The OKC Thunder took a calculated gamble in the James Harden trade

The Oklahoma City Thunder were not the headliners of the trade that sent 10-time All-Star guard James Harden to the Los Angeles Clippers on Wednesday. But with talks stalled between the Clippers and Philadelphia 76ers, the Thunder entered the deal with a calculated gamble that could pay off handsomely down the road.

The Sixers reportedly wanted the Clippers’ 2028 unexpected first-round pick, a first-round pick and Terran Mann or another first-round pick. To push the deal over the finish line, the Clippers sent an unexpected 2027 first-round pick to the Thunder, who sent one of three 2026 first-round picks to the Sixers.

The Sixers receive the worst of the Thunder, Clippers or Rockets (top-four-protected) 2026 first-round picks. In return, the Thunder “will have the opportunity to trade 2027 first-round picks with the Clippers if LA’s unexpected first-round pick is preferred over Oklahoma City or Denver’s (top-five protected) 2027 first-round picks.” Press release from the team.

The Thunder are running a risk with this deal, as there is no guarantee of using that 2027 swap. If the Clippers re-sign Harden, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George next summer, when all three are or become free agents, they could be one of the NBA’s top contenders for the next few years.

Basically, the Thunder are playing on that. Given the age and injury history of the Clippers’ core players, this is a reasonable gamble to take.

PJ Tucker, who the Clippers acquired with Harden, turned 39 in May. Russell Westbrook, who re-signed with the Clippers this past summer to a two-year contract, turns 35 on November 12, Harden turns 35 next August, George turns 34 in May and Leonard turns 33 next June.

After bringing in both Leonard and George in the summer of 2019, the Clippers have won at least 40 games in each of the last four seasons, though two of them came up short due to the Covid-19 pandemic. They’ve made the playoffs in three of those four years, the only exception being the 2021-22 campaign, which Leonard missed to recover from a torn ACL.

However, Leonard has missed at least 15 games every season since 2017-18, and he made it clear during media day this year that it wasn’t because of load management. George hasn’t played more than 56 games in a season since 2018-19. The addition of Harden should help ease the pressure on them offensively, but it’s fair to question their ability to stay healthy after the past few years.

If the Clippers have an offense in the next few years, the Thunder will now have the right to their first round picks in both the 2026 and 2027 drafts. By the 2026-27 season, Harden will be 37, George 36 and Leonard 35, so it’s unclear how effective all three will be — if they’re still in LA by then.

The Thunder enter the 2023-24 season sitting on an unprecedented amount of future picks, 15 first-rounders and 20 second-rounders over the next seven years. Although the NBA’s new collective bargaining agreement allows teams to sign a third player to a two-way contract each year, roster spots are increasing in value for OKC in the coming years. There’s no way they’re going to spend all those draft picks and squeeze a bunch of new players onto the roster, especially with the likes of Shay Gilgeous-Alexander, Jalen Williams and Chet Homgren looking like long-term keepers.

At some point, the Thunder will have to start consolidating some of their assets, though general manager Sam Presti doesn’t seem to be in much of a rush to do so. By flipping one of their 2026 first-round picks in exchange for this unprotected 2027 pick, they could potentially waste one of those assets just to get a higher upside pick.

But if the Thunder expect to be firmly in the playoffs in 2026, they could send the Sixers their own pick, which is somewhere in the 20s. They then have the option to trade their own pick or Denver’s top-five-protected pick in 2027 for the Clippers’ first-rounder, which could be a huge upside.

Basically, the Thunder is trading a penny for a 10% shot on the dollar. There’s a high percentage chance it won’t work for them, but considering where they are in their rebuild and the stockpiles they’ve accumulated, there’s little harm in taking those kinds of shots when the opportunity arises. Flipping is very tricky.

All statistics are through, PBPs, Clean the glass Or Basketball reference. All through salary information Spotter Or RealGM. All possibilities through FanDuel sports book.

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