No NBA team had a busier offseason than the Oklahoma City Thunder. After being eliminated from the 2020 playoffs by the rival Houston Rockets, the Thunder parted ways with longtime head coach Billy Donovan, with the two sides mutually agreeing not to pursue a new contract. A little more than two months later, the Thunder promoted 35-year-old assistant coach Mark Daigneault, who had been the franchise’s G League coach for five seasons before joining Donovan on the bench last year.
Of course, the Thunder’s wheeling and dealing had yet to even begin when they hired Daigneault, but within days, general manager Sam Presti agreed to a sweeping series of deals meant to jump-start his team’s rebuild.
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First, Presti sent reserve guard Dennis Schröder (himself acquired in a deal meant to salary-dump Carmelo Anthony back in 2018) to the Los Angeles Lakers in exchange for sharpshooter Danny Green and the No. 28 overall pick in the 2020 NBA Draft.1 The next day, the Thunder shipped Chris Paul and Abdel Nader to the Phoenix Suns, receiving Ricky Rubio, Kelly Oubre Jr., Ty Jerome, Jalen Lecque and a (protected) 2022 first-round pick in return.
The Paul trade came together two days before the draft, but Presti was just getting started. The day of the draft, the Thunder made two more trades: They spun Rubio, along with the Nos. 25 and 28 picks in the draft, to the Minnesota Timberwolves, receiving the No. 17 overall pick (used on Aleksej Pokuševski) and James Johnson in return.2 (And remember, the No. 28 pick had just been acquired in the Schröder deal.) Plus, they flipped Green and Terrance Ferguson over to Philadelphia, receiving Al Horford, the No. 34 overall pick (used on Theo Maledon), a lightly protected 2025 first-round pick and the draft rights to Serbian guard Vasilije Micić from the 76ers. During the draft, they sent the rights to the No. 53 overall pick (Cassius Winston) and a 2024 second-rounder to the Washington Wizards in exchange for Admiral Schofield and the rights to No. 37 overall pick Vit Krejčí.
Got all that? Good, because we’re not done.
The day after the draft, the Thunder sent Oubre to the Golden State Warriors, receiving a top-20 protected first-round pick for their troubles. They also acquired Vincent Poirier and cash considerations from the Celtics in exchange for a conditional future second-round pick.3
Two days later, they butted their way into the ever-expanding Jrue Holiday-to-Milwaukee trade, shipping Steven Adams to the New Orleans Pelicans and receiving (deep breath) George Hill, Darius Miller, a 2023 first-round pick from the Nuggets and second-round picks in 2023 (via Charlotte) and 2024 (via Washington), plus Zylan Cheatham, Josh Gray and Kenrich Williams, who were included to make the money work. The same day, Presti and company flipped Johnson (previously acquired in the Rubio-to-Minnesota trade) over to Dallas as part of the same trade that sent Delon Wright to the Pistons, and OKC received Trevor Ariza from Detroit, Justin Jackson from Dallas and draft compensation to be named later.4
Still with me? OK, good. There’s more.
The day after the Adams and Johnson trades, the Thunder finalized a deal to send Lecque (previously acquired in the Paul trade, remember) over to the Pacers in exchange for former first-round pick T.J. Leaf and a future second. A couple of days after that, they agreed to sign-and-trade Danilo Gallinari to the Hawks, receiving a 2025 second-round pick (and a rather large trade exception — more on that in a minute) in return.
In case you haven’t been counting, that means the Thunder made not one, not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven … but ELEVEN (11!) trades so far this offseason. If you’re thinking to yourself that 11 sounds like a whole lot of trades for one offseason, you’d be right. Since 1985 (the advent of the NBA draft lottery), no NBA team has ever made more trades in one offseason than the Thunder have so far in 2020. Only 20 times during that span did a team make at least seven offseason swaps. The next-closest teams to this year’s Thunder were the 1999 Magic and 2014 Sixers, each of whom agreed to nine trades in one offseason.
All in all, a total of 24 players either passed through or landed in OKC as part of these 11 trades, while the Thunder received six first-round picks (some of which are protected) and seven seconds, while sending out two firsts (one of which was acquired in a previous deal) and three seconds of their own. They also received the draft rights to one European prospect and some cash from the Celtics. And those totals don’t even include players who were part of their larger deals but never actually touched the Thunder, like Delon Wright, Jrue Holiday and Eric Bledsoe.
An underrated aspect of all this moving and shaking is that several of these deals netted the Thunder sizable trade exceptions, which can be used to bring in any player or combination of players who are making less money than the amount of the exception that is open.
In the Gallinari sign-and-trade, for example, the Thunder sent out $19.5 million more in 2020-21 salary than they received (because Gallinari was traded into Atlanta’s cap space), and so they now have a trade exception worth $19.5 million that will remain open either for a year after it was created or until OKC is under the cap by more than the value of their exceptions, whichever comes first. OKC opened up an even larger exception in the Adams deal. In fact, for a few days, the $27.5 million trade exception they got as a result of that swap was the largest in NBA history, according to ESPN front-office guru Bobby Marks.5
|Year||Team||Traded player||Used for||Exception|
|2019||Grizzlies||Mike Conley||Andre Iguodala||25.1|
|2019||Mavericks||Harrison Barnes||Delon Wright, Willie Cauley-Stein||21.3|
|2012||Magic||Dwight Howard||Never used||17.8|
|2019||Warriors||Andre Iguodala||Kelly Oubre Jr.||17.2|
|2011||Nuggets||Carmelo Anthony||Andre Miller, Corey Brewer, Rudy Fernández||17.2|
|2010||Suns||Amar’e Stoudemire||Hakim Warrick, Josh Childress||16.5|
|2016||Pacers||Roy Hibbert||Never used||15.5|
|2017||Bulls||Jimmy Butler||Quincy Pondexter, Ömer Aşik||15.3|
|2017||Nuggets||Danilo Gallinari||Never used||15.0|
The two deals give the Thunder two of the five largest trade exceptions on record, according to Marks. Combined, the Thunder can use those exceptions to acquire players who make up to $47 million. They cannot, though, acquire any one player who makes more than $27.5 million. Exceptions can be split up to sign multiple players, but they can’t be combined, either with other exceptions or with a player’s salary, to acquire players whose salary exceeds the value of any one exception.
So the Thunder can’t, for example, use the two exceptions to trade for LeBron James, who is set to make around $39.2 million this season. But they could, hypothetically, deal for both Jrue Holiday and Brook Lopez, each of whom would fit into one of the two exceptions. More realistically, those exceptions give Presti the opportunity to use cap space his team doesn’t actually have at the moment as a dumping ground for other teams’ unwanted contracts, with the Thunder likely receiving payment in the form of draft picks in exchange for taking on the salary.6
There is a method to the seeming madness of Presti acquiring oh-so-many draft picks, which he began doing last offseason when he made two trades that reaped a bounty of picks: He traded All-Star Paul George to the Los Angeles Clippers for Gallinari, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, four unprotected first-round picks, one protected first-round pick and two pick swaps, and he sent franchise icon Russell Westbrook to the Rockets for Chris Paul, two top-four protected firsts and two more pick swaps. The Thunder know better than almost any team in the league how to build a top-tier contender through the draft. Presti was hired in June 2007, and his first four first-round picks were Kevin Durant, Westbrook, Serge Ibaka and James Harden. That group quickly congealed into the core of a contender, and the team remained firmly in the mix even after Presti shipped Harden off to Houston. They were still among the league’s best teams right up until Durant left for Golden State in the summer of 2016.
But success isn’t likely to come quite as easily for OKC this time around. It’s not often that a team lands a top-four draft pick in three consecutive seasons, as the Thunder did in their infancy. It’s even rarer that a team ends up selecting three future MVPs with those picks, as the Thunder did (starting back when they were still the Seattle SuperSonics) in 2007 (Durant), 2008 (Westbrook) and 2009 (Harden).
The draft is typically more of a crapshoot, which means amassing a large number of picks is key to acquiring top-tier talent. That wealth of picks allows OKC to do things like take a shot on Pokuševski, a not-even-19-years-old-yet string bean who seems to play like a hybrid of Kristaps Porziņģis and Trae Young. If “Poku” works out, the Thunder have themselves a foundational star. If not, well, they still have a cupboard full of draft picks they can use to take a few more home-run swings.
It also seems highly likely that Presti is not done dealing yet. Whether it’s before the season begins on Dec. 22 or sometime before the rumored March 25 trade deadline, Presti should be able to find new homes for players like Horford, Hill and Ariza — each of whom would make more sense on a contending team than a rebuilding squad like the Thunder. And if his history is any indication, Presti will likely receive more in return for those players than he gave up to acquire them.
Neil Paine and Dhrumil Mehta contributed research.