5 min read

Sam Presti, the magic man

Sam Presti, the magic man

The trade deadline sent Joffrey Lauvergne, Cameron Payne, and Anthony Morrow packing for Chicago, and welcomed Doug McDermott and Taj Gibson as the newest members of the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Gibson provides a much-needed sense of toughness and grit that have been notably absent in OKC since the departure of Kendrick Perkins. McDermott adds a true long-range specialist, the likes of which Thunder fans have long-awaited. Looking at his deep-ball accuracy in comparison to team-leaders in OKC over the last two seasons, it’s easy to see why fans are excited about having a new sharpshooter in town.

Not a “blockbuster” trade, per se, but one that sends a message to Russell Westbrook and the Thunder faithful: we’re not done yet, we’re here to compete.

This was supposed to be the year OKC disappeared into irrelevancy. After losing Kevin Durant, many assumed OKC’s future as a perennial bottom-feeder had been solidified… but Sam Presti had other ideas. He’d worked too damn hard and too damn long to sit back and watch his franchise fall off the map.

Presti knew there was a possibility he would lose Durant to Free Agency, and you better believe he’d spent more than a few long nights meticulously crafting a backup plan…just in case. He’s never been the type to idly stand by, hoping for the best and blindly accepting the results.

Presti is fanatical about preparation; a calculated decision-maker. He lusts over the details unlike any other, equipping himself with an unparalleled level of knowledge and confidence to make personnel decisions based on his own intelligence, regardless of public perception.

His player-evaluation process is intense. He’s always watching, gauging strengths and weaknesses, actively studying the game on so many levels. From thoroughly analyzing overlooked foreign-born players, to randomly showing up at D-League games, Presti seizes every opportunity to capitalize on a potential competitive advantage. Even when the D-League affiliate was located 100-plus miles away in Tulsa, Presti would routinely make the commute. And anyone who has seen Presti at a D-League game knows he doesn’t show up to casually enjoy an evening of basketball.

He’s there on business. He sits by himself, furiously jotting down notes, laser-focused from buzzer to buzzer. Presti leverages the D-League to motivate and challenge the mental toughness of younger players whenever he recognizes an opportunity. In 2012, Reggie Jackson was third on OKC’s depth chart at point guard behind Russ and Eric Maynor. Jackson had rarely played meaningful minutes at that point in his career, but was slowly catching the attention of the Thunder coaching staff.

Instead of thrusting him into the Thunder rotation, Presti handed Jackson a D-League assignment. It almost felt like Presti was issuing a personal challenge to Jackson. As if to say, “You think you deserve minutes at the Peake? I’m sending you the D-League. I’ll be watching from the stands. Prove it.”

Jackson accepted the challenge and played with an obvious mission to flat-out humiliate every defender on every possession. Reggie put up 37 points and went 14-19 from the field, as Presti watched from the crowd like a mad scientist fixated on his latest successful experiment. It’s that mad-scientist mentality that sets him apart from the other GM’s. When you’ve got a player-personnel mastermind calling the shots, your chances of disappearing from NBA relevancy decrease exponentially.

Presti is like the Simon Cowell of the NBA, consistently finding stars where others said they were non-existent. Take the 2013 NBA draft for example. A watered-down draft class that featured Anthony Bennett as the #1 overall selection. Billed as the year with a few decent lottery prospects, but no serious game changers. Presti, undeterred by the negativity surrounding the draft, did his usual homework, and used the 12th overall selection to get an uknown New Zealander named Steven Adams.

With the 24th pick in 2009 he took Serge Ibaka – a non-English speaking native of the Congo who no one knew existed. Two years later came Reggie Jackson with the 24th pick. Jackson may not be the most popular guy in OKC, but he averaged 18.8 points per game last season. He can ball. NBA teams are not supposed to get guys like that with the 24th pick on a routine basis, but that’s exactly the type of strategic decision-making that has helped soften the blow of losing a top-five player to free agency.

But you can’t blame those who said Durant’s departure signaled the end of OKC’s run as a perennial force in the West. NBA history is littered with examples of franchise players skipping town, triggering a downward spiral of epic proportions; particularly in franchises dubbed as “small markets.”

Shaq left Orlando 20 years ago and they’ve never been the same. The Timberwolves have had exactly zero seasons with a winning record since Kevin Garnett left Minnesota over a decade ago.

In 2009-10, the Cavs finished the regular season with a record of 61 wins and 21 losses; tops in the league for the second straight year. Lebron bolted for Miami the following season, and Cleveland finished with a record of 19-63; dead last in the Eastern Conference.

During Lebron’s final season in Miami, the Heat posted a record of 54 wins and 28 losses. The following season – although they returned four of the starting-five that brought an NBA title to Miami just two years prior – it didn’t matter. They missed the playoffs, finishing 37-45.

For Thunder fans, keeping Westbrook in town was awesome. But if you’ve been around the NBA long enough, you know when a dynamic-duo turns into a dynamic-solo, the following season is almost always a catastrophic failure. Just ask the Lakers. When the “Shaq and Kobe Show” turned into the “Just Kobe Show,” the Lakers went from 56-26 to 34-48 overnight.

I could go all day with these examples, but you get the over-arching message. Losing Kevin Durant would have crippled a lesser franchise. Comparing against the results from teams that have faced a similar situation, I’d say the Thunder are holding serve quite well.

Here’s the moral of the story – when Sam Presti makes a move, you can trust he’s done his homework. If he makes a personnel decision that seems bizarre on the surface, understand that Presti is playing chess while the rest of the league is playing duck-duck-goose. He’s always three steps ahead. When he acquired Joffrey Lauvergne in the offseason, it wasn’t because he thought Lauvergne was the missing piece to a championship. It was because Lauvergne is a low-risk semi-stretch-four with decent upside and zero salary cap liability.

A player like that can be a strong bargaining chip down the road when you’re trying to trade for, say… Doug McDermott and Taj Gibson.