For a few years, the Oklahoma City Thunder were a consistent title contender. After selecting Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden in successive drafts from 2007-09, they had the core of a vaunted squad that made four trips Western Conference finals and went to the NBA Finals in 2012.
One of the main architects of those squads was then-assistant general manager Troy Weaver, whom the Pistons introduced as their general manager on Monday.
Weaver is widely lauded for his ability to identify talent and as he joins the Pistons — who have significant space under the salary cap, a likely top-five draft pick and plenty of young talent to cultivate — the timing is right to turn things around.
“We talked about what we needed and we all felt like we needed to get that final piece, somebody who understands who’s out there on the ground — every single player, every single possibility,” Pistons team owner Tom Gores said. “With a draft coming up, we really felt now we’ve worked ourselves into a place of opportunity and we needed to have the best (executive) team in place. Fortunately, we got Troy.”
In Weaver’s 12 years with the Thunder, they made the playoffs 10 times, including 11 seasons with winning records. Beyond just assembling the initial core, Weaver also helped in a couple of big roster moves to help keep them in contention throughout the decade.
Even this season, after they traded Westbrook — the last of those drafted stars — to the Houston Rockets for Chris Paul and a flotilla of draft picks, the Thunder are in fifth place in the West for the stretch run when the season resumes next month.
In 2017, they made a risky trade of All-Stars Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis to the Indiana Pacers for superstar Paul George. When that didn’t work out, the Thunder were able to flip George for Danilo Gallinari, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and even more picks last year.
The Thunder weren’t afraid to go out and get big names — and when those efforts didn’t work to their satisfaction, the Thunder quickly went in a different direction. What’s key about the trades of those star players is that Oklahoma City got nice trade packages in return, replete with first-round picks and young, high-upside players.
“In Oklahoma City, we retooled the team a few times, just having flexibility in turning great players into more players and more picks,” Weaver said Monday. “Being able to move on the fly, we had a tremendous front office there led by Sam (Presti) and a lot of good people there, so we were in a mode that we have to be extremely flexible and open-minded because (rebuilding) is different now.”
Considering where the Pistons are, it’s a cleaner canvas for Weaver to start making moves. He’ll be able to assess the roster this offseason, but more than half of the players could be free agents and the Pistons could have about $30 million in cap space.
Blake Griffin’s contract — $75 million for the next two seasons — is the only one that poses a long-term issue with a rebuild. With Weaver’s track record of trading star players, that could be one of the first big decisions he gauges, keeping his best player or seeking to regain the financial flexibility to do other deals.
As Weaver noted Monday, Griffin and Derrick Rose are two intriguing pieces of the roster. How he handles the contracts and whether he keeps them on the roster beyond through next season will give a glimpse into how big a rebuild the Pistons are planning.
Young players such as Luke Kennard, Bruce Brown, Sekou Doumbouya and Svi Mykhailiuk are on rookie contracts and their value can be gauged over the next year or two, giving Weaver enough time to make necessary changes.
“Traditional rebuilds are pretty much a thing of the past, so it's a two- or three-year rebuild and see what you have — then two or three years again,” Weaver said. “But my philosophy is a one-year rebuild every year. Try to be competitive. Go to the drawing board without mortgaging the future and try to put the best team on the floor.
“So, just the flexibility in OKC that we were able to move pieces around and cash players in led us to being able to sustain successfully.”