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The Thunder Are the New Most Hopeful Team in the NBA

Oklahoma City traded its stars for unprecedented loads of draft picks. Now, with the ability to grab more young players in a short span than any other franchise in the history of the league, where is the team headed?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The future belongs to the Oklahoma City Thunder, or at least roughly 7 percent of it does. The Thunder now hold up to 15 first-round picks in the next seven drafts. That’d be more than twice as many as they’re supposed to have. The Thunder also have the opportunity to swap four of those picks with other teams for better picks. Do you know anybody between 10 and 18 years of age? There’s a decent chance they will wind up playing professional basketball in Oklahoma City. Adam Silver may spend hours of his life announcing and shaking hands with Thunder picks.

Oklahoma City’s stash is in the running to be the greatest stockpile of draft capital in NBA history—even greater than that of the Process era 76ers, whose half-decade of tanking and trading assets brought them a total of 10 first-rounders across seven years. And it didn’t take the Thunder a half-decade to get here—they did it in a week. And all they had to do was get rid of the type of superstars that they’ll be hoping (and lucky) to draft in the next few years.

It was time for OKC to press the reset button. The team arrived from Seattle in 2008 with Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, and added James Harden after one year in Oklahoma. Since then, they’ve been in constant contention with 10 straight winning seasons and nine trips to the playoffs. But the team hasn’t made the NBA Finals since trading Harden in 2012, and hasn’t won a playoff series since losing Durant in 2016. After winning three total postseason games in two years with their core of Paul George and Westbrook, it was clear the Thunder weren’t going to win as presently constituted, and it was time to start over. And so last week, they traded George to the Clippers, and on Thursday night, they traded Westbrook to the Rockets. With Westbrook gone, the first epoch of Oklahoma City basketball is over.

The next one will be defined by the draft. I suppose it’s possible the Thunder could manage an 11th straight winning season in 2020—they have Chris Paul as well as Danilo Gallinari and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who helped the Clippers into the postseason. But Paul, who is 34 years old and just posted career-low scoring and shooting numbers, is not the future of the franchise. (In fact, the Thunder might trade him.) The future is in the tank.

In the George and Westbrook trades, the Thunder got seven first-round picks, plus four potential swaps. They added an eighth by trading Jerami Grant to the Nuggets. That brings their total of picks in the next seven drafts to 13. They’ll want to be bad to maximize the value of their own picks, but also to keep a pair of conditional picks included in past trades: If they have one of the top 20 picks in next year’s draft, they’ll keep a pick promised to the 76ers in a 2016 trade that brought them Grant, bringing their total to 14. If they have one of the top 14 picks in 2022, they’ll keep a pick promised to the Hawks in last year’s trade that got OKC out from under the onerous Carmelo Anthony contract, bringing their total to 15. So, it’s time to suck.

The Thunder are the beneficiaries of the NBA’s rapidly shifting norms: This is a league in which every team with a chance at a championship has realized it must go all in—and going all in often means giving up multiple first-round picks in exchange for any All-NBA players that are on the trading block. In addition to the trades that let the Clippers pair George with Kawhi Leonard and let the Rockets pair Harden with Westbrook, the Lakers gave three first-rounders to the Pelicans in the trade that allowed them to pair LeBron James with Anthony Davis, and the Warriors gave up two first-rounders to clear cap space to put D’Angelo Russell in a backcourt with Steph Curry. (The Mavs also gave up two first-round picks to pair Kristaps Porzingis with Luka Doncic; I’m not sure whether this qualifies.) After the Nets foolishly gave up three picks in a franchise-wrecking 2013 trade for the withered husks of Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, I thought it would be decades until we saw teams willing to make the same gamble. But it’s six years later, and the Nets are fine now, because they just signed Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant.

The teams shedding picks are making a reasonable wager: They’re betting the picks won’t be particularly good, that even getting a decent shot at winning a championship makes the risk worth it, and that picks in 2026 might as well be funny money. That’s seven years from now! Do you wanna know how long seven years is? Seven years ago, the Thunder were coming off an NBA Finals appearance and traded James Harden to the Rockets for Kevin Martin and draft picks that became Steven Adams and Mitch McGary. That’s how long seven years is in the NBA. Whoever the Thunder take with the 2020 draft picks they just traded for might not even be in the league by the time the team makes its 2026 picks.

If you’re a general manager of a team that could win the championship next season and the cost is giving up a draft pick in seven years that could turn into a quality rotation player three years after that, of course you take it. By then, you’ll have been fired (or will have quit to spend more time with your kids before they graduate from high school) and the oceans will have overtaken large swaths of our coastal states. (The Heat really should be going all in.) Who cares about picks in 2026?

Apparently, the answer is “the Thunder,” who are zigging while the rest of the league zags. There’s no guarantee that any individual draft pick will become good, but when you have a whole bunch of them, there’s a pretty good chance some of those lotto tickets will hit. The Thunder can tank to improve those chances, and if they’re lucky, the rest of the league will break to their benefit, too. Maybe Kawhi Leonard and Paul George leave the Clippers sooner rather than later, and maybe the Harden-Westbrook pairing flops, and the Los Angeles and Houston picks all end up toward the top of the draft. Maybe the OKC tanking expeditions are wildly successful, and give the Thunder a slew of top-5 picks.

I mean, come on. The Thunder have up to fifteen first-round picks. That’s a whole damn roster. They could plausibly build a mecha-team comprised of Bronny James and Shareef O’Neal and whatever children of NBA stars are currently in seventh grade. Oklahoma City could draft first and second in 2023 with the picks it already has.

And it still might not work. Look at the 76ers, who executed the Process to near-perfection, winding up with legitimate stars in Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, and are at best fifth in line to win the title next year, with no guarantee that they’ll be able to hold on to either player long-term.

Anything can happen in the draft. Maybe the Thunder even draft a future MVP, or two MVPs, or three MVPs. Hopefully, the second time they manage to put multiple MVPs on the same roster, they’ll win a championship instead of going from hitting the jackpot to hitting the reset button.