By Michel Kinney
The 2020-21 NBA season has been anything but ordinary for the Oklahoma City Thunder. Along with being a bottom dweller in the Western Conference standing for the first time in a decade, the organization also made the early decision that fans would not be allowed to attend any games this season.
The season got a little stranger the past few weeks after the franchise made some moves that caught the fan base off guard. In a year in which Oklahoma City entered the season with a complete turnover in its roster, General Manager Sam Presti made even more that has the look of playing for the future and not the present.
It began on March 13 when the Thunder acquired guard/forward Svi Mykhailiuk and a 2027 second-round draft pick (via Houston) from the Detroit Pistons in exchange for guard Hamidou Diallo, who at the time was the longest-serving member of the Oklahoma City team.
Five days later Oklahoma City parted ways with Trevor Ariza, who had been sitting at home all season. He was traded to the Miami Heat for Meyers Leonard and a 2027 second-round Draft selection. Presti announced that same day that Leonard would not be joining the team and he was eventually waived on March 25.
Also on March 25, Oklahoma City picked up center Tony Bradley, a 2025 second-round draft pick and a 2026 second-round draft pick from Philadelphia, guard Austin Rivers from New York and a trade exception. In exchange, the Thunder sent veteran guard George Hill to the 76ers.
Hill had appeared in only 14 games for the Thunder, registering averages of 11.8 points, 2.1 rebounds and 3.1 assists in 26.3 minutes.
Rivers was waived by the Thunder on March 29.
While all of that would have been enough for an entire season, the biggest and most confusing move took place on March 27 when Presti announced that forward Al Horford would not be suiting up for the rest of the year. Despite averaging 14.2 points, 6.7 rebounds and 3.4 assists on the season, the 34-year old Horford and the Thunder mutually made the decision to shut him down.
“When I arrived, I understood the direction of the team, we had a great individual plan in place for me, and I feel like as a result I’ve played really good basketball for the Thunder,” Horford said. “At the same time, I know what it’s like to be a young, aspiring player, and at this point in the season I understand how important playing meaningful minutes is for their careers and their development. I also understand how important it is for the organization to give them that opportunity. I’m looking forward to supporting the guys who supported me, watching them continue to play the right way and play together as we have throughout the season, while still being around the team and continuing my training.”
All of the moves Oklahoma City has made were aimed at not only letting their younger players get more playing time, but also improved their chances at getting a high lottery pick in the NBA draft. This is a tactic the franchise hasn’t had to do since they first arrived in Oklahoma.
Due to trades involving Russell Westbrook, Paul George, Chris Paul and several other players, the Thunder now owns 35 draft picks in the next seven drafts. That includes three first-round picks this year.
While Presti and other members of the Thunder brass will never say they are rebuilding, that is exactly what they are doing. The only question is whether they keep those picks and rebuild through the draft or trade the picks away for veteran players.
Regardless, most of the players on the current Thunder roster will not be in Oklahoma City in the future. But that hasn’t kept them competing and trying to show they belong in the NBA.
Two days after Horford shut it down for the year, the Thunder signed center Moses Brown to a four-year, $6.8 million contract.
Brown, a second year player out of New York, started the season on Oklahoma City’s G-League team. But he was moved up when the Thunder started sitting more veterans. It took him only 16 games of posting 8.3 points, 7.9 rebounds and 1.13 blocks in 17.5 minutes per contest for him to earn his new deal.
So, even as Oklahoma City organization has dropped any pretense about whether they are ‘tanking’ or not, the players who are taking the court still have other plans.
Michael Kinney Media
Photo from TorreyPurvey.com