February 17, 2021

The Thunder’s Rebuild is Ahead of Schedule

It's never pretty when an NBA team commits to "Trusting the Process."

Take the 2011 Charlotte Bobcats and 2013 Philadelphia 76ers, for example. These two teams produced an unwatchable product in an effort to get a better draft pick and build a potential championship contender. But the process of tanking, especially when it's that blatant, is an embarrassment to the NBA. 

But not all rebuilds are the same.

After Paul George and Russell Westbrook forced their way out of Oklahoma City, the Thunder appeared to be the next franchise to enter full rebuild mode and put up a historically bad season. 

Thanks to some advantageous deals — namely the PG13 deal — smart signings and strong player development, the Thunder might not be a playoff contender in 2021, but they are way ahead of schedule. 

Here’s what the Thunder have in store for future drafts, what players on the team are keepers and how the franchise should move forward in the future.

A Treasure Trove of Assets

After trading away George, Westbrook, Dennis Schroder, Danilo Gallinari, Steven Adams, Kelly Oubre and Chris Paul over the past year, OKC now has a brain-melting S-E-V-E-N-T-E-E-N first-round picks over the next six years:

Thunder general manager Sam Presti has so many future picks that if he actually uses all of them, it would be too many to field a 15-man roster. 

Combing through OKC’s future picks reveals a lot of uncertainty, but also a good amount of promise that at least a few of those picks could strike gold. Presti is making two smart bets at the same time. One is that based on pure luck, he’s acquired so many picks that by the law of averages a few of those lottery tickets will hit. 

His second, and even wiser bet, was pushing those picks so far into the future that anything can happen. For instance, the Thunder own the Miami Heat, Houston Rockets and Los Angeles Clippers first-rounders in 2024 and beyond. No matter how good (or bad) those teams are now, the future is a scary proposition for a team without an arsenal of picks.

Just three seasons ago, the Cleveland Cavaliers, New Orleans Pelicans, Minnesota Timberwolves and Washington Wizards were in the playoffs, and the Lakers, Clippers, Nuggets and Nets were on the outside looking in. Those are four of the best teams in the NBA today.

But What About The Current Team?

OKC has traded so many quality players recently that people forget they still have a lot of promise on the current roster in the form of real, tangible human beings, not just future draft selections.

While most of the players on the 2020-21 Thunder will be long gone by the time they’re ready to compete again, there are definitely some keepers among this group. 

Let’s start with the obvious one in guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who has blossomed into a star at just 22. SGA made an immediate impact with the Clippers in his rookie year where he played a big role in the team’s impressive playoff series against the Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry-led Warriors. After he was traded to Oklahoma City, Gilgeous-Alexander spent his second season learning the dark arts of being a point guard next to CP3.

But after a flurry of trades, SGA is the man in OKC, and despite the expected bumps, he’s been phenomenal. He’s averaging 22.6 points, 5.5 rebounds and 6.5 assists on 50% from the field. He’s also singlehandedly keeping the Thunder’s already awful offense afloat. Their offensive rating drops from 108 points per 100 possessions when Gilgeous-Alexander is on the court to a putrid 97 when he’s off the court.

SGA's next step is improving his defense, and that should come as OKC’s development-minded staff, led by Mark Daigneault, continues working with him.

Next up are two similar players — Luguentz Dort and Hamidou Diallo — who both combine tenacious energy on defense, and shaky jump shots on offense. When the two wings share the court, OKC holds opponents to 101.9 points per 100 possessions, which would rank first in the entire league.

Diallo is bonking jumpers at rates that simply must improve, but he’s used his incredible athleticism and hangtime ability (he’s a former Slam Dunk champ after all) to slice into the teeth of the defense. 

Dort is improving rapidly. Last season, he was a great defender who looked pretty clueless on offense, but now he’s channeling his energy and running-back frame into bulldozing drives to the rack. He’s also improved his 3-point percentage slightly, which is all you can ask for. But seriously, we can’t forget the defense, because it’s glorious:

The next three youngsters are Darius Bazley, Theo Maledon and Aleksej Pokusevski. Bazley is a human trampoline thanks to his elite leaping ability, and he doesn’t let that go to waste. He gobbles up almost nine rebounds per 36 minutes, and was probably OKC’s best option at the center position as a rookie against the Rockets in the bubble.

Bazley is just 20, and he’s shown flashes of so many different skills. He can block shots, score in isolation and stepbacks while using his length to defend on the perimeter. 

As for Maledon, he’s been such a pleasant surprise as a rookie. At just 19, he looks like a veteran on the court. He’s decisive, quick with the ball and sports a smooth, compact jump shot.

Finally, there’s Pokusevski, who is simply an anomaly. At 18, he was the youngest rookie in the league by a significant margin before the Thunder wisely sent him to the G-League to get some reps against easier competition. He’s a 7-foot slenderman who has a beautiful flick of the wrist when he shoots 3s, even though his averages have been atrocious.

Pokusevski has already shown flashes of becoming an elite shooter who can also run a side pick-and-roll and find the open man effortlessly. 

Mixed in with these flashes of brilliance are painful reminders that Pokusevski is a skinny teenager getting bullied by guys who have over 100 pounds on him.

OKC is going to be patient with him, and that could turn into a big payoff for the Thunder. 

What's Next?

The math is simple. OKC has 17 future 1st round picks, even though rosters can only carry 15 full-time players. Add those picks to some current players who will stick around, and it’s obvious Presti will be forced to wheel and deal in some form. His best bet could be waiting for the next disgruntled young star to request a trade, then use his bounty of picks to pounce.

You never know when a star will request a trade. James Harden’s request came out of nowhere this offseason — and boom! — now he’s a Brooklyn Net. 

While the Thunder could make a play for a disgruntled superstar, the timeline doesn't necessarily fit his young roster so we expect the general manager to stay patient, for now. 

The Thunder have so many assets that they could trade for win-now talent while still having the long-term in mind. For example, Presti could go the next couple of years by making picks and drafting promising young prospects, then once he’s developed an exciting young squad, cash in the rest of his chips for one or two stars.

The Thunder might not be a playoff contender this year, but with 17 first-rounders and a budding superstar already on the roster, the Thunder's rebuild is further along than anybody could've possibly expected. 

Photo: Getty Images/Lines Illustration