Oklahoma City Thunder general manager Sam Presti has had himself quite the off-season. From acquiring Paul George to signing Patrick Patterson and Raymond Felton to cap-friendly contracts, Presti has gone from the man that let Kevin Durant walk for nothing to the man most likely to win Executive of the Year at next years’s NBA Awards.
But if we rewind back to July 4th, 2016, the state of the organization was on much more treacherous footing. One of the pillars of the franchise, Durant, chose to defect to the team’s biggest rival instead of re-signing with the team. Another pillar, Serge Ibaka, was traded two weeks prior to garner younger assets. And the team’s lone remaining superstar, Russell Westbrook, was coming up on the final year of his contract. From the outside looking in, this felt like the end of a memorable, yet disappointing run from a group of young superstars who were drafted together and rose up to prominence, likely a little too fast for their own good.
That was the feeling during the press conference Presti had the evening following Durant’s departure. The questions ranged from, “when did you know Durant was signing with the Warriors?” to “are you now going to trade Russell Westbrook?”. It was the first time I’d ever seen Presti a little rattled during a press conference. (And by rattled, I mean Presti stumbled over like five words over a 45 minutes presser.)
To look at the moves Presti has made this off-season, you have to go back to that press conference. Why? Because that was the fork in the road moment for Presti. Either he pushes the big, red Reset button on the franchise he’s been building since before they started playing in the Great Plains. Or he meticulously rebuilds the Jenga pieces that fell off when Durant left and gets the Thunder back to contender status through Westbrook.
He chose the latter and there was a particular quote in that press conference that laid the foundation to where the Thunder are now.
In terms of moving forward, obviously we have a lot of different scenarios that we plan for under these circumstances. We’re going to take a step back, look at those carefully, try to make quality, thoughtful decisions, and those of you that have been around us and been with us for the eight years we’ve been here, we’ve never been impulsive. We’ve never been reactionary. We’ve never been careless with putting this franchise in the best possible position to be strong and be healthy and be competitive, and I feel like we’ve been able to do that.
So we wouldn’t change that right now, so we’ll be careful and thoughtful and hopefully intelligent about how we go forward. I don’t think we’d be in the position that we are right now in terms of the accomplishments over the last eight years if we hadn’t taken that approach.
It’s always fun to play Sam Presti Phrase Bingo when he has a press conference. The word “sustainability” is always the middle free square. But in this quote, you don’t see a lot of the rah-rah words he likes to use. There’s nothing about community. Nothing about “the Oklahoma way”. Nothing about perseverance. Instead, you see the makings of his current plan of action.
So many times, people in charge want to fix mistakes with one felled swoop. And Presti had his opportunities to take a big swing at something that may or may not have panned out. He didn’t sign whatever big name free agent was available during the 2016 off-season. Instead, he put the available money into extending Westbrook’s contract and bringing Alex Abrines over from Spain. Instead of making a big splash, he chose to extend the one superstar he did have and pay the asset that made the most sense in this pace and space NBA.
He made trades for bit pieces early in the season, trading two 2nd rounders to Denver for Joffrey Lauvergne, and then trading Ersan Ilyasova’s expiring contract to the 76ers for Jerami Grant. He made the team younger with an eye towards the future. The question became, “which future?” Was the future a year from then or five years from then? To Presti and the Thunder organization, the answer to that question has always been, “both”.
He signed two of the three restricted free agents the Thunder had on their roster to sizable extensions during the season. Then he traded some of the dead weight on the roster at the trade deadline for a manageable piece (Doug McDermott) and a respected veteran (Taj Gibson). By season’s end, the team was younger and more flexible.
Flexibility is something that is very important for a team in transition. In the NBA, there are two types of transition: upward and downward. Much of that has to do with the flexibility of your money. Tie too much up on ineffective pieces and the trend of your franchise will likely start to go down (for an example, look at what is happening to Cleveland now).
The Thunder stocked their team with young talent (i.e. flexible assets) heading into the off-season. In addition, they held on to all of their salary cap exceptions which gave them the ability to sign players this off-season, even though they were over the salary cap. In the draft, they used the only pick they had on Terrance Ferguson and stayed the course the rest of the evening. Normally, the Thunder look for some way to get into the second round, but this year, the Thunder were content with their one draft pick.
The Thunder cap situation heading into June 30th was very flexible. And that allowed them to pull the trigger on what could be a franchise-altering trade. Any trade needs to involve a willing partner, and that’s what the Thunder found in the Indiana Pacers. The statement Paul George and his agent put out a week and a half prior stating that he was not only leaving the Pacers after this season, but also looking to sign in his hometown of Los Angeles, effectively killed any trade value George had coming into this season. Because of that statement, many teams balked at the idea of trading too many assets for what could be a one-year rental.
The Thunder, instead, viewed it as the opportunity they had been waiting for. With the trade offers drying up for the Pacers, the Thunder took their chance and used some of their young assets to lure the Pacers to the trade table. And it worked. Victor Oladipo (and his new 4-year extension) and 2nd year forward Domantas Sabonis for Paul George.
The Thunder now had their 2nd superstar, which is highly necessary to succeed in the NBA. With that trade, the Thunder could head into free agency with the ability to sell free agents on the allure of signing with a possible title contender. And that’s what Patrick Patterson and Raymond Felton said in their introductory press conference.
A lot of roster building in the NBA is not just about money. It’s what you can offer players aside from monetary benefits. Do you provide them with a winning culture? Is there the possibility of making a deep playoff run? How does the organization treat the players? Patterson and Felton didn’t sign in Oklahoma City just because of what they were offered on paper. They signed in OKC because of the intangibles. Something that most wouldn’t think possible in a market like Oklahoma City.
The engine driving all this has always been Presti. As he stands on the cusp of handing the current MVP a five-year max extension, always remember why the Thunder are in this position to begin with: in the midst of all the chaos from last July 4th, Presti chose to trust his instinct, and not be reactionary. It’s a testament, not just to the man, but also to the organization.