Hope or cope? The dilemma of stockpiling draft picks and cap space

Published October 1, 2021, 1:30 PMMiguel Flores

Several NBA teams' concept of success is to hoard draft picks and create cap space, making their fans optimistic about the future. But does that strategy really pay off?

Editor’s note: The opinions expressed here are the writer's own and do not necessarily reflect the views of NBA.com Philippines.

The Oklahoma City Thunder have 33 picks in the next six drafts. That's almost enough picks to form three teams. This was the Thunder's way of hitting the hard reset button on their franchise in the 2019 offseason, trading away then newly-extended Paul George and face of the franchise Russell Westbrook. When the Thunder got lucky with a revitalized effort from Chris Paul in 2020, they traded him away, too, for another set of picks.

Gutting a middling team for better draft position and picks isn't new in the NBA. You can call this tanking, but teams have tanked for much shorter periods. The Thunder effectively said that they have no plans of being a good NBA team for a while. Or at least not until they find a superstar. 

Oklahoma City is a great place, by all accounts, with its cheap steak and real estate but it’s not exactly a destination for NBA free-agent stars. Only Los Angeles, New York, Brooklyn, San Francisco, and Miami can claim to be free agent destinations. The other NBA teams need to get lucky in the draft to find their franchise player.

The Thunder, and to an extent the Houston Rockets, are putting all their chips in the draft. Accruing picks is like buying more tickets in a real-life lottery. Having a top pick is nice, but you can also find potential stars or long-time, productive NBA players in the draft. OKC is hoping to do just that. Though the Thunder have a lot of first-round picks in the upcoming drafts, most of them are heavily protected.

What makes the Thunder a fascinating case is their sheer determination to keep flipping every available asset they have for picks. After sitting Al Horford for much of the second half of last season, they traded him back to the Boston Celtics for a pick and Kemba Walker, whom they later bought out. In this year's NBA Draft with projected top 10 pick Alperen Sengun falling to 16th, they traded away that pick to the Rockets for two more future picks. They’ve also been so careful with their lone player with All-Star potential in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander that they shut him down early last season.

This might be the Thunder capitalizing on small-market NBA fans being conditioned to thinking that bottoming out is the only way to a championship. They are, after all, still run by Sam Presti. Kevin Durant is a generational talent, but the Thunder under Presti deserve all the credit for drafting Westbrook ahead of his much more lauded teammate Kevin Love in 2008, then taking James Harden with the third pick in 2009 when the hype for Ricky Rubio and Tyreke Evans was astronomical.

Still, if you’re a Thunder fan or a fan of any other team choosing this route, how do you sell yourself on this approach? How long can you keep looking at the top prospects every year and hoping they end up on your team?

The “Trust the Process” Philadelphia 76ers got an MVP frontrunner in Joel Embiid and an All-Star in Ben Simmons through their years of bottoming out. And yet, that process seems like it was cut one or two years too short as the Sixers have floated around as contenders but never titlists. The Sacramento Kings have had nothing but lottery picks since 2007 and yet they’re no closer to the playoffs now than they were 15 years ago.

It’s a lot like what happened with the Knicks in 2019. Kristaps Porzingis was the first All-Star the Knicks drafted since David Lee. But after a few disagreements on a contract extension, they traded him to the Dallas Mavericks for cap space (the best piece the Knicks got from the Mavericks was Dennis Smith Jr., who's currently on a training camp deal with the Portland Trail Blazers). 

Knicks fans were fed rumor after rumor of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving potentially wanting to set up shop at Madison Square Garden to revive the franchise. The Knicks were lucky to have picked up Julius Randle with the space they created. But being promised Durant and Kyrie then getting Randle is like asking for Nutella and getting Choc-Nut in return. It's pretty good, but it’s just not the same.

We’re at a point now where teams are almost asking fans to form emotional attachments to intangible assets like picks and cap space. For all the losing and time invested in your favorite, you end up with either a lot of hope or just a handful of cope. It's going to be interesting to see how the league deals with the Thunder in the future, if it gets as bad as the Sixers in full “Trust the Process” mode. For now, it might be best not to get too attached to the full Thunder lineup.