A shortened offseason didn’t prevent most NBA teams from making changes as news of trades, signings, and rumored deals were compressed in just over two weeks from the start of free agency. But no team had more changes this offseason than the Oklahoma City Thunder, which will parade a lineup that is almost unrecognizable from last year’s Chris Paul-led group that defied expectations and finished fifth in the Western Conference.
A year after trading Russell Westbrook to the Houston Rockets in exchange for Paul and two first round picks and two first round pick swaps and Thunder general manager Sam Presti sent the team’s rebuild into overdrive, completing 13 trades to different teams so far in a move to stockpile as many future draft picks as possible. When Presti and the Thunder front office were done with their wheeling and dealing, they were able to collect a staggering 18 first round picks and more second round selections, including their own picks, until the 2027 NBA Draft.
The Thunder have shown in the past that they can build a contender through the draft when they selected future MVPs Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Westbrook in three consecutive drafts more than a decade ago. In the next six drafts, they will have more chances than before to select young players that they can develop into future All Stars and MVPs to help bring a title to Oklahoma City.
That the team’s accelerated rebuild came on the heels of a playoff appearance is an impressive feat and is something rarely seen in the NBA. Not only did the Thunder avoid a prolonged period of irrelevance and losing seasons usually associated with rebuilds, the team also seems positioned to return to the playoffs sooner rather than later. And they did it by embarking on a dizzying series of transactions that took place in the span of a couple of weeks.
The team first dealt Paul to the Suns in exchange for Ricky Rubio, Kelly Oubre, Ty Jerome, Jalen Lacque, and a 2022 first round pick. Rubio and Oubre, however, were later traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves and Golden State Warriors, respectively, for more draft picks. Lacque, meanwhile, was shipped to the Indiana Pacers in exchange for TJ Leaf and a future second round pick. After a strong season in Oklahoma City, Paul should be able to help All Star Devin Booker and the new-look Suns return to the playoffs, while giving Presti and the Thunder another first round pick to add to their massive haul.
Oklahoma City then dealt Paul’s backup, Dennis Schroder, to the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers in exchange for Danny Green and the draft rights to Jaden McDaniels, the 28th overall pick of the 2020 Draft. But the Schroder deal, as with other transactions by the Thunder, later turned into another trade, as Green was later shipped to the Philadelphia 76ers with Terrance Ferguson in exchange for Al Horford, a 2025 first round pick, and French point guard Theo Maledon, the 34th overall pick of the 2020 Draft.
McDaniels, meanwhile, was sent to the Timberwolves along with Rubio in exchange for Serbian Aleksej Pokusevski, the 17th overall pick of the 2020 Draft and forward James Johnson, who the Thunder later flipped for Trevor Ariza, Justin Jackson, and two future second round picks. Maledon and Pokusevski will join the Thunder’s promising crop of young players led by Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, the only remaining starter from last season, Luguentz Dort, and Darius Bazely.
Horford, meanwhile, gives the Thunder a starting center after the departure of Steven Adams, who was traded to the New Orleans Pelicans in exchange for George Hill, Darius Miller, Kenrich Williams, Zylan Cheatham, and a future first round pick and two second round picks. Despite not being able to fit with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons in Philadelphia, Horford still averaged 11.9 points, 6.8 rebounds, and four assists, while shooting 45% from the field and 35% from beyond the arc and can help the Thunder remain competitive.
Hill and Ariza, meanwhlile, are veterans who give much-needed experience and veteran locker room presence to a young Thunder squad. With the Milwaukee Bucks, Hill still averaged 9.4 points, three rebounds, and 3.1 assists while shooting 51.6% from the field and a career-best 46% from downtown. Ariza, who was involved in a series of dizzying trades in a matter of weeks, was still productive for the Sacramento Kings and Portland Trail Blazers in his 16th season, averaging eight points, 4.6 rebounds, 1.7 assists, and 1.3 steals while shooting 43.8% from the field and 37.2% from three-point range.
Miller should also be a part of the Thunder’s rotation next season should they choose to keep him, as the 30-year old forward improved in each of his seasons with the Pelicans, and averaged a career-high 8.2 points and 2.1 rebounds on 39% shooting from the field and 36.5% shooting from beyond the arc during his fifth season in New Orleans. But even as training camp and the new season approaches, there is a possibility that Presti and the front office may not be done with the team’s makeover and might still trade players to acquire more assets.
For now, the Thunder’s lineup is an interesting mix of battle-tested veterans and promising young talents that should be able to compete against most teams, although this is far from the team that surprised everyone and finished with a 44-28 record and the fifth seed in the West, and with other teams improving, the Thunder should miss the postseason for the first time since the 2014-2015 season.
The goal of every team as it enters the offseason is to improve, whether it is for next season or in the future. Presti and the Thunder may have lost the likes of Paul, Schroder, Adams, Danilo Gallinari, Ferguson, and most of their playoff team from last season, but the goal was always to improve in the future through the draft, where they hope to find players that could help the team compete for titles.
The process of rebuilding is usually a long one, but the fact that the Thunder were able to do it faster than perhaps any team in league history and ended up with an unprecedented treasure trove of draft picks still makes them one of the offseason’s winners, even if the results might not immediately be evident on the court.
Offseason Grade: A-