How the Thunder weaponized their pick surplus to win the James Harden trade

The Oklahoma City Thunder have accumulated a lot of draft picks over the past four seasons. An unprecedented amount of them, in fact, as we covered earlier this month. Prior to Wednesday’s James Harden trade, they were set to have between nine and 15 first-round picks and between 21 and 27 second-round picks in the next seven drafts. As valuable as that mound of picks looks on paper, it comes with one significant drawback: roster limitations.

NBA rosters can hold only 15 full-time players. Rotations are far thinner, usually extending no further than 10th men and frequently winding up even smaller than that. First-round picks have no value if you have no minutes with which to develop those youngsters or roster spots to keep them. So once Sam Presti built his surplus, he set about using it to target quality over quantity.

The most notable example of this came during the 2022 NBA Draft. Neutral observers were shocked when gave away three first-round picks to nab the No. 11 overall pick, Ousmane Dieng. To the Knicks, three on-paper first-round picks held significant value as trade assets. But take a closer look at the picks Oklahoma City actually sent out: a top-14 protected Nuggets pick, a deeply protected Wizards pick that may never actually convey, and a deeply protected Pistons pick that is probably at least a few more years away from conveying.

Such picks hold value to normal teams. To the Thunder, they represent prospects that they can’t fit onto their roster or find minutes to develop. But Dieng? He represented a true home run swing, a chance at a future star. They had access to that player because, unlike most teams on the trade market, they have so many picks that they can afford to spare a few of the lesser ones. So they pounced on a player that they consider a premium asset.

This brings us to the Harden deal. Presti has a history of dealing with both of these teams. His 2019 trade of Paul George to the Clippers started this whole enterprise in the first place, and his 2020 swap of Danny Green for Al Horford wound up netting the Thunder three first-round picks in total once they successfully flipped Horford to Boston down the line. So when the Clippers and 76ers needed a facilitator, they found a natural fit in Presti’s Thunder.

The Clippers needed a firm first-round pick to send to Philadelphia to complete the deal. The pick itself didn’t have to be especially valuable, as Philadelphia would already be getting an unprotected 2028 Clippers pick in the deal, but it needed to be guaranteed to convey. The 76ers are looking to flip these assets in another trade down the line, so some degree of certainty was necessary. The Thunder have limitless certainty to offer. What they want is upside. So a bargain was struck.

Philadelphia will receive a 2026 first-round pick from one of three teams: the Rockets, Clippers or Thunder. The actual pick the 76ers receive will come down to which pick winds up being the least favorable. The Thunder will keep the two highest picks in the trio while the 76ers get the lowest. Oklahoma City retains its upside, whereas Philadelphia gets the certainty of a 2026 first-round pick even if that pick is almost certain to be fairly late in the first round.

But the Thunder get the real prize here: the right to swap first-round picks with the Clippers in 2027. By then, Kawhi Leonard will be 36, George will be 37 and Harden will be 38. Thanks to the earlier George trade and this one for Harden, the Clippers will have almost no remaining draft capital with which to reload. Cap space is probably off of the table as well if you assume that Harden, Leonard and George will all get big-money extensions this offseason. In other words: the Clippers are likely to be very old and well beyond their contention window in 2027.

But the Thunder? In 2027, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander will be the oldest of their current core players at 29. They’ll be right smack in the middle of their contending window. As such, the pick they’ll have the right to swap will likely be fairly late. The pick they’re getting? That one has a chance to be very, very high.

Very few NBA teams are willing to give away the certainty of a first-round pick for the mystery of a swap four years down the line. The Thunder have so many picks that they can afford to take such chances. It might not pay off, but imagine how terrifying it will be for the league if a Thunder team at the absolute peak of its powers in 2027 is able to add another top draft pick.

That is the flexibility Presti has given himself by accumulating all of these picks. Many of them will amount to little, but when weaponized properly, they can be used to do effectively anything. They can get him players. They can get him cap relief. And now, as we’re seeing, they can even get him better picks down the line as well.

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