Sam Presti’s offseason strategy for the Thunder is not unlike what I used to do every time I booted up NBA 2K’s franchise mode back in the day. I would trade away every big contract and good player in an attempt to stack my lottery odds with a boatload of first-round picks and create a roster 100% comprised of expiring deals. I would lose huge in my first season, but then fill my team with top picks and max free agents in the summer. (I don’t recommend playing this way anymore. Eventually I came to my senses and just tried to win MVP with Dwyane Wade every year.) It’s obviously not that simple for Presti. He can’t trade everyone. He can’t convince bad teams to part with their draft picks. And perhaps most interestingly, he hasn’t created a roster bad enough to race to the bottom.
Oklahoma City is actually going to be kind of decent this season, especially if no one ends up taking on Chris Paul‘s contract. That’s not even a take anymore. Pretty much everyone on NBA Twitter at some point has courageously mentioned the Thunder actually have something of a balanced roster, to the point where the consensus is that this team won’t be anything resembling a trainwreck.
I wrote about this when Paul looked more likely to be traded immediately, but he should actually form a solid partnership with big man Steven Adams. Paul was in the 60th percentile for pick-and-roll ball handlers last season, while Adams was in the 64th for roll men. I wouldn’t be surprised if both improved, however. Paul should get more opportunities to play at his pace in OKC, and he’ll have more control of the rhythm of the offense with the Thunder than he did with the Rockets. For a guard like Paul, I think an increase in volume in pick-and-rolls will actually help his efficiency.
Meanwhile, for Adams, Paul is a better guard to screen for than Russell Westbrook. Defenses don’t respect Russ’s jumpshot, and because they are able to sag off screens, the paint is already crowded for when Adams wants to roll. Paul’s midrange ability will keep defenses honest, creating not only more room for Adams, but theoretically more room for guys in the corners if the defense has to rotate to cover the paint. OKC isn’t going to recreate the success of Paul’s Clippers—who were always incredible offensively—but it has a chance to be pretty good on that end of the floor.
I’m actually excited to see if Paul, Adams, and everyone else here can have a bit of an F-you season. There’s weirdly been a substantial number of players who’ve had some dirt shoveled on them this summer. LeBron. Russ. The Warriors, kinda. Paul and Adams. A bunch of talented guys will have stuff to prove next season, and OKC has too many capable veterans to simply fold, even in an absurdly talented Western Conference.
And that’s interesting! Because it’s obvious by trades he made this July, Presti’s long-term goal is to build through the draft. And while Presti has been applauded for filling OKC’s coffers with first-round picks, the Thunder’s path forward is far from obvious.
First off, the most valuable picks OKC owns are still its own. That’s because the Thunder can theoretically control their own fate, and pull off a Process-level plan to tank for top picks. What OKC has in volume of first-round choices, it lacks in lottery odds. We obviously have no idea what will become of all the Rockets and Clippers first-round picks, but there’s no doubting if the Thunder hope to pick No. 1 in the near—or even somewhat distant—future, their best bet is to get to the bottom themselves. The Rockets and Clippers may have mortgaged their futures for the present, but they also have front offices who’ve shown they can keep their teams competitive.
This summer, the Thunder basically traded their old problems for a different set, but one that’s more socially acceptable in the asset-crazy NBA. It looks good for OKC to have a bunch of draft picks, even if they are of completely nebulous value. Those picks look good until the second the Thunder actually have to select players, something Presti has actually struggled with outside of the lottery for much of this decade. At the same time, OKC is too good to be bad, and not good enough to be actually good.
In the past, this dreaded no-man’s land was the worst place for an NBA team to be. The conventional wisdom says it makes more sense to tank than to be a late-lottery squad or low playoff seed. But what if the Thunder are able to forge a different path forward? I’m imagining a world in which OKC stays competitive this season, and then uses its trade capital not to acquire more assets, but maybe more good players. (If you have a potential star like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, would you want to spend multiple years of his early career tanking?)
I would be surprised if Presti strays from the draft route at this point, especially after what happened with Paul George. But the Thunder remaining competitive after dealing George and Russ could have some unintended consequences. It’s better for the NBA as a whole moving forward if places like Oklahoma City are able to attract marquee players by being competent as opposed to using the draft to control players for the first few years of their career. It certainly won’t be easy as presently constructed, but the Thunder have more options than to try to be bad as quickly as possible.
The real coup for OKC would be trying to find the next George, and using its picks to acquire the next disgruntled superstar, and put a good enough team around him to keep him in town. Whether the Thunder have the stomach for that after how this summer went down could be their biggest test moving forward. But as long as OKC is respectable on the floor this season, the trickier it will be to flip into tank mode. But if the Thunder are able to ride out that short-term respectability into something more of an on-the-fly rebuild, they have a chance to prove the draft isn’t the only way forward, even if that’s what seems the safest.