Tramel: OKC Thunder gets Al Horford, four years too late
The Thunder made our heads spin on NBA Draft Day. Sam Presti made so many deals, it was difficult to keep up.
In fact, I didn’t keep up. At almost 1 a.m., on a Zoom press conference with Presti, I asked him some question about Michigan State point guard Cassius Winston, who had been taken 53rd overall by the Thunder. Turns out, the Thunder made that pick for the Wizards, who picked Czech Vit Krejci for OKC at No. 37 overall. I must have slept right through that one.
But it was a fun day, if you like roster manipulation and intrigue and dreaming about the future.
Here are my takes on Day 3 of the wildest off-season week in NBA history:
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HORFORD FINALLY HERE
Al Horford is headed to the Thunder. Four years too late.
The 76ers traded the classy big man to OKC on Wednesday for Danny Green and Terrance Ferguson, with the Thunder also getting a 2025 first-round draft pick, the 34th pick in the draft Wednesday and the draft rights to Serbian point guard Vasilije Micic, a 26-year-old European stalwart who was drafted by the 76ers in 2014.
We’ll talk about the picks later. Let’s talk about Horford.
Fifty-two months ago, Horford seemed a possible Thunder target. In summer 2016, Presti traded Serge Ibaka to Orlando for Victor Oladipo, Domantas Sabonis and Ersan Ilyasova. Kevin Durant was making his free agency decision, and if Durant had stayed with the Thunder, Presti had grand hopes of working his payroll cap magic and signing Horford.
Horford in 2016 was a 30-year-old, nine-year veteran who had made four all-star teams as an Atlanta Hawk and was a blue-collar defender who could shoot and knew how to play.
Presti envisioned a starting lineup of Russell Westbrook, Oladipo, Durant, Horford and Steven Adams, with Andre Roberson available as a defensive demon.
Horford was looking for a fresh start, the Thunder had Horford’s college coach, BIlly Donovan, and it seemed like a perfect fit. Durant even recruited Horford to some extent.
Then you know what happened. Durant chose Golden State, Horford decided to sign with Boston and that dream starting lineup turned into Westbrook and Friends.
Presti, who hardly ever comments on things that didn’t happen, admitted that Horford had been “really really interested … but obviously the timing of Kevin’s situation and his just didn’t link up. And that’s part of free agency. That’s how it goes.”
So for four years, Horford has been a beacon of what might have been. Now he’s back as a 76er salary dump. Horford was good with Boston for three years, then signed a four-year deal with the Sixers and never meshed with Philadelphia star Joel Embiid. Horford’s contract became an albatross -- $27.5 million in 2020-21, $27 million in 2021-22 and $26.5 million in 2022-23, although only $14.5 million is guaranteed for that final season.
Presti traded not for Horford, but for those draft picks and took Horford because it was required. The Thunder isn’t trying to win now, so Horford’s salary is beside the point.
And maybe this is the end game. Maybe the Thunder can make Horford its latest reclamation project. Restore his previous reputation as a winner and key contributor. The Thunder did that with Chris Paul (although CP’s reputation still was high when he arrived) and Dennis Schroder. Build Horford back up, and maybe a contender casts a longing eye at a veteran who can defend the post and shoot 3-pointers and is a locker-room asset.
It won’t be easy. That contract is suffocating. And if the Thunder still has Steven Adams at center, it will be hard to show off Horford as a center. But maybe it can be done. Nerlens Noel appears to be gone, so maybe Horford and Adams can split time at center. Twenty-four minutes a game each (they each are making $27.5 million this season; what a league).
Of course, it’s possible that Adams gets traded, though that seems unlikely. The market for centers is not strong, and though Adams’ contract ends after this season, that’s still a tough sell. And I hope not. I hope Adams stays forever. We need someone to remind us of the old days. Do you realize that Adams and Hamidou Diallo are the only Thunders under contract who played with Westbrook?
Oh well, what will be will be, and what could have been never was. Al Horford could have been a Thunder when the sun was at its zenith. Now he’s here in winter.
The Thunder on Wednesday ended up with three draft picks.
* Aleksej Pokusevski, an 18-year-old Serbian, picked 17th overall. The Thunder traded up with Minnesota to get Pokusevski, a 6-foot-11 rail with great ball skills. Pokusevski cost OKC the 25th and 28th picks in the first round, plus the Thunder had to swap Ricky Rubio for James Johnson. Rubio is an excellent point guard, not quite a star, while Johnson is a 33-year-old journeyman forward. Their salaries closely matched -- don’t ask me how Johnson is making $16 million, I have no idea.
* Theo Maledon, a 19-year-old Frenchman, picked 34th overall with the choice that came in the Horford deal.
Maledon is a 6-foot-5 guard who some projected as a first-round pick.
* Vit Krejci, a 20-year-old Czech who is recovering from an ACL knee injury. Krejci is a 6-foot-8 guard who debuted professionally at age 16. He’s been playing in the Spanish League.
I like the picks for this reason. In a draft when there were no sure shots at the top, much less later in the first round, gambling on internationals seems like a good move. International scouting is far better than it was in the old days, when the Spurs could find diamonds like Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili because most of the other franchises couldn’t find Europe on a map. But international scouting still is a place to get an upper hand on opponents.
A general manager like Presti, with almost 20 years of European scouting experience, can train a staff better than most.
Europeans often aren’t ready to play. But that’s OK. The Thunder isn’t ready to win.
Europeans usually can shoot, which frankly has been a Thunder problem back even when the sun was at its zenith. So I like that.
Pokusevski is an intriguing prospect who has to get a lot bigger and stronger. But Presti isn’t just taking a flier on him. Presti’s fascination with Hocus Pokus became well-known league wide. The media latched onto the Thunder’s interest, and teams obviously did, too, requiring Presti to deal with the Timberwolves, in fear that Dallas (with the 18th pick) might draft Pokusevski and add to its blossoming United Nations.
Some internationals get drafted and wait a year (or longer) to make the move to the States. That’s what Serge Ibaka did after Presti drafted him in 2008. That’s what Alex Abrines did, too, with the Thunder. Of course, some never come, like Micic. If the Thunder could entice Micic over, the 76er trade gets a whole new look.
But it might be important for Hocus Pokus to get here soon. I’m sure they have dumbbells in Serbia and Greece (where Pokusevski has been playing). But getting Pokusevski with the Thunder strength and conditioning staff should be a priority. He’s listed at 6-foot-11, 215 pounds. We don’t know yet if he can stand up in an Oklahoma windstorm. Another 30 pounds of muscle would make him a much better ballplayer in the physically-taxing NBA, where referees protect perimeter shooters with zeal but allow assault and mayhem anytime anyone gets near the post.
Hopefully, Maledon also is headed for OKC. Find out what he’s got. In a draft like this, the difference between picks 15 and 45 aren’t much. Most second-rounders never materialize in the NBA and those that do often fizzle. But some make it. Some make it big. Might as well get about the business of finding out about Maledon.
As for Krejci, he's not coming anytime soon. He wasn’t even on most draft boards. Yet the Thunder saw something, enough to trade UP to get him. OKC can wait until that knee heals and the basketball world knows a little bit more.
Personally, I would have preferred the Thunder just keep Winston. Some projected him as a late first-round pick, but he fell, like most 22-year-olds do in the draft. The draft has become the haven of the young.
But Winston was a four-year player at Michigan State. The Big Ten Player of the Year. A winning point guard. I know the NBA is biased against college veterans, but haven’t we seen enough success stories like Fred Van Vleet (Wichita State) and Monte Morris (Iowa State) to take a run at a Cassius Winston?
Last week, the Thunder hired Mark Daigneault as coach. This week, the Thunder drafted Aleksej Pokusevski.
Too bad coaches don’t have their names on the backs of their suits. OKC could be the eye chart capital of the world.
Between Mark Daigneault and Aleksej Pokusevski, 17 of the 26 letters are accounted for.
WINNERS & LOSERS
I’m no draft expert. But here’s what I liked and didn’t like about the selections Wednesday.
Winner: The Wizards getting Israeli Deni Avdija at No. 9. Some figured the 6-foot-9, 19-year-old would go fourth. I might have taken him first.
Loser: ESPN’s draft coverage. The draft is a crazy night of changing information and trades, and ESPN’s crew of Reece Davis, Jay Bilas, Jay Williams and Mike Schmitz were oblivious to it. Kentucky coach John Calipari broke as much news as that crew. When the Thunder picked Kentucky’s Immanuel Quickley at No. 25, but obviously choosing for the Timberwolves in the Hocus Pokus trade, Reece Davis asked Calipari about Quickley playing alongside the Thunder’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, another Kentucky product. Even Calipari was ahead of that game, informing non-Twitter America that Quickley would be headed to the Knickerbockers. I know ESPN can’t put Adrian Wojnarowski on the set full-time, since he has to have a phone to his ear 45 seconds out of every minute, but man, let the guy tell us what’s going on.
Winner: The digital draft, with all the players sequestered with their families at home, was a hit. Not as good as the NFL Draft but still better than all these guys grouped in a back room at the Barclays Center, waiting to hug Adam Silver.
Loser: All the teams that passed on Iowa State’s Tyrese Haliburton, who fell all the way to No. 12, with Sacramento. Good for the Kings, but man, Haliburton is a fabulous prospect in a limited draft. The longer he fell, the more I was hoping he could somehow end up in the Thunder’s lap.
Winner: Troy Weaver. The Thunder expatriate, now the Pistons general manager, staged a whirlwind night himself, twice trading for picks. Detroit ended up with three first-round selections -- Killian Hayes at No. 7, Isaiah Stewart at No. 16 and Saddiq Bey at No. 19. Who knows if any of those guys will be a hit. But the best way to find a draft gem is pick really high or really often. Weaver was limited on that first option, but he found a way to get the second option.
Loser: Portland. The TrailBlazers had only one pick all night, taking C.J. Elleby in the second round, No. 46. When deputy commissioner Mark Tatum made the announcement, ESPN was airing a commercial.
Winner: family ties. Not just all the emotion we saw from family and friends. There were a bunch of basketball-family ties aired. When the Hornets drafted LaMelo Ball No. 3 overall, he joined his brother, Lonzo, as the only brothers both taken in the top five of the draft. Lonzo Ball went No. 2 overall in 2017 to the Lakers. Orlando took Cole Anthony No. 15 overall; he’s the son of former NBA (and Nevada-Las Vegas) player Greg Anthony. The Spurs took Duke point guard Tre Jones in the second round; he’s the brother of Tyus Jones, another Duke point guard now playing for the Grizzlies. The Rockets ended up with K.J. Martin Jr. in the second round; he’s the son of former NBA star Kenyon Martin, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2000 draft.
Loser: OU basketball. Going No. 26 overall, to the Celtics, was Oregon point guard Payton Pritchard. The four-year Duck is the son of former OU tight end Terry Pritchard. Payton Pritchard originally was committed to the Sooners. He switched to Oregon, and OU a year later got Trae Young, so everybody was happy. But Young was a one-year Sooner. Pritchard would have been quite an asset had he been a four-year Sooner.
Winner: Name combinations. Tyrese is not a particularly common name, but Haliburton and Kentucky’s Tyrese Maxey both went in the top 21 picks. Two Jalens were picked -- Smith to the Suns at No. 10 and Harris to the Raptors at No. 59. And players named Cassius went back-to-back -- Winston at No. 53 and Stanely at No. 54.