The Whiteboard: Projecting the value of all the Thunder’s first-round picks

Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images
Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images /

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The Oklahoma City Thunder and the New Orleans Pelicans have become the NBA‘s United States and Soviet Union, only in this Cold War, they’re stockpiling future first-round picks instead of nuclear missiles.

There’s no question about who the current frontrunner of this arms race is, however, and that’s Sam Presti and the Thunder.

Just sneaking a peak at the list of incoming first-rounders they’ve amassed between now and 2026 requires less of a glance and more of a five-minute read to digest it all. After scoring two more firsts in the Dennis Schroder and Chris Paul trades this week, now is as good a time as any to comb through all of OKC’s future first-rounders in an attempt to project what kind of value they might have.

Obviously, the further down the road we go, the more difficult it becomes to predict the value of these picks, especially when some of them are protected. But as Thunder fans prepare for their team to take a step back in 2020-21 and build around Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, we might as well construct a rough outline of what their timeline looks like and how it might be boosted by this barrage of incoming draft capital.

2020: No. 25 (via Denver Nuggets) and No. 28 (via Los Angeles Lakers)

The Thunder’s original pick for this season, which would’ve come in at No. 21, was sent to the Philadelphia 76ers back in 2016 as part of the Ersan Ilyasova-Jerami Grant trade. Fortunately, Presti snagged not one, but two picks in the same area of this draft, adding the 25th overall selection in another Jerami Grant trade (this time with the Nuggets) and No. 28 from the Lakers in the recent Dennis Schroder trade.

These picks might not have a ton of value in a weaker draft class, and there aren’t many teams in the vicinity that Presti could target by packaging the picks to trade up a few spots. Still, considering that SGA, Luguentz Dort and Darius Bazley are the only three players that are locks to be part of this team’s long-term core right now, getting two cracks at young, cost-efficient talent is never a bad thing.

2021: Two most favorable picks between OKC, MIA and HOU picks

Thanks to the Chris Paul-Russell Westbrook trade last year, the Thunder will receive the two most favorable picks between their own, the Miami Heat’s and the Houston Rockets’ selections in 2021. The Rockets pick is top-4 protected, which means if it lands in that 1-4 range, it does not convey. In the event that happens, Houston’s obligation to OKC in 2021 is extinguished.

So what’s the most likely scenario to unfold?

Coming off a trip to the NBA Finals, and with only Goran Dragic and Jae Crowder being notable free agents from their core, the Heat are almost guaranteed to be a playoff team again in the Eastern Conference. The 4- or 5-seed should be their floor, which means the highest this pick would climb is No. 20 or so.

After shipping out CP3 and Schroder, and with Danilo Gallinari not expected to return in free agency, the Thunder are going to take a major step back in the win column this season and will likely return to the lottery next summer.

As for the Rockets, they could be joining OKC in jumping out of the Western Conference playoff picture depending on what happens over the next few weeks. Russell Westbrook and James Harden both want out, and it feels like an implosion is inevitable. If the Rockets pull the pin on that grenade and commit to the rebuild that’s eventually coming no matter what, trades for Harden and Russ would dump Houston back to the lottery.

Worst-case scenario for OKC, the Rockets are unable to work out trades for their superstars, run it back and finish near the middle of the West again, resulting in a pick in that 20-26 range. The Thunder are a lottery team, but not bad enough to climb into the top-5, while the Heat also finish in that 20-26 range. The Thunder then use their own pick and the more favorable pick between Houston and Miami, somewhere in the early 20s.

Best-case scenario, the Thunder land a top-5 pick in a tank year while the Rockets blow it up and are forced to hand over a top-10 pick that doesn’t quite sneak into the top-4 selections where it’d be protected. That could result in two top-10 selections in a draft class that’s supposed to be loaded.

2022: Own first, LAC first, PHX first

With Steven Adams likely to be traded soon or leave in 2021 free agency, the Thunder should have fully committed to their full-scale rebuild by 2022. That means we’re looking at another lottery appearance, probably somewhere in the top-10 or even top-5.

However, if the Thunder are somehow overachievers and make the 2022 playoffs, their own lottery-protected pick would be sent to the Atlanta Hawks (via the Dennis Schroder trade back in 2018). If all goes according to plan, OKC is in the lottery and keeps its selection. If this pick does not convey to Atlanta in 2022, the Hawks will receive OKC’s second-rounders in 2024 and 2025 instead.

Thanks to the Paul George trade, OKC will also receive the LA Clippers’ unprotected first-rounder. There’s a good chance this pick will land somewhere in the 24-30 range if the Clippers keep their star duo intact and remain contenders, but that’s not guaranteed; PG-13 and Kawhi Leonard can both become free agents in 2021 if they opt-out, and Lou Williams is a free agent in 2021 as well.

The deciding factor there is how the Clippers perform in 2020-21 under head coach Tyronn Lue. If they contend for or actually win a championship, it’s unlikely Kawhi or PG leaves Los Angeles. If it all implodes with another second-round defeat, and those stars leave in 2021 free agency, then maybe the Thunder are looking at a much more valuable pick in 2022.

Most likely though, this will be a pick in the late 20s.

As for the Suns’ first-rounder, the pick is top-12 protected in 2022, top-10 protected in 2023, top-8 protected in 2024 and unprotected in 2025. After adding Chris Paul to a core that includes ascending youngsters like Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges, it’s fair to assume Phoenix will have made its leap to playoff contention by the end of 2020-21. That means this pick would most likely convey right away in 2022, somewhere in the late teens or early 20s.

2023: Own first, MIA first, LAC pick swap

By 2023, the Heat may look drastically different. Jimmy Butler will be approaching his 34th birthday by then, and he could opt out and hit free agency in 2022 (he’s got a $37.7 million player option for the 2022-23 campaign).

However, knowing Pat Riley, Erik Spoelstra, Heat Culture and the lure of South Beach, Miami will still probably be a playoff team or an outright contender no matter what happens with Butler. Bam Adebayo and Tyler Herro are only going to get better even as Butler drops off, and that’s without including the possibility of landing Giannis Antetokounmpo or another star in free agency before this point.

That would mean the Heat’s lottery-protected 2023 pick conveys to OKC, and if it somehow did not in a down year where the Heat missed the playoffs, it’s still only lottery-protected for 2024 and 2025 before becoming unprotected in 2026. More than likely though, we’re looking at a first-rounder conveying to OKC in 2023, somewhere in the 15-30 range.

After taking two top-10 rookies in the last two drafts, the Thunder are still a lottery team, but are more likely to be selecting from the back half of the lottery — and that’s assuming Presti has remained patient with his blossoming youth movement, rather than turning some of these extra picks into established talent, veterans or even a blockbuster trade for a star.

In any case, even if the Thunder’s pick isn’t all that valuable, they’ll also have the option to swap picks with the Clippers — a nonstarter if Kawhi and PG have re-signed and are still in town, but a potential upgrade if one or both of them have decided to flee for greener pastures. The most likely scenario is OKC uses its own pick in the lottery, but this is a nice contingency plan to have.

2024: Own first, LAC first, HOU first

By 2024, the Thunder should be at the very end of the lottery or somewhere in the teens as their group of youngsters makes its first foray into the playoffs.

Meanwhile, OKC will be getting the Clippers’ unprotected first-rounder. If Kawhi and PG are still contending for titles in LA, the Thunder won’t have to wait too much longer for the value of these Clippers picks to improve, since Leonard would be 33 and George would be 34 by then. If those stars have already skipped town, the Clips could be in a transition phase or a full-on rebuild, which would make this unprotected selection a gem.

Finally, the Rockets owe their protected first-rounder in 2024 if it falls in the 5-30 range. If it lands in the top-4, they keep it and OKC gets Houston’s second-round picks in 2024 and 2025 instead. It’s impossible to know what the Rockets will look like by then, but with Harden and Russ probably long gone and Houston currently lacking draft assets, we can confidently say it’s likely to fall in the lottery (or at worst the high-teens if Houston is lucky enough to put a playoff team back on the court by then). The only way this backfires is if Houston is so terrible it snags a top-4 selection.

2025: HOU or LAC pick swap

In 2025, the Thunder have the right to swap their own pick with either Houston’s pick (top-10 protected) or LA’s unprotected pick. OKC should be a certified playoff team after such an influx of draft talent over the last five years, putting their pick somewhere in the 15-30 range. But if the Rockets and Clippers are still in a rebuilding stage, either one of those selections may hold more value.

More than likely, it’ll be LA’s pick since it’s unprotected. If Houston is still miserable, that top-10 protection will kick in and evaporate the Rockets’ 2025 obligation to Oklahoma City. There’s a chance they’re still in the lottery and hit that sweet spot in the 11-14 range, but by this point, the Thunder shouldn’t be relying on more high-end lottery selections anyway.

2026: Own first, LAC first, HOU first

The benefits just keep on coming! One year after having the right to swap picks with either Houston or LAC, the Thunder get an unprotected first-rounder from the Clippers and a top-4 protected pick from the Rockets outright.

Harden and Westbrook’s departures will have been in the rearview mirror for years by this point, so if they’re still selecting from the top-4 spots, something will have gone very wrong. Even in the worst-case scenario where all three picks convey but they’re all playoff teams again, that’s still three picks Presti can package to move up in the pecking order or use in separate deals to address the roster needs of an established playoff squad.

If the Rockets’ protected pick does not convey, it converts into Houston’s 2026 second-rounder instead.

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