The past three years, the Thunder have patiently and prudently planned to be ready for a night like Monday.
How did they land Dion Waiters, a talented 23-year-old guard, while only giving up a training-camp invitee in Lance Thomas and a heavily protected future first-round pick? It was all about waiting for an opportunity, banking on an obsession to every detail finally paying off.
Draft picks are the lifeblood of the Thunder, the essential building block in general manager Sam Presti's small-market plan. The idea has been straightforward: With expert scouting and careful player selection, the Thunder continually stock the roster with youth to create a model for sustainable, long-term success. They value first-round picks maybe more than any other organization, refusing to cave to the temptation to attach them to trades for the sake of getting one done (cough, the Knicks, cough). To that point: The Thunder have never not had a first-round pick under Presti's direction the past eight years.
But in acquiring Waiters, the Thunder let theirs go and won't have one this year if they make the playoffs and don't trade for another one later. The reason? Because they've been preparing for that.
Remember Josh Huestis, the player the Thunder took 29th overall, working a predraft deal with him so that he didn't sign his rookie contract? Huestis instead became the first domestic draft-and-stash, turning down millions of guaranteed dollars for scraps in the D-League. It was an agreement between player and team, both working the system in their favor. Huestis wanted to be drafted by the Thunder. And the Thunder didn't want to lock in another guaranteed contract with a late first-rounder.
Now, with their 2015 pick potentially gone, the Thunder see Huestis as their possible draft selection this season. Or if not him, they have Alex Abrines, a highly rated Spanish shooting guard they drafted 32nd overall in 2013. Or Tibor Pleiss, a 7-foot-2 center they drafted 31st overall in 2010. Or even Mitch McGary, who they took 22nd overall and still figures into the rotation once he gets healthy. If there's a team that can withstand missing a draft cycle, it's the Thunder because they have their own assets to fill the void. In fact, the Thunder doubted they would even have a roster spot available this summer for a first-round pick to slot into.
Plus, there's this: the Thunder weren't likely to be able to draft a player the caliber of Waiters, who was the fourth overall pick in 2012. The Thunder aren't adding some 32-year-old veteran as a short-term solution to a growing bench problem. They're adding youth, keeping their roster -- outside of Nick Collison, Kendrick Perkins and Anthony Morrow -- all under the age of 26. They feel they've improved the present, and the future.
The other key ingredient to Monday's trade: any player that has departed the Thunder, the organization has made sure to get something in return. When they traded Eric Maynor to the Trail Blazers in 2013, they didn't receive any player back, only creating a $2.9 million traded player exception. When Kevin Martin signed with the Timberwolves in 2013, the Thunder worked the deal as a sign-and-trade to create a $7.1 million trade exception. Even in dumping Hasheem Thabeet to the 76ers, the Thunder made sure to get a $1.2 million trade exception in return.
To the great frustration of fans, the Thunder had been making a habit of letting those trade exceptions expire. So when they again maneuvered to create a $4.1 million exception by sign-and-trading Thabo Sefolosha to the Hawks last summer, the assumption was it represented another empty asset to only gather dust in the cupboard. Instead, it was a vital piece to the Thunder landing Waiters. You don't incessantly create those exceptions to use every time; you create them to have when you need one, to be opportunistic at the right time.
Also, the Thunder are now finally in the luxury tax. With redundant roster pieces behind Waiters (Jeremy Lamb) and the Reggie Jackson situation, there's a chance they don't stay there. But in minding their finances the past three summers, resisting the urge to jump at available but overpriced free agents (except for Pau Gasol, for whom they were willing to splurge), the Thunder were in position to finally break the threshold. Contrary to the running narrative, there's no mandate to avoid the tax in Oklahoma City. It was always just about picking the right spot to do it.
The jury is out on if Waiters will fit with the Thunder in the way he was unable to with the Cavs. He's a gunner, a player who likes to create on his own off the dribble, which often means stopping the ball as four guys watch him. How he slots in with the Thunder, most likely in their second unit, is a big question. And a bigger one is how he'll mesh with Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, considering it didn't seem to go well in Cleveland with LeBron James and Kyrie Irving.
"We're gonna make him feel wanted," Durant said Monday. "I don't think he felt that the last couple years. He's gonna fit in well. He's gonna get comfortable real quick."
The Thunder are high on Waiters, emphasizing his toughness and what he can bring to their second unit. He's not had a very good 2014-15 thus far, and his personality clashes with teammates have been well documented. Thing is, though, Waiters isn't available for what the Thunder got him for if he was having a terrific season in Cleveland. It was a product of his struggles, and the Thunder seeing the potential he has. They were impressed with Waiters last summer at USA Basketball, evaluating him as one of the best players at the camp. His talent is obvious. It's just about channeling it in the right places.
For the trade to be a true success, Waiters has to buy in and play his role alongside the Thunder's superstar cast. Since losing their supersub James Harden in 2012, they haven't been able to find the kind of bench stability that helped them make a Finals run. Waiters isn't Harden, but he's certainly an upgrade over what they currently have, and fills a clear need.
It's a low-risk, high-reward move, set up by meticulous planning. The trade would be a significant gamble, if not for the fact the Thunder essentially are spending a late first-round pick on Waiters, one that they didn't really need in the first place. They're buying low, with a chance of a big future payday.