For smaller-market teams in the NBA, it’s generally not as easy to build a strong franchise that can be a consistent contender for the better part of a decade. There’s a premium on building through the draft to create a core and augmenting the roster through trades and in free agency to fill the gaps.
During his 12 years in Oklahoma City handling player personnel decisions, Troy Weaver helped to shape the Thunder’s rise from a 23-win squad in 2008-09, which was Kevin Durant’s second year in the league. From there, they hit the jackpot in the draft and grew into a major player in the Western Conference, with four trips to the conference finals and one to the NBA Finals.
The NBA season is scheduled to resume at the end of July and the Thunder are positioned to be one of the top five teams in the West when the playoffs begin.
Weaver, who left the Thunder in June to become the Pistons’ general manager, has an overall good record in his dealings in the draft, free agency and trades. Of course, there were some missteps, but there’s no doubting the overall success he had in assisting Thunder general manager Sam Presti in making the franchise relevant for more than a decade through thoughtful trades and discerning drafting.
Here’s a breakdown of five moves that worked for the Thunder during Weaver’s tenure and five that didn’t:
On the mark
1. Drafting Russell Westbrook: In 2008, Weaver notably advocated for Westbrook as a top prospect and they selected him fourth overall in the draft. The issue was that Westbrook, after two seasons at UCLA, was projected to be a mid-first-round pick, at best. Weaver got this one right, obviously, as Westbrook blossomed into one of the most explosive players in the league. He won the MVP in 2017, has been selected All-NBA eight times, and has led the league in scoring and in assists twice.
Westbrook evolved into a triple-double machine and teamed with Durant to become their engine for the past few runs to the conference finals. Last summer, when the time came to trade Westbrook, as they were moving in a different direction, the Thunder got a pair of first-round picks and two pick swaps, in addition to Chris Paul, from the Houston Rockets.
2. Drafting Serge Ibaka: With their other first-round pick in 2008, they grabbed Ibaka with the 24th selection. Ibaka played in Europe for a year but was a productive big man for the Thunder for seven seasons, including his final five years, when he started 369 games, averaged 13 points and 7.7 rebounds, and shot 35% on 3-pointers.
When they traded Ibaka to the Orlando Magic in 2016, the Thunder received Victor Oladipo, Domantas Sabonis and Ersan Ilyasova in return. Ibaka’s contract was flipped the same season to the Toronto Raptors, whom he helped win a championship last season. It turned out to be a buy-low, sell-high proposition for the Thunder.
3. Drafting James Harden: A year after picking Westbrook, the Thunder got lucky again, selecting Harden with the No. 3 pick in 2009. With Durant, Westbrook and Harden, the Thunder had one of the best young trios in the league. Harden spent just three years in Oklahoma City and was named Sixth Man of the Year in 2012, the year the Thunder reached the NBA Finals.
It didn’t yield a championship, but it showed the importance of drafting well and grooming those picks — which the Pistons have struggled to do in recent years.
4. Trading for Paul George: In the summer of 2017, the Thunder added Paul George by sending the Indiana Pacers two promising young players, Oladipo and Sabonis — obtained in the Ibaka trade — for the superstar. It was a gutsy gamble, but the Thunder got one of the best forwards in the league to make another run at contending for the title. By building a roster around George and Westbrook, the Thunder were able to retain George in a small market — something of an anomaly — for another year.
The Thunder traded George to the Los Angeles Clippers for two good young players, Danilo Gallinari and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, last summer. They also got a haul of draft picks to help in the rebuild, which has become a signature of their big trades involving superstars.
5. Trading for Carmelo Anthony: Weaver had a connection with Anthony, having recruited him to Syracuse. They had a reunion with the Thunder in 2017, when the New York Knicks traded Anthony for Enes Kanter, Doug McDermott and a 2018 second-round pick. It was a short-lived reunion, but Anthony still had something left in the tank, putting up 16.2 points and 5.8 rebounds while shooting 36% from beyond the arc.
After one season, the Thunder changed course and traded Anthony and a first-round pick to the Atlanta Hawks for point guard Dennis Schroder in a three-team trade. Again, the trades involving star players yielded some extended value.
Missed the mark
1. Trading Harden: As much as drafting Harden was a home run for the Thunder, sending him to the Rockets in 2012 after he won Sixth Man of the Year was a disappointment. Keeping everyone happy in that situation wasn’t going to be easy. The Thunder generally have been able to get a solid return in their trades but sending Harden to Houston yielded a package that included Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb and a 2013 first-round pick. What softens the blow is that the draft pick turned out to be Steven Adams, another gem on their draft resume.
2. Trading Eric Bledsoe: On their 2010 roster, the Thunder had many of their positions set, with Westbrook, Durant, Harden and Ibaka. They were drafting for depth and with three first-round picks outside the lottery, they took swings on Bledsoe, Craig Brackins and Quincy Pondexter. Sending Bledsoe's draft rights to the Clippers obviously was the biggest miss in this crop, as he made the All-Rookie team and has become a very productive point guard in the league at the helm for the Bucks, who have the league’s best record.
3. Drafting Cameron Payne: In the 2015 draft, they took Payne, a guard from Murray State, at 14th overall. It was a high pick for a squad with designs on contending but Payne didn’t pan out, playing just 1½ seasons with the Thunder and averaging 5.1 points and 1.9 assists before being traded to the Chicago Bulls. Payne still is bouncing around the league, trying to find the right fit. There weren’t a ton of better options at guard in this draft — and not every draft pick is going to work out perfectly like Harden and Westbrook — but this is a comparative miss.
4. The 2014 draft: The Thunder had two bites at the apple, with a pair of first-round picks, and selected Mitch McGary with at No. 21 and Josh Huestis at No. 29. McGary, who had starred at Michigan, pinballed between the Thunder and their G-League affiliate, playing in just 52 games with the Thunder before falling out of the NBA. Huestis played parts of three seasons but didn’t make a huge impact in Oklahoma City, either. Again, the Thunder were drafting more for depth behind their core but didn’t hit the mark here.
5. Clarke for Bazley: Granted, it’s still a little too early to make a definitive call on the 2019 draft, but the Thunder picked 21st and selected Gonzaga’s Brandon Clarke. They then traded Clarke to the Memphis Grizzlies for the 23rd pick, Darius Bazley, and a 2024 second-round pick. On one hand, there’s some value in getting a second-round pick. But Clarke had the better rookie season, posting 12 points and 5.8 rebounds and shooting 40% on 3-pointers in 50 games. Bazley averaged just 4.5 points and 3.7 rebounds in 53 games.