Circumstances change in an instant.
In February, Kelly Oubre Jr.’s meniscus was torn. Through no action of his own, he set off a chain of events that eight months later sent him from the Phoenix Suns to the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Young Suns guns Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson and veteran Aron Baynes stepped in for him and unlocked a shooting, defending warhorse built for the NBA’s current climate. An 8-0 run in the NBA restart stopped short of the playoffs but revealed something they desperately needed: a viable path toward success.
Right as Oubre made the molecular transformation from necessity to asset, reports surfaced that Suns superstar Devin Booker, who would probably love to make the playoffs at some point in his career, wanted Chris Paul.
Good NBA executives don’t try to control the future. They merely adjust to reality. The faster you adjust, the better, because changing values creates transactional opportunities.
Thunder general manager Sam Presti has always had a knack for finding the eye of the storm and building a bunker inside it.
Here’s an example of the benefits: In the summer of 2016, the Thunder swapped Serge Ibaka for Victor Oladipo, Ersan Ilyasova and Domantas Sabonis (which, gosh, what a lesson in how you should always ask for more) who they eventually traded for Paul George. In the summer of 2019, the ground shifted beneath the organization. Kawhi Leonard wanted to play with George, and George wanted to play with Leonard. They accepted it in a snap, getting a haul for George: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Danilo Gallinari, five first-round picks and two pick swaps. Russell Westbrook, who had a town named after him in Oklahoma, was gone within a week, traded to Houston for Paul, two first-round picks and two pick swaps.
This brings us to the present: The Suns acquired Chris Paul and Abdel Nader, for Oubre, Ricky Rubio, Ty Jerome and a 2022 first-round pick.
The Thunder now have 17 first-round picks through 2026. That includes the Lakers’ draft pick they just got for Dennis Schröder. No one knows what they will look like in five years and that’s part of the draw. In our minds, we can mold the Thunder’s nebulous future to our liking. Which pissed-off star can they wrangle for Danny Green and a hoard of picks? Which one of their picks will turn into a sensation?
But a franchise can only live in utero for so long. The Suns, who haven’t made the playoffs in a decade, were looking for something concrete.
Last summer, I asked Daryl Morey if the proliferation of analytics (really, the Sam Hinkie-fication of the NBA) made his job harder. “When you’re working with a team that’s on the same part of the cycle, it’s harder [to make trades],” Morey said. “I think people are valuing things more similar. But it actually becomes easier with a team that’s at a different level of their life cycle. If it’s a team that’s in rebuild mode that’s operating well, they’re actually pretty easy to trade with if you’re on your upswing. Both sides are valuing assets differently.” That’s what happened here.
With Oubre out, Phoenix unlocked a lineup of Rubio, Booker, Johnson, Bridges and Deandre Ayton, which outscored opponents by 17 points per 100 possessions. Opportunity favors the prepared. The hitch in Bridges’ shot disappeared, and he shot 40% from three in the bubble. With a 7-foot-1 wingspan, great feet and better instincts, he showed off his potential as a multi-positional defender, switching onto guards and picking up easy interceptions. Johnson can shoot from anywhere, and his defensive mobility has been surprisingly good. Ayton is turning into a springy, rangy rim protector who can dance with the occasional guard.
You can understand why the Suns made this temporary arrangement permanent, but it’s not like they would have had too hard a time finding minutes for Oubre, even with Dario Saric in the mix. It often feels like the entire league is teetering toward playing five guys who are 6-foot-7 with 7-foot-2 wingspans.
But in exchange for all that gooey fun malleability, Phoenix went for it. Paul stabilizes the Suns. He gives them an anchor. Booker has never had a running mate like him. Ayton has never played with this kind of pick-and-roll practitioner.
In the context of the Western Conference playoff race, Oklahoma and Phoenix moved with the tide and shuffled places. Presti gets to play with the biggest hoard of potential in NBA history. Booker gets to play with Paul. All in all, a pretty good deal for both sides.
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