“You can’t build a team the same way in every city,” said Thunder GM Sam Presti in a press conference before the start of the 2021-22 season.
In a small market like Oklahoma City, rebuilding a team can look different. The Thunder are in a unique situation in which they only have one real option to get back to contention.
The three main mechanisms for NBA franchises to build a roster are the draft, trades and free agency.
Free agency isn’t an option for the Thunder. Looking at their history in signing top talent, it’s non-existent.
The top players in the NBA have continuously shown a desire to play in large markets, stacking talent and building super teams.
Just look at the top free agents over the past few years and where they’ve signed. Small markets simply don’t have the luxury of signing top-tier talent.
From there, trading for players can be beneficial, but there are certainly caveats. The Thunder have shown a willingness to trade for top talent in the past. However, typically when you trade for players that make a real impact on a championship ceiling, it’s when they’re entering their thirties and the final year or two of their deal.
Take Paul George, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul for example. All were excellent players and absolutely worth trading for, but had the chance to be just a rental.
With how often players force their way into a trade, player mobility is at an all-time high. It’s rare for a player to be on the same team for more than just a handful of years in the modern NBA.
While trading for a player of this caliber is a solid option for a team looking to win now, that’s not the Thunder. They’re in it for the long game, and are looking for talent they can retain for many years.
This leaves drafting prospects as the only option for a team like the Thunder. Luckily for them, they have the most draft capital of any team in NBA history over the next five years.
A top pick isn’t ever a guarantee that you’re going to get a player that blossoms into a superstar. However, history tells us that the higher the pick, the higher the probability of landing a franchise-altering player.
Since there’s never a guarantee of drafting this type of player with a top pick, it makes sense for teams to get the most chances they possibly can.
Every team needs a little bit of luck along the way in a successful rebuild. While the draft lottery didn’t go their way last summer, it doesn’t mean it won’t going forward. Between landing a top pick in the lottery system and then drafting a player who ends up being a star, history can only tell us so much.
The more bites out of the apple, the better the odds of landing a guy who can become the face of the franchise.
Even if the Thunder don’t use every single one of these first-round picks, which they likely won’t, this gives them the ultimate flexibility. Additionally, they have a plethora of second rounders to leverage as well.
With this much draft capital, Presti has the ability to create the most enticing package for a superstar player when the time comes. It also allows the Thunder to trade up in the draft to get a player they believe is a superstar talent in the future.
Draft picks are quite literally the currency of the NBA.
Drafting players is also the most sustainable way to develop talent. When a team drafts a player, they’re able to let him grow in their system. Additionally, teams are able to control these contracts for nearly a decade, which is crucial for small market teams.
With that in mind, the Thunder need to be extremely patient throughout the rebuild. It’s not about rushing to make the playoffs again, it’s about building a sustainable team that’s consistently in the postseason.
Presti said it best at the end of last season. “The longer you want to be good, the more patience it sometimes requires,” the Thunder GM said.
On average, it takes rebuilding teams around four years to make the playoffs again. It takes roughly six years to make the playoffs in consecutive seasons. Finally, it typically takes upwards of ten years to become a championship contending team through a rebuild.
There are always going to be anomalies and events that can expedite or slow down these timelines, but patience is required either way.
“There’s only one thing to win in the NBA and it’s a championship,” said Presti at the end of last season.