As the clock revs up to the beginning of another season, there are rumblings from various sources of player discord among some organizations. This has almost become par for the course over the past decade as players to try either position themselves in places where they can contend for a championship or look to push the eject button on a situation they deem to be irreconcilable. This landscape is exactly the landscape that Oklahoma City Thunder general manager Sam Presti wants to operate in.
When Presti traded Paul George for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Danilo Gallinari, and a record haul of picks in the summer of 2019, he did so with the thought that the picks would be the vehicle to get back to contention. Whether that was in the form of players the Thunder would select or as assets that could be used to obtain a superstar, the picks were the main catalyst for the completion of that trade. That Gilgeous-Alexander may eventually become a top-20 player in this league was just icing on the cake.
Presti foresaw this situation playing out because he’s literally seen this movie (and been a main character in the movie) several times recently. The player who Presti traded to the Clippers was a Thunder acquisition in a similar vein several years back. Instead of draft picks, though, the Thunder traded two All-Star level players in Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis. The acquisition of Carmelo Anthony one year and then the subsequent acquisition of Dennis Schroder for an “untradeable” Anthony the next year is another example. Trading a “worst contract in the league” Russell Westbrook for an even worse contract in Chris Paul. Then rehabbing Paul’s standing in the league and getting even more assets. All these moves are of the action/adventure genre for Presti. The Greek tragedy in Presti’s portfolio, of course, was the defection of Kevin Durant to the Warriors with no asset going back to OKC.
As seen in the above paragraph, high level players are not always content where they are. The Durant departure not only wounded the Thunder, but it also put the entire NBA on notice: superstars can still leave once their contracts run out. Since that time, teams have been very leery of stars approaching free agency. If they get any inkling of doubt that the player may not re-sign, they will do whatever possible to get some sort of asset(s) for said player. The lessons learned from Presti that day have become the blueprint for building this current iteration of the Thunder back up.
See, that’s the dirty little secret about this rebuild. The Thunder never intended to go through with drafting players for all those picks. Instead, they were going to “pre-Kevin Durant” another team. And as we head into the 2021-22 season, that appears to be happening right before our eyes. The Ben Simmons saga has been playing out all summer and it appears to be coming to a head as training camps start to open up. The surprise shake-up in the Timberwolves organization overnight had star center Karl-Anthony Towns tweeting out a three letter, expletive-laden question. And everyday that goes by in New Orleans is a day closer to Zion Williamson leaving, according to many in the media. And those are just the ones that have popped up over the past week. We still have to see how the Damian Lillard situation plays out this season. How the Sabonis situation plays out in Indiana. How the Jaren Jackson Jr. situation plays out in Memphis. Hell, even the Andrew Wiggins situation in Golden State seems worth keeping an eye on. Et cetera, et cetera….
But while those situations are playing out, Presti will be lying in wait, armed to the teeth with an asset chest bursting at the seams. The only question is when to pull the trigger and for whom. Many a rebuild has been tripped up by a team’s insistence on pushing all their chips in too early or by trading for the wrong player(s). This year seems too soon to start cashing in some of those asset chips. The Thunder’s pick in this upcoming draft is lottery protected. But if the Thunder somehow make the playoffs, the pick goes to the Atlanta Hawks as part of the Dennis Schroder trade from several years ago. Presti will likely choose to roll into this season with a young team that likely won’t win much in order to maximize his draft capital heading into this next draft. But there’s also a scenario where the seeds of discord around the NBA present Presti with an opportunity to add an All-NBA level talent to pair with SGA. And if that occurs, it may be too good of an opportunity to let pass by.