July 19, 2021

Should Oklahoma City Thunder Trade Up for No. 1 Pick in 2021 NBA Draft?

Lady Luck wasn't on the Oklahoma City Thunder's side in the draft lottery.

The Thunder had a realistic chance of securing the first and fifth picks in the 2021 NBA Draft, but ultimately came away with just the sixth pick thanks to the Houston Rockets snagging the second spot

After blatantly tanking at the end of the season, the Thunder have to be disheartened that they came away without a top-five pick in what could be a top-heavy draft class. But that's just a minor speed bump in Oklahoma City's rebuild as they still own 18 (!) future first-rounders. 

But since they dropped to the sixth pick, OKC is set to miss out on the class' top tier in Cade Cunningham, Jalen Green, Evan Mobley and Jalen Suggs

However, Oklahoma City could cash in some of their chips to make a bold move up the draft board if they covet Cade Cunningham or one of the other highly touted prospects. 

But should they? 

The big question the Thunder will ask themselves when considering a trade up to the top spot is how good do they think Cunningham will be? Is he a future All-NBA player? Is he better served as a sidekick on a playoff squad? Or is his ceiling much lower than that? 

While Cunningham is widely expected to be the top pick in the draft, he doesn't quite have the tantalizing upside that usually comes with a No. 1 pick. The Oklahoma State product is a safe prospect. He can serve as a team's primary playmaker, guard multiple positions and can hit consistently from deep. He scored over a point per possession in isolation, good for the 87th percentile in the NCAA last season.

But Cunningham's limited athleticism and high turnover rate puts a ceiling on his potential. It would be an absolute shocker if he doesn’t morph into at least a Khris Middleton-caliber type of player, and as Larry David would say, that's "pretty, pretty, pretty good." In fact, he'd be an ideal fit next to star guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander in the Thunder backcourt. 

Unfortunately, though, that's not someone worth trading the farm for. 

Cunningham is worthy of the first overall selection, sure, but Thunder general manager Sam Presti is unlikely to pay the hefty price to acquire the No. 1 pick from the Detroit Pistons

The Pistons will surely try to plunder Presti's treasure chest of assets, but the Thunder continue to play the long game. SGA, ace defender Lu Dort and the mysteriously intriguing Aleksej Pokusevski are the building blocks of OKC’s future, and they could add to that by drafting either Jonathan Kuminga, Scottie Barnes or James Bouknight with the sixth pick without surrendering any assets. 

The Thunder might be wise to be patient, too. 

As this year's NBA Finals have proven, there's plenty of talent to be found outside of the top-five picks — including Devin Booker (13th), Giannis Antetokounmpo (15th), Khris Middleton (39th), Jrue Holiday (17th) and Mikal Bridges (10th). Quality players can be found anywhere, and OKC’s scouting department has a history of unearthing gems such as Serge Ibaka and Reggie Jackson, as well as hitting on their high picks.

If the Thunder add one of Kuminga, Barnes, Bouknight or another talented player to that core, as well as two other first-rounders, that's another strong step forward in the Thunder's rebuild.

Oklahoma City will eventually have to package their picks for a meaningful upgrade, but this isn't the offseason to do it. 

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