The Thunder entered the offseason with a chunk of cap space, but didn’t use it to acquire an impact starter. The reason is because they made other trades you probably don’t realize: trading last season for this season.
The Oklahoma City Thunder entered the offseason with over $30 million in cap space. In the eyes of some, it was a prime opportunity to make a significant alteration or two to the roster.
The team did in fact make changes, both visible and not so visible.
The Thunder spent their cap room, but not to acquire another impact starter. OKC acquired forward Davis Bertans from the Dallas Mavericks in a draft-night deal that allowed them to move up and draft Kentucky guard Cason Wallace. Bertans appeared in only 45 games for Dallas last season and the Mavericks needed to move his $17 million salary in order to make needed changes.
The Thunder then re-acquired guard Victor Oladipo from Miami in a similar salary relieving move, receiving two future second-round picks as payment. Oladipo suffered a torn patellar tendon in his left knee in Miami’s second playoff game and fell out of the Heat’s plans. Oladipo was traded again earlier this week in another book tidying deal with the Rockets that added more future second-round picks to OKC’s coffers.
OKC was part of a five-team trade that landed Dillon Brooks in Houston and briefly put guard Patty Mills on the Thunder roster. The deal landed two more future second-round picks in the Thunder stash. Four days later, Mills was traded to Atlanta in exchange for three players that would all be waived within a few weeks (Rudy Gay, Usman Garuba, and TyTy Washington). The real bounty was acquiring more future second-round picks from Atlanta in the swap.
On the free agency front, the Thunder’s lone signing was former Nuggets forward Jack White, guaranteed only $600,000 and a chance to fight for a roster spot. OKC’s other summer roster additions were Wallace, 2023 second-round pick Keyontae Johnson on a two-way contract, and former second-round pick Vasilije Micic.
The Thunder chose to remain in asset collection mode rather than shake up its core. OKC kept its future books clean while picking up several future second-round picks, which have become trendy in trades lately. NBA teams traded a total of 44 second-round picks at the trade deadline.
So why didn’t OKC make more splashier acquisitions? Because the Thunder actually made some trades that won’t show up in a transaction list.
In three potentially significant moves, the Thunder traded last season’s versions of Josh Giddey, Jalen Williams, and Ousmane Dieng for next season’s versions.
Some teams have to lean heavily on trades and free agent signings to improve their squad. The Thunder are no stranger in that regard having made blockbuster trades and making calculated free agent signings in prior summers.
But what the Thunder have been building doesn’t need outside help. Not yet, anyway. Factor in SGA, the return of Chet Holmgren, and other key rotation players and you’ll find the team has plenty in terms of talent.
Any major offseason acquisition would have taken minutes and possessions away from the Thunder U 2023 class. If this were Fantasy Basketball it’d make sense to pursue a player like Jerami Grant, Kyle Kuzma, Brook Lopez, or Khris Middleton. But in reality, any of those moves were unlikely to elevate OKC into the top tier in the West. They would also run the risk of stagnating the growth of OKC’s twenty somethings.
On the flip side, a case can be made that the core would benefit from having more established veterans. Rather than spend on big brand names, perhaps the Thunder could have fortified the bench instead. A lot of that need was addressed by finally luring Micic from his European comforts.
As long as Bertans remains on the roster, there’s an occasional Mike Muscala-like role for him. And the Thunder still need to see what their other recent draft picks can offer. Significant investments were made to acquire each of them, and the Thunder historically prefer to see the process through.
The beauty of the Thunder’s situation is that they can pivot at a moment’s notice because OKC is stuffed to the gills with a variety of trade assets. In the meantime, remaining patient has its benefits as well. It’s not as fun to talk about like actual transactions that send folks scrambling to record emergency podcasts.
But real internal growth is a kind of trade as well. Just don’t look for it on the transactions page of NBA.com.