Sam Presti & the Oklahoma City Thunder: From NBA Novelty to Small Market Dynasty
When I was growing up, I used to love to play the EA Sports title, NBA Live.
Actually, that's not entirely true. Those who know me will tell you that I love to "make up teams." The game play itself I find to be monotonous over time. There's only so many pick-and-roll's you can run before you go on auto-pilot.
Instead, I would simulate season after season in an effort to get to the offseason; always in pursuit of that perfect draft, that perfect trade and those perfect free agent signings, resulting in the perfect team. I once devoted an entire week to fixing the Knicks. I did what Donnie Walsh could not—I signed LeBron James.
By my estimation, I've been playing pretend GM on NBA, NFL and MLB video games for around 15 years, and I happen to think that I've become extremely adept in the front office. So much so that I actually mentioned that in a few of the half dozen emails that I sent to Sam Presti's attention a couple of years ago. But, as David Kahn, Joe Dumars, Isiah Thomas and so many others have shown us, running a professional basketball team turns out to be a little bit harder than it looks—which makes what Presti is doing in Oklahoma City even that much more impressive.
...and also probably explains why I never got so much as a "go away" in response to my video game resume.
On June 62007, the Seattle Supersonics—on the tail end of a 31-51 season—hired 30-year-old Sam Presti as their new general manager. New team chairman Clay Bennett immediately handed Presti “complete authority and responsibility for the basketball operations.”
So, while this will ultimately become a story surrounding the genius of the Thunder’s general manager, let us first give credit where it’s due. Bennett pulled the trigger on the most instrumental of acquisitions when he brought Presti aboard the Mayflower moving van that was headed for Oklahoma City.
It took Presti less than a month to begin his complete makeover of the franchise. On the night of the 2007 NBA Draft, the “Sonics” sent Ray Allen packing for Boston. In return, they garnered two irrelevant bodies (Delonte West and Wally Szcerbiak) and one very relevant fifth overall draft choice.
With the “Sonics” second overall selection, Presti scooped up University of Texas product Kevin Durant, and with the fifth pick, he added Georgetown’s Jeff Green. Durant would immediately take center stage as the new face of the franchise, epitomizing the youthful direction of the soon-to-be-former Sonics. Green would prove to be a solid compliment. But, the true value of this pick does not come until years later.
Turning Nothing into Something
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In July of 2007, Otis Smith and the Orland Magic hit what appears to be a home run in working a sign-and-trade for the “Sonics’” Rashard Lewis. In return, the “Sonics” receive a $9 million trade exception. Log that footnote to memory.
The Lewis sign-and-trade could easily be considered the crown jewel of the Sam Presti era. Lewis never averaged more than 18.2 PPG for the Magic, and, by the fourth year of his six-year, $110 million contract, his scoring average plummets to 11.4 PPG (Rashard Lewis is now a member of the Washington Wizards.).
Days later, Presti uses that aforementioned trade exception to absorb the contract of Kurt Thomas in a deal with the cash strapped Suns. As compensation for taking the Thomas contract off of their hands, the Suns send two first round picks (’08 and ’10) to the “Sonics.”
Building a "Big Three"
When asked to name Sam Presti’s “best draft,” the casual observer would likely point to 2007. Kevin Durant. No brainer. But the casual observer would be mistaken, because that’s just it: it was a no brainer.
On June 26, 2008, Presti used the fourth overall selection on a guy who started in only 35 of 75 games at UCLA—some guy named Russell Westbrook. And remember that first round pick from the Suns? Via the Suns at No. 24, Presti took a fellow by the name of Sergeballu LaMu Sayonga Loom Walahas Jonas Hugo Ibaka, from the Republic of the Congo. You may know him better as, simply, Serge Ibaka. These were not no brainers.
Enter: Scott Brooks
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After starting the 2008-09 season 1-12, Presti fired head coach PJ Carlesimo; replacing him, on an interim basis, with assistant, Scott Brooks.
"He's someone that I do think has a skill-set potential," Presti said. "This is a new opportunity for him, and as he continues to make his way and grow with our team, we're going to certainly support him and help him throughout the process."
The Thunder removed the interim tag from Brooks’ title after ’08-‘09, and all he did was reward their good faith with 50 wins and the NBA Coach of the Year award in ’09-’10.
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With the 2009 draft approaching, optimism in Oklahoma City was growing. And with names like Blake Griffin, Hasheem Thabeet, Tyreke Evans, Ricky Rubio and Stephen Curry in the fold, most expected another draft day splash from Presti.
Once it was clear that the Clippers were not moving out of their spot atop the Blake Griffin Sweepstakes, attention began to move toward Thabeet. Ibaka was still very much an unknown commodity at this juncture, and it seemed that the Thunder badly needed to bolster their front court. If Thabeet was unavailable, then why not add a guy like Tyreke Evans or Ricky Rubio? Evans was electrifying at Memphis. Sure, he was a lot like Westbrook. But was he an even better version? And, was it possible to have too much of a good thing? Or, what about Rubio? He was supposed to be some sort of phenom; the next Steve Nash, just waiting to take the NBA by storm. How could we pass on him if he was there?
Sam Knows Best
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So, when “with the third pick of the 2009 NBA Draft, the Oklahoma City Thunder select(ed)… James Harden, guard, Arizona State…” the pick was met with considerable grumbling from the peanut gallery. That’s it? We drafted a slow 2-guard, with minimal hops, and an Abe Lincoln beard, at three? Why not Curry, if we were going shooter? Why not just trade back and draft Jordan Hill?
What Thunder faithful had yet to fully grasp was one of Sam Presti’s greatest attributes: his ability to keep from killing his team. It’s a rarity in his profession, but Presti never signs the wrong guy to a bad contract. He never drafts a player based on a highlight reel. He never trades for a guy that doesn’t fit. Hell, he rarely trades for any guy, period.
On June 25, 2009, Sam Presti saved his rebuilding project by making a safe and calculated selection with the third pick of the draft. James Harden is a great shooter, a good defender and an excellent teammate. He has been coming off the bench behind Thabo Sefalosha—a guy that he is superior to in both, pedigree and scoring ability—for two years. He’s never so much as Tweeted a negative word about it. He fits.
And those other guys? Thabeet has never added weight and never hardened up. He’s the definition of “bust.” Evans needs the ball in his hands—which never would’ve worked along side of Russell Westbrook. There would never be enough shots for Steph Curry, and who’s Ricky Rubio?
Presti knew what he had in Westbrook and Ibaka before any of the rest of us did. and he was smart enough not to screw it up.
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Still, by December, it was obvious that OKC was in desperate need of another PG to spell Westbrook. So, naturally, the same guy that only 17 months earlier set the modern day precedent for utilizing a trade exception took advantage of a Utah Jazz franchise that was buried in luxury taxes and trying to figure out how to keep Carlos Boozer: Ridding themselves of Matt Harpring’s expiring contract cut Utah’s luxury tax bill by nearly $8 million.
And, in exchange for the relief effort, Presti netted promising rookie PG, Eric Maynor. Essentially, the deal boiled down to: Eric Maynor in exchange for…Peter Fehse. And, no, I don’t know who Peter Fehse is, either.
A Growing Storm
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During the summer of 2009, Kevin Durant told Sports Illustrated that he believed the immediate goal for the Thunder should be to make the playoffs. Critics scoffed at the remarks. Actually, virtually everyone cast his words aside as outlandish.
Yet, nine months later, the Thunder weren’t just in the playoffs; they were making noise. Doomed with a first round matchup vs. the defending champion Lakers, it was as if the young Thunder didn’t know they weren’t supposed to be formidable yet. After a Game 4 throttling of LA, 110-89, Durant and Co. officially had everyone’s attention, and the fans of Oklahoma City had definitively claimed the title of “loudest in the NBA.”
Still, the defending and eventual champs would ultimately overpower, the Western Conference’s eighth seed. And, over “power” them they did. "There's good chemistry, a group of four really good scorers, and they've got some good role players that can assist them," Phil Jackson said. "They're talented, it looks like they work well together. (But) they’re without a large center.”
Summer of LeBron
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In June of 2010, the summer of LeBron was upon us. There were whispers during the winter that Chris Bosh—a Texas native—may be open to signing with Oklahoma City. But as the free agent signing period approached, it became clear that that was very unrealistic.
What was not unrealistic, however, was the idea of Miami signing the three biggest fish on the market: Bosh, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. But, in order to do that, the Heat would have to slash payroll and essentially forfeit their first round draft pick. The Thunder were already armed with the 21st (remember the Phoenix trade exception deal?), the 26th and the 32nd picks and were aiming to accomplish two things. 1) Add depth to the front court. 2) Add a shooter.
The Heat were looking to unload a former NBA three-point shooting champion, third year guard Daequan Cook.
Seeing the Forest in Spite of the Trees
Now, if you’ve ever played chess…or checkers, or chicken foot or tic-tac-toe, for that matter… you know that a lot of times, success comes in looking a couple of moves ahead. And, a lot of times success comes in taking advantage of your opponent’s looking a couple of moves ahead. This is Sam Presti’s specialty.
In 2007, he acquired what would eventually become Serge Ibaka and half of Cole Aldrich, because the Suns were looking to cut payroll and had no choice. In December of 2009, he could’ve traded me for Eric Maynor, because the Jazz were looking to re-sign Carlos Boozer, and needed to pinch pennies. And in June of 2010, he received Daequan Cook and the 18th overall pick from the Heat (the other half of…), which he would then use to move up into the early portion of the first round and nab Cole Aldrich in exchange for the 32nd overall selection. The Heat gave him Daequan Cook and 14 spots in the draft, just because they were focused on clearing cap space for LeBron and friends.
"They're Without a Large Center.": -Phil Jackson
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Which brings us to…February 24—minutes before the trade deadline passes. Oklahoma City swaps Jeff Green (whom the Thunder snagged with the Celtics No. 5 pick back in 2007) to Boston in exchange for 6’10”, 280 lbs. center Kendrick Perkins. Not only a big body; not only a banger, and added depth to the front court; but perhaps the nastiest, most intimidating big man in the league.
Perkins was beloved in Boston. When he went down in Game 6 of the NBA Finals, it gave the Lakers a decided advantage in the post—one that they exploited. As promising as the Thunder were, and as much as we all liked Jeff Green, we needed a presence on the block. We needed a mean streak. And, we needed a cog in the middle to set Serge Ibaka free to defend the weak side. Presti went out and got him and inked him to a four-year extension by the first of March.
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So here we are. Less than four years after taking over a 31-win Seattle Supersonics team, the only remaining evidence is veteran forward Nick Collison. Piece by piece, calculated move after move, Sam Presti has completed the transformation from the cellar of the NBA to championship contender. With the league’s two-time defending scoring champ and one of the best young point guards in recent memory, the Oklahoma City Thunder are fresh off of their first playoff series win, and—at least, for now—Presti’s work is done.
All that is left to do is sit back and enjoy as the youngest core group in the NBA continually elevates to greater and greater heights.