus Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and likely a new contract for Lu Dort. By that point, a handful of roster decisions will have been made on other players, but it’s likely Oklahoma City will still have 11 or 12 players on their roster.
At the 2023 NBA Draft, the Thunder will probably add a couple more draft picks and probably somewhere in the range of $10 million in salary for those two players. That’s leaves enough left over to go shopping in the summer of 2023 for a player or two. After that, things get way to cloudy in this crystal ball. But there are a couple of moments of clarity.
First, roster spots are getting tight in OKC, even when we get a couple of years out. There’s no real way to add up to 17 more players over the next five years, while still retaining players who were recently drafted. That’s going to lead to some tough roster decisions for Sam Presti and crew. They’ve done a good job developing their young talent, but may need to part with some of them simply because of roster constraints.
Second, you may notice we haven’t mentioned second-round picks even one time in this analysis. The Thunder have a bushel of extra seconds, in addition to all their extra firsts. Expect those to be packaged together in trades to move up, even if just slightly, in coming drafts. And there may be copious amounts of drafting-and-stashing happening over the next few years.
None of what we wrote above is to suggest that the Oklahoma City Thunder and Sam Presti have done anything wrong with their team building approach. Outside of San Antonio, Presti has built the model of small market stability in the NBA. He nailed the Kevin Durant pick when the team was still in Seattle, then shepherded the team through the move to Oklahoma City, while drafting Russell Westbrook and James Harden. Beyond that, Presti has hit on several late-round draft picks, while making shrewd trades that resulted in making the playoffs in all but one season before leaning into the rebuild two years ago.
But now it seems like Presti and the Thunder have pushed things as far as they can go. Adding more draft capital via trades would be irresponsible. The Thunder already can’t bring in all the picks they have. And packaging those picks together in trades isn’t as easy as it sounds. Unless the team is willing to move off some young players they’ve drafted and developed, it’s going to be hard to keep all of those players. That’s both roster spot-wise and cap-wise. The cap isn’t nearly the clean sheet it was a couple of seasons ago. There are still no bad deals on there, but as young players get paid, they are no longer the tremendous values they once were.
None of this is to say the Thunder are in a bad spot. They can still overwhelm teams in terms of offering picks in trades. But rival teams know that puts them in the quantity vs quality spot OKC is in now. Eventually, Presti is going to have to part with some young players and some of those picks in deals. That’s probably how this gets pushed forward in the next year or two. It will allow for some rebalancing of the roster in terms of both size and salaries. And that will take on increased importance, as Shai Gilgeous-Alexander won’t be this patient forever. He’s blossoming into an All-Star and All-Stars want to win. Gilgeous-Alexander has been patient through two down seasons, and might have one more in him, but after that, he’s going to want to get back to the playoffs. If that doesn’t happen in Oklahoma City by 2024, it’s likely SGA will be the next on a long list of small market stars to ask for a trade. And, hey, that would likely fetch the Thunder a whole bunch of first-round draft picks.
But…yeah. Let’s starting winning OKC. Sooner, rather than later.