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The Art of Presti
The Art of Presti has been Chaotic and Confusing to some. For one decision-maker, it’s been a Masterpiece of Madness that is starting to finally come alive.
Doing something absolutely insane can prove to be psychotic to the untrained eye. It’s not easy to go against the consensus. Plenty of individuals will be quick to question your belief. Questions will arise, and doubt will enter the conversation.
If you’re in a position to be running an NBA organization, time will become your enemy. Fans lack patience; there’s no secret about that. If you complete a string of acquisitions and kick the can further down the road, you’ll quickly start to hear the outside noise from a passionate fan base.
Even with a proven track record, you can find yourself becoming public enemy number one. In the words of the great coach Bill Yoast from Remember the Titans: “there’s a fine line between tough and crazy, and you’re flirting with it.” That exact line is where we find Oklahoma City Thunder general manager Sam Presti.
When you get close to reaching the mountain top in the NBA, you are suddenly left with two different paths. One road is the enjoyable route. It involves the classic mindset of “let’s run it back.” Some like to rephrase this as the “re-tool” philosophy. You have a roster that just experienced a sensational season. The theory behind this thinking is that a couple of strategic additions or small moves might be just enough to move the needle forward.
The other path is the dangerous road. It’s the route that always seems to be in animated films with nightmarish features. It involves traveling straight through a war party that would make the entire cast of Mad Max: Fury Road proud. This path requires taking a hard look in the mirror and quickly realizing a harsh truth…
You’re chasing a fantasy. While some might not agree with it, you see the future unfolding right before your eyes. Sure, you might pull off the chance to win a championship. But what happens after that? What happens when your rising stars all reach free agency? What happens when you cannot afford to compete with the bigger markets? What happens when you lose multiple assets for nothing in return?
At first glance, it looked as if Sam Presti was just trading everything he could get his hands on for the ability to acquire draft picks. Now? It looks as if the madman’s plan is finally starting to take shape.
The Blue Print
The realization when it comes to the idea of “rebuilding” is that you have to be able to swallow your pride. You also need to have multiple parties on board. If you want to do it the right way, you’re going to need the green light from all higher powers. This green light will require years and years of laying down a foundation.
Some try to speed up the rebuild. They take massive swings in the draft, hoping that one of those swings will connect, delivering a type of “grand slam” that transforms into a potential superstar. The problem is that for every swing for the fences that you take, you could set the process back if you strike out.
Imagine you’re building a three-story house. Each step of the rebuild is adding another foundation, another wall to offer support for the additional level. Each support beam, each wall, is crucial to keeping the foundation upright. If you skip any step, you could find yourself creating a future headache.
Time is an annoying thing for a fan base. If your favorite team has been stuck in “Lottery purgatory” for consecutive years, you’re looking to escape that area as fast as possible. But the best way to get out of that dark dimension is to chip away and build a roster that has all of the necessary ingredients.
Over the last couple of decades, an argument could be made that the mindset of front offices around the NBA has shifted in terms of roster construction. Teams now are looking for any opportunity to move multiple players to combine star talents on the court simultaneously.
The 2008 Boston Celtics started the trend, trading with the Seattle Supersonics for Ray Allen before turning around and sending multiple players and picks in return for Kevin Garnett. The idea of a “Big 3” was formed. The NBA has always been a “copycat” league not only in terms of moves but also in terms of playing styles and even playbooks. If you see a new set run by a coach that works to perfection, don’t be surprised if it’s installed by half of the league by the end of the week.
That’s just what happened. The Miami Heat went out and acquired their own “Big 3” with the additions of Chris Bosh and LeBron James. From there, the league has transformed to the idea that multiple stars give you the best potential to contend for a championship. The truth is, while that philosophy can give you a puncher’s chance, depth will always be everything in the NBA.
You need depth to survive, especially when it comes to playoff time. Injuries happen. Players find themselves missing extended amounts of time, resulting in a call for the “next man up.”
Not only do teams need superstars to lean on in crunch minutes, but they also need specific ingredients on the court that can make a roster thrive in various situations. You need the energy guy. You need the defensive weapon that can be called upon to give the opposition’s best offensive threat nightmares in a grueling playoff series. You need the bench asset that can come in and give you offense when your team is in a dry spell.
These players might not get the recognition or spotlight that the superstars get, but they are crucial to getting a team to a potential championship.
The Oklahoma City Thunder had that chance in the past. With the young talents of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, and Serge Ibaka, OKC had the recipe to potentially contend for championships for years to come. Time became a factor, as you can only keep a window open for so long before salary cap problems come into play.
Once that window has closed, you can either try to keep it open or see it shut down on you violently. Some general managers will do everything in their power to try and keep that window cracked open for as long as possible. Eventually, you need to realize that the moment has passed and another direction is required.
So what does an NBA roster need to contend at the highest levels? Let’s take a look.
Stars: It’s the most important part of the puzzle. You need players that can simply carry your team on a nightly basis. Not only do you need these players to score, you need them to lead the roster and right the ship. Superstar players aren’t just offensive weapons. They impact the game in a variety of ways. Kenny Smith once brilliantly described what makes a “Superstar” in the NBA.
“There’s 5-6 ways to effect a game…scoring, rebound, assist, defensive, leadership, pace of game. Superstars lead it in 3-4 categories EVERY single night…”
The translation is that superstars don’t just need to score—they need to do it all. If they are struggling shooting the ball, how else are they impacting the game? If your team is in a tie game that’s coming down to the wire, how are they putting their team in a position to succeed?
Crunch-time players: This cannot be overlooked. While a team might have a go-to starting lineup, that doesn’t always necessarily mean it’s the same five players that are going to be on the court during the final stretch. Imagine putting together an elaborate dinner. Each day could require a different taste or desire. You have to walk into the kitchen and examine what ingredients are at your disposal before scrapping everything together for a focused effort.
That’s just what crunch-time players are. You have to support your coaching staff with the versatility to adjust to the opposition. Numerous offensive threats on the court for the opponent? What defensive stoppers can you throw in to limit the bleeding? Struggling to generate offense? Who can come in and hit a couple of go-ahead buckets in the final minutes?
Glue-Guys: One of the most overlooked and underappreciated players in the entire league. Every team that contends for an NBA Championship needs one. Draymond Green and his ilk are the alphas, and they will get plenty of deserving spotlights, but there’s one on every successful team. These are the players that get a team pumped up for a road game in Utah in the middle of February.
They don’t need to score a ton to be effective. They do the dirty work—the P.J. Tucker, Jae Crowder, Shane Battier, and James Posey types of the world. Some contenders hunt for them every offseason; it’s usually one of the final pieces that might put everything together. Teams that have them want to keep them. Teams that don’t have them do everything in their power to find them.
The Defensive Stopper(s): While it’s easy to fall in love with the offensive weaponry that creates highlights on SportsCenter, it’s also key to remember there’s another side of the ball. Every roster needs to have the capability to roll out a lineup that can create stops on numerous possessions. The game of basketball is a game of runs. Being able to limit those runs goes a long way towards pulling out a victory in the end.
Even if a team has a plethora of offensive weapons, you still need go-to options to give you some punch on the defensive side of the ball. It’s a reason why the NBA has always been obsessed with young incoming players that offer the idea of defensive versatility. If you can find a player who can switch and defend multiple positions at a high level, it automatically gives you a Swiss Army knife in the rotation.
Depth & Skill assets: This is an area of the roster that cannot be ignored. While it might seem obvious, this is a spot that can lead to potential headaches for a contender. Say an organization goes all in on acquiring that “third star” to give their starting lineup an extra boost. In order to do so, they have to trade three key pieces of their rotation. That depth is suddenly depleted, and the team has to rely on a number of minimum contracts to have “career years” to hopefully fill the hole.
The problem with that thinking is the toll of an entire season—82 regular season games followed by a number of lengthy, grueling playoff series, which is eventually going to translate into injuries. Take, for example, the 2008 Boston Celtics. While many will point out the likes of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen as the reason why Boston was able to win a championship, it’s important to not ignore the depth that stepped up in huge moments.
Players such as Eddie House, Leon Powe, James Posey, and Tony Allen were also incredible depth pieces. Another key asset that wasn’t acquired that season until the buyout market was veteran rotation piece P.J. Brown. You don’t need to find players that will play serious minutes regularly in the playoffs, but you need to have the depth to step up when called upon to contribute. No matter how strong your 1-5 might be, you’re going to need the 6-10 just as much when the playoffs come around.
Heading into the “Post-Kevin Durant” era, the Oklahoma City Thunder found themselves needing to find additional pieces to their roster. General Manager Sam Presti knew this after analyzing his roster. So what did he have? He had one of the most electrifying point guards in the league in Russell Westbrook. He had some intriguing assets in defensive big man Serge Ibaka and young center Steven Adams. But Presti knew that some difficult decisions were going to need to be made.
Those decisions would begin an avalanche of change for the organization’s future.
June 23rd, 2016
Oklahoma City trades Serge Ibaka to Orlando Magic for Victor Oladipo, Ersan Ilyasova, and the rights to power forward Domantas Sabonis (11th overall pick in 2016).
You might not realize it, but this was the beginning of it all. After seeing players such as James Harden and Kevin Durant leave the team, Presti quickly realized the window was closing on the Thunder. So what does a visionary do? He quickly analyzes the playing field and pivots to create future assets.
Presti previously went on to ship Ibaka to Orlando while acquiring a number of interesting pieces. Despite acquiring Oladipo, the Thunder also got their hands on Gonzaga forward Domantas Sabonis, who turned out to be a pretty good piece in this era of chaos.
November 1st, 2016
OKC trades Ersan Ilyasova and a 2020 First Round Draft Pick (Tyrese Maxey) to the Philadelphia 76ers for Jerami Grant.
While it might not look like this splashiest move on paper, this was another strategic move that gave Presti another versatile asset. Acquiring Jerami Grant from the 76ers gave the Thunder a versatile asset that could become a complementary piece moving forward. Again, Presti was aggressive in not only getting players who could strengthen this team but also getting his hands on another versatile asset for the future.
July 6th, 2017
OKC Trades Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis to the Indiana Pacers for Paul George.
In one of the biggest surprises in the NBA at the time, Presti and the Thunder went on to trade Domantas Sabonis and Victor Oladipo for superstar wing Paul George. After just one year with the club, Presti pivoted and saw an opportunity to trade in his assets for a potential superstar. George would go on to average 25.0 points, 6.9 rebounds, 3.7 assists, and 2.1 steals per game over the next two seasons for the Thunder.
July 25th, 2018
OKC Trades Carmelo Anthony and a 2022 First Round Draft Pick to the Atlanta Hawks for Dennis Schroder as part of three-team trade.
After an experiment that didn’t work out for the Thunder, Carmelo Anthony was eventually traded to the Atlanta Hawks as part of a three-team deal. In return, the Thunder got their hands on versatile bench asset Dennis Schroder. Quietly, OKC had put together a team featuring some intriguing depth.
PG: Russell Westbrook/ Dennis Schroder
SG: Terrance Ferguson/ Raymond Felton
SF: Paul George
PF: Jerami Grant / Markieff Morris
C: Steven Adams / Nerlens Noel
After losing a generational superstar like Kevin Durant to free agency, not many teams would be able to rebound quickly and put together a playoff contender. After three years, the Thunder found themselves making the playoffs each year. With the acquisition of Paul George, the Thunder finally looked like a team that could make a bit of noise in the Western Conference each year.
Westbrook continued to thrive and was coming off a year in which he posted averages of 22.9 points, 11.1 rebounds, and 10.7 assists per game. Paul George had also just had a career year, finishing with 28.0 points, 8.2 rebounds, 4.1 assists, and a career-high 2.2 steals per game. With Steven Adams continuing to improve and Grant and Schroder becoming key rotation pieces, it looked as if the Thunder were trending in the right direction.
But that’s when the madness stepped in. Was this a title contender, or was this just chasing the ghost of a dream?
July 10th, 2019
OKC Trades Paul George to Los Angeles Clippers for Danilo Gallinari and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
2021 First Round Draft Pick (Tre Mann selected).
2022 First Round Draft Pick (Jalen Williams selected).
‘23, ‘24, ‘25, ‘26 First Round Draft Picks (‘23 & ‘25 right to swap).
After looking like a team that was just a couple of strategic pieces away from climbing up the ranks in the Western Conference, Presti saw an opportunity and jumped at it. Paul George would be traded to the Los Angeles Clippers for a treasure chest of draft picks. In return, the Thunder would also get young talented guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and forward Danilo Gallinari.
Years later, those draft picks have already started to make some noise. One of those selections would turn into Tre Mann, who showed some flashes throughout the second half of the 2021-22 season for OKC. Another pick turned into Jalen Williams in this year’s 2022 NBA Draft. Williams showcased the potential to be a heck of an asset for this Thunder team moving forward, especially with SGA looking like the potential grand prize from the transaction.
July 16th, 2019
OKC Trades Russell Westbrook to Houston Rockets for Chris Paul.
‘21, ‘24, ‘25, ‘26 First Round Draft Picks.
It was the writing on the wall, and it didn’t take long for everything to fall into place. Presti turned and traded franchise star Russell Westbrook to the Houston Rockets in exchange for Chris Paul and another treasure chest of draft selections.
While it was the beginning of uncertain times for the Thunder and their fans, it was also the start of a road towards a promising future. The idea of the organization would completely shift.
Instead of looking like a team that was a couple of assets away from contending for the Western Conference Finals, the Thunder were taking a step back. There was a bigger vision ahead—one that would require time, patience, and courage.
PG: Chris Paul / Dennis Schroder
SG: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander / Terrance Ferguson
SF: Luguentz Dort/ Hamidou Diallo
PF: Danilo Gallinari / Darius Bazley
C: Steven Adams / Nerlens Noel
The Thunder went into the 2019-20 season as a team that wasn’t expected to make much noise in the NBA, but that wasn’t what this roster had in mind. With an intriguing mixture of veterans and young assets, the Thunder went on to be a classic overachiever. They finished the year with a 44-28 record, securing the fifth seed in the Western Conference.
With Chris Paul showcasing his ability to still be a sensational talent, the Thunder were a tough out in the first round against the Houston Rockets. It was a massive year for the team, as it was clear that young guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was taking notable strides forward towards becoming a rising star. SGA would go on to average 19.0 points, 5.9 rebounds, and 3.3 assists per game while playing alongside CP3.
Once Presti realized that his young assets were starting to take off, he again pivoted and looked to continue building his team’s future.
November 16th, 2020
OKC trades Chris Paul and Abdel Nader to Phoenix in return for Ricky Rubio, Kelly Oubre, Ty Jerome, Jalen Lecque and a 2022 First Round Draft Pick (Peyton Watson).
After shining in his one season with the Thunder, Sam Presti shipped Chris Paul to the Phoenix Suns. It would be the beginning of a number of different moves in which Presti started to really turn up the notch when it came to acquiring draft capital. OKC would acquire veterans Ricky Rubio and Kelly Oubre in return, and that’s when Presti realized he wasn’t done dealing yet.
November 22nd, 2020
OKC Trades Kelly Oubre to Golden State Warriors for a 2021 Second Round Draft Pick (Miles McBride) and a 2021 Second Round Draft Pick (Aaron Wiggins selected).
November 23rd, 2020
OKC Trades Steven Adams to New Orleans for 2023 First Round Pick (via DEN), Zylan Cheatham, Joshia Gray, Darius Miler, and Kenrich Williams.
Another pair of moves saw the Oklahoma City Thunder moving veterans for future draft picks. One of those underrated moves was trading Kelly Oubre to the Golden State Warriors. It would eventually land the team Aaron Wiggins, who looks to be a potential sneaky underrated asset for the rotation moving forward. Although nothing is certain, Presti took a newly acquired player and turned it quickly into a piece that has the potential to be another asset for the roster to build with going forward.
In another sequence of moves, Presti moved big man Steven Adams to the New Orleans Pelicans as part of a four-team trade. One of the notable additions in that trade was Kenrich Williams, who has become a solid piece of the puzzle for the roster moving forward. Williams recently signed a four-year, $27.2 million extension with the team.
December 8th, 2020
OKC trades Terrance Ferguson, Danny Green and Vincent Poirier to the Philadelphia 76ers for Al Horford, Theo Maledon, and a 2025 First Round Draft Pick.
2020-21 Opening Night Rotation:
PG: Shai Gilgeous Alexander/ Theo Maledon
SG: George Hill/ Hamidou Diallo
SF: Luguentz Dort/ Aleksej Pokusevski
PF: Darius Bazley/ Mike Muscala
C: Al Horford/ Kenrich Williams
It was clear that the “rebuild” was reaching overdrive when it came to the opening night rotation for the 2020-21 season. Presti went out and took on a number of contracts in return for future draft picks. One of those involved Al Horford, who eventually was traded to the Boston Celtics the following year. While the roster started to have some holes, it was clear that there was a bigger picture moving forward.
A team that had a number of key players on their roster had suddenly looked like a “Dream Team” when it came to the idea of tanking. But Presti continued to put his foot down and trust the process of his future draft capital turning into a high return on investment. It was a position that required trust and an incredibly patient ownership group.
June 18th, 2021
Trades Moses Brown, Al Horford, and a 2023 Second Round Draft Pick to the Boston Celtics for Kemba Walker and a 2021 First round pick (Alperen Sengun selected).
2021 NBA Draft:
Selects Josh Giddey (6th)
Tre Mann (18th)
Jeremiah Robinson-Earl (32nd)
Aaron Wiggins (55th)
In his first year of having a treasure chest of draft selections, Presti went to work. As pointed out earlier in the piece, not every draft class needs to feature numerous superstars in order for the team to start trending in the right direction. This was the beginning of a heck of a haul for the Thunder visionary.
Presti “shocked” the world with the selection of Josh Giddey at sixth overall. It’s safe to say that Giddey looks to be a player that is still just scratching the surface when it comes to his long-term potential.
From there, the Thunder would add Tre Mann (18th), Jeremiah Robinson-Earl (32nd), and Aaron Wiggins (55th). The rare capability that the Thunder have had during this “rebuilding” phase is the ability to let their young pieces get playing time.
The Thunder continue to have one of the most underrated developmental staffs in the league. The OKC Blue G-League squad has been an outstanding asset for the Thunder, and the team uses them in a way that every franchise should take note of for the future.
The Thunder realized the importance of developing confidence in their young players. The team wasn’t in a position to stress over wins and losses each and every year. The intention of the organization was clear. Here’s the talent; now give them the freedom to experience growing pains and work with them to improve their ability throughout the season.
2021-22 Opening Night Rotation:
PG: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander/ Theo Maledon
SG: Josh Giddey / Tre Mann/ Aaron Wiggins
SF: Luguentz Dort/ Aleksej Pokusevski
PF: Darius Bazley/ Kenrich Williams
C: Derrick Favors/ Jeremiah Robinson-Earl
There were still some holes left to be filled, but it quickly started to look like the Thunder were on the verge of building something intriguing for years to come. Numerous pieces on the roster started to show flashes of becoming valuable assets moving forward.
While every rebuild is going to require a serious amount of luck, you can counter those odds with strategic additions. Not every draft requires a front office to “swing for the fences.” Sometimes hitting singles and doubles will continue to add up over time. That’s just the idea that Presti and the Thunder had with their plethora of draft selections.
Finding undrafted gems like Luguentz Dort. Drafting young pieces like Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, Aaron Wiggins, and Tre Mann. Acquiring versatile talent like Kenrich Williams. Each move was strategic. Each move was filling one piece of a massive puzzle.
2022 NBA Draft:
Selects Chet Holmgren (2nd)
Ousmane Dieng (11th)
Jalen Williams (12th)
Jaylin Williams (34th)
It was only a matter of time before Sam Presti and the Thunder organization were going to have their opportunity to strike gold. That opportunity presented itself during the 2022 NBA Draft. After landing the second overall selection on the night of the Draft Lottery, OKC had the opportunity to add another potential star to the mix. That player turned out to be Gonzaga big man Chet Holmgren.
But that was only the beginning of an aggressive plan. From there, Presti went on to attack the draft with a number of strategic additions. To swing for upside, Presti made a draft night trade to acquire the rights to raw wing Ousmane Dieng. While Dieng will most likely be a developmental piece in his rookie year, the Thunder have the track record to wait patiently and reap the rewards down the road.
OKC then went on to select Santa Clara guard Jalen Williams with the 12th overall pick. One of the top standouts throughout Summer League, Williams suddenly looks like a player who could become a versatile weapon in the rotation for the Thunder for years to come. From there, the Thunder went on to select another big man with fascinating upside with the 34th overall pick in Arkansas sophomore Jaylin Williams.
2022-23 Projected Roster:
PG: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander/ Tre Mann
SG: Josh Giddey / Jalen Williams
SF: Luguentz Dort / Aaron Wiggins/ Ousmane Dieng
PF: Darius Bazley/ Kenrich Williams
C: Chet Holmgren/ Jeremiah Robinson-Earl
It’s been a long road to this stage for Sam Presti and the entire Oklahoma City Thunder organization. While the roster is surely going to still have some growing pains due to the number of youthful pieces, the plan is starting to come together.
Oklahoma City suddenly has the potential to have one of the most exciting young cores in the entire league. That’s just what happens when a visionary strategically looks at something and realizes that a more challenging path could pay off in a big way.
The Thunder have attacked the future of the NBA with a thirst to acquire as many draft selections as possible. After shaping up the rest of their roster with strategic moves over the years, it’s clear that the Thunder are on their way toward putting a special product on the court.
The Art of Presti has been chaotic and confusing to some. For one decision maker, it’s been a masterpiece of madness that is starting to finally come alive on a basketball court.