The Oklahoma City Thunder have accumulated quite the collection
of draft picks, including some that were procured in last month’s
trade with the Boston Celtics. In total, the Thunder could have as
many as 39 picks (including 18 first-rounders) between now and the
2027 NBA Draft.
That. Is. Unprecedented.
In the 2021 NBA Draft, Oklahoma City has six picks: 6th, 16th,
18th, 34th, 36th and 55th. They’ve also been one of the more active
teams in trade talks leading up the draft.
While the Thunder may receive more notoriety than anyone else
for hoarding draft picks, they’re not the only franchise that's
doing it. The New Orleans Pelicans have amassed 26 picks in the
next seven drafts, and the Houston Rockets have stockpiled 19 picks
over that same span.
But there’s an uncertainty to collecting draft picks – namely,
picks don’t always pan out, even high-end lottery picks. So while
it is understandable to assume that tons of draft picks will
translate to tons of success, such is not always the case.
To illustrate this point, let’s turn our attention to the
Atlantic Division in the 2010s.
Pick collecting was a major part of Sam Hinkie and the
Philadelphia 76ers’ “Trust-the-Process” strategy. Hinkie sparked a
revolution as the 76ers’ general manager by embracing the idea of
tanking to streamline the rebuilding process, while simultaneously
shipping out talent that didn’t fit his timeline (e.g., Jrue
Holiday) in exchange for additional draft picks.
In total, Philadelphia made 24 selections between 2013 (the
first year in which Hinkie captained the 76ers’ draft process) and
2017 (the last draft before the 76ers returned to the
The jury is still out on Philadelphia’s rebuild. Hinkie resigned
from his position with the 76ers in 2016, but his philosophy did
result in the team drafting two cornerstone pieces in Joel Embiid
and Ben Simmons. Also, Hinkie successfully identified quite a few
diamonds-in-the-rough who were second-rounders or undrafted free
agents such as Jerami Grant (39th), Richaun Holmes (37th),
Christian Wood (undrafted), Robert Covington (undrafted) and T.J.
McConnell (undrafted). But while the 76ers have had some success in
recent years, reaching the Eastern Conference Semifinals in three
of the previous four seasons, they have failed to accomplish
anything truly meaningful, yet.
Next up, the Boston Celtics.
After winning the 2008 NBA Finals and remaining competitive in
the Eastern Conference for a few seasons, the Celtics and executive
director of basketball operations Danny Ainge pivoted into a
rebuild, trading Kevin Garnett, Paul Piece, and Jason Terry to the
Brooklyn Nets for three future first-round picks, the right to swap
first-round picks in 2017, and a hodgepodge of players. And while
the haul from Brooklyn was clearly the centerpiece of Boston’s
draft capital, the Celtics continued accumulating picks from
various teams. They acquired selections from the Sacramento Kings
(14th) and Los Angeles Clippers (20th) in 2019, and they added the
14th pick from the Memphis Grizzlies in 2020.
All told, Boston made 27 selections over the course of seven
drafts up-to-and-including 2020. Their rebuild involved more than
just draft picks, though, including a trade for Isaiah Thomas in
2015, a trade with Philadelphia in 2017 that netted them Jayson
Tatum, and a trade for Kyrie Irving in 2019 in which they sent out
a draft pick along with other assets.
But Boston’s rebuild didn’t result in a championship either.
While Ainge stockpiled draft picks like a squirrel hoarding away
acorns, he should have been more aggressive in his pursuit of
available superstars. Despite an abundance of picks to entice trade
balked at opportunities to trade for Kawhi Leonard, Paul
George, and Jimmy Butler in hopes of adding an even bigger star
(e.g., Anthony Davis), which never happened. Instead, Boston used
many of their picks, so they now have 10 players who are age-24 or
younger. That young core is led by two All-Stars: the 23-year-old
Tatum and 24-year-old Jaylen Brown.
To be fair, the Ainge-led Celtics were one game away from the
2018 NBA Finals and an Irving injury upset their chances at any
meaningful success the following season. But Irving and Gordon
Hayward both signed elsewhere as free agents in the seasons since,
and Ainge left the organization this offseason.
The Thunder, Pelicans, and Rockets should review both of the
aforementioned attempts at winning via draft-pick hoarding. If they
pay close attention, there are lessons to be learned.
First, a lesson from the city of brotherly love: work smarter,
not harder. The 76ers’ biggest misstep was giving away too much in
exchange for the first-overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft. They
gave up Sacramento’s unprotected 2019 first-rounder (which became
the No. 14 pick), but the pick swaps were what caused the most
In hindsight, wouldn’t Tatum have the best available addition
out of everyone in the entire draft
class to place alongside Embiid and Simmons? Instead 76ers
executive Bryan Colangelo overthought a situation, giving up extra
draft capital to pick point guard Markelle Fultz (who still hasn’t
reached his full potential), when there was already an
All-Star-caliber point guard on the roster (Simmons).
The other key takeaway comes from Beantown, and it’s even more
important than the first one: when a superstar in the prime of his
career is available and you can land him, you go get him. According
Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated, Boston had the best offer
for Leonard and regretted not pulling the trigger. The same is
probably true of their inaction regarding Butler and George, any of
whom would have made an already uber-talented lineup all-the-more
Ultimately, the situations in Oklahoma City, New Orleans, and
Houston will play out differently than those in Philadelphia and
Boston, but different doesn’t necessarily mean better. It goes
without saying that NBA front offices are smarter than ever and
constantly adapting, but miscalculations (like chasing Fultz over
Tatum) are inevitable.
The major benefit of stockpiling so many picks is that
you have flexibility and you can weather one or more mistakes.
Ideally, the sheer number of picks owned by Oklahoma City, New
Orleans, and Houston will outweigh any errors in judgement.
Otherwise, one those teams may be rebuilding for even longer than