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Looking (way) ahead at a hidden NBA Draft asset

Atlanta Hawks v Oklahoma City Thunder Photo by Zach Beeker/NBAE via Getty Images

After acquiring Trae Young during the 2018 NBA Draft, the Atlanta Hawks faced an intriguing decision with Dennis Schröder. Though the Hawks publicly stated the potential of Young and Schröder to co-exist in the backcourt, the writing was on the wall and, just a few weeks later, Hawks president of basketball operations Travis Schlenk executed a deal to send Schröder to Oklahoma City in a maneuver that received mixed reviews.

Opinions were sharp on both sides of the transaction, with one prominent sports media voice panning the maneuver in silly, misguided fashion, and a (much) more positive reaction posted in this very space. Overall, the focus of the deal was on Atlanta’s decision to move on from Schröder — with three years and $46.5 million remaining on his contract — in exchange for Carmelo Anthony’s one-year balloon payment, knowing in the moment that the Hawks would quickly execute a buyout with the future Hall of Fame forward.

Two years later, the deal (that also featured Mike Muscala and Justin Anderson) worked out for the Hawks and Thunder. Schröder is performing at a high level in a sixth man role for Oklahoma City, and Atlanta continues to build around Young while utilizing the flexibility that was magnified by shedding Schröder’s contract.

Within the transaction, however, the Hawks also acquired a lottery-protected 2022 first round pick from the Thunder, and that selection is now the only future first round pick in Atlanta’s coffers other than their own. It is important to note that there are protections on the pick that will determine its ultimate value and, while the 2022 draft is (at least) 22 months away, it is never too early to take stock of what amounts to a hidden draft asset.

To set the scene, this is a selection that will see its value fluctuate wildly based on how the Thunder perform during the 2021-22 season. This year, Oklahoma City surprised the NBA by performing at a substantially higher level than most projected, reaching the postseason behind a veteran-laden cast headlined by Chris Paul, Danilo Gallinari and Steven Adams. In the future, though, the Thunder could elect to press the reset button, with Gallinari hitting free agency during the 2020 offseason and Paul’s massive contract prompting serious discussion about his long-term future with the club.

From the perspective of the Hawks, things are simple. Atlanta is rooting hard for Oklahoma City to be a playoff team in 2022.

As noted previously, the first-round pick owed to Atlanta is lottery-protected, meaning that it will only convey to the Hawks in 2022 if the Thunder make the postseason. If that does not happen, the selection does not evaporate entirely but, in short, it loses value. Should Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and the Thunder fall short of the playoffs in 2021-22, Oklahoma City will instead convey a pair of second-round picks to Atlanta in 2024 and 2025.

The drop in value is clear as, even if the Thunder bottom out entirely in 2024 and 2025, a case could be made that a mid-to-late first round pick in a (loaded) 2022 draft would be preferable to a pair of selections in the 30’s in 2024 and 2025. In the worst-case scenario, the Thunder could be a legitimate contender by the time 2024 arrives, capitalizing on a war chest of draft picks and a strong core piece in Gilgeous-Alexander. After all, four years is a long time.

In an overall sense, it is crucial to point out that projecting where the Thunder will land in 2021-22 is extremely difficult, even before considering how impossible it would be to accurately predict Oklahoma City’s fate for 2024 and 2025. At present, only a small handful of players are actually under contract for the all-important season that leads into the 2022 draft.

Paul’s situation is far more complicated than a cursory glance can unpack but, while he will likely exercise his player option for $44.2 million in 2021-22, it is possible that the future Hall of Fame point guard will be playing elsewhere when the decision is made. After that, the Thunder do have Gilgeous-Alexander as a potential standout to build around, but the other pieces under control are purely supporting characters in Darius Bazley, Isaiah Roby and Luguentz Dort.

Due largely to the trade that sent Paul George to the L.A. Clippers, Oklahoma City does have immense draft capital moving forward. In theory, that could allow Sam Presti and his staff to attempt a rebuild without bottoming out, much in the way that Daryl Morey did in Houston before making his big swing to acquire James Harden.

However, word broke on Sept. 7 that head coach Billy Donovan will not be returning to Oklahoma City, with ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reporting that a rebuild could be in the offing. As such, it is at least possible that the Thunder will actually bottom out in the next season or two and, considering how difficult it is for any team to crack the playoff picture in the Western Conference, it is easy to see the fluidity in what this draft selection may resemble.

Ultimately, there are two paths. The Thunder could hold on to Paul, attempt to add around him and stay competitive, both in 2020-21 and 2021-22. That is the scenario that is preferable for Atlanta, as the Hawks are invested in Oklahoma City being at least pretty good during the 2021-22 season.

On the flip side, Oklahoma City could choose to prop up their own draft picks in 2021 and 2022, attempting to add top-tier talent around Gilgeous-Alexander in a long-term rebuild. That is the setting in which the Hawks would be more likely to receive a pair of second-round picks to complete the Schröder/Anthony swap. While that trade didn’t need the first-round pick to be successful for Atlanta, it would certainly be a cherry on top.

The 2020 NBA Draft is a crucial one for the Hawks, as the team hopes it will be the last time it makes a lottery pick — at least of its own selection — during this extended rebuild. Atlanta will be attempting to make the playoffs next season and, if they manage to pull that off, the Hawks will transition from annual trips to the lottery to a world free of ping-pong ball consideration. With that as the backdrop, having extra first-round picks can be helpful to restock the roster via draft selection or trade and, at the moment, the only (potential) first-round selection owed to Atlanta comes from Oklahoma City.

It will be interesting to monitor Presti’s decision-making — as soon as the fall of 2020 — with this consideration in mind.

Stay tuned.