The Oklahoma City Thunder’s Sam Presti has a plan, and it revolves around the NBA Draft
For the second year in a row, the Oklahoma City Thunder are one of the worst teams in the NBA. Everything is going according to plan for Sam Presti.
Sam Presti may be the only executive who is as committed to his team’s success as he is. The Oklahoma City Thunder’s current tankathon, which has lasted two seasons, has moved the franchise as far away from the national spotlight as possible. The team is rarely covered by the mainstream media.
There isn’t even a Thunder beat reporter on The Athletic. Presti has quietly built one of the NBA’s best young cores over the years.
Presti has an uncanny ability to spot talent. The evidence is in the dozens of his draft picks who have gone on to play at the top levels of the league.
And we’re not just talking about James Harden and Russell Westbrook. Cam Payne was chosen by Presti. Steven Adams, like Reggie Jackson, has had some misses (who hasn’t? But he’s also unearthed excellent NBA players all over the draft.
Presti is widely mocked in the NBA for amassing a ridiculous number of draft picks and taking tanking to its logical conclusion. There is, however, a method to his lunacy. In the last few drafts, he’s swung wide and hit home runs.
But in the process, he’s developed a youthful core that’s among the league’s best, pointing to a bright future of positionless basketball. And he’s done it with major moves that have put the draft first, relying on his and his team’s ability to find value.
One of the most lopsided moves in recent decades was Paul George’s to the Clippers. According to the ESPN report, the Thunder sent off a second-tier superstar in exchange for the Clippers’ unprotected first-round picks in 2022, 2024, and 2026, as well as 2021 (unprotected) and 2023 (protected) first-round picks via the Miami Heat and the option to swap picks with the Thunder in 2023 and 2025.
That’s a fantastic return. It bankrupted the Clippers’ draft capital long beyond Kawhi Leonard and Paul George’s prime years. In addition, the Clippers transferred current Thunder cornerstone Shai Gilgeous-Alexander to the Thunder as part of the deal.
SGA has developed into one of the league’s greatest guards, and he had already shown tremendous promise with the Clippers before being sold. Presti has put a lot of playmakers and wings who don’t care about where they play around him at Oklahoma, which relieves him of the responsibility of facilitating and also makes it easier for him to score in a spread-out system.
Stockpiling draft capital was a wonderful approach for a CEO who recognized that there was no other way to improve. No major free agent will ever choose OKC as a destination in free agency, no matter how amazing the culinary scene develops.
Trades are conceivable, but they should be done at the conclusion of the process, when adding the last piece to a core that has already been constructed. Before their core is determined, the Thunder can’t risk their only capital—draft assets—in an arbitrary transaction. Presti was smart to keep his draft assets until the right piece came along.
Sam Presti has already scored huge wins for the Oklahoma City Thunder
Presti has focused his current roster on two-way players that thrive in transition and can fit into any offensive system. Lu Dort, for example, went undrafted in 2019, despite being a five-star recruit out of high school, and was snatched up by Presti.
With an average of 17 points per game, he is now one of the top perimeter defenders in the league. Dort is a versatile player who can guard all five spots and is a bright, selfless player who relishes the most difficult defensive assignments.
Presti has only failed to make the 2020 draft. In a reasonably top-heavy draft, Presti was ready to take a chance on the wildly unimpressive Théo Maledon (selected 34th) and the high ceiling/basement-dwelling floor of Aleksej Pokusevski (chosen 17th) in a reasonably top-heavy draft.
The head-scratching draft-day moves have always been Presti’s biggest L’s. When he dealt with Immanuel quickly in the following transactions to land Maledon, he should have regretted not keeping him in 2020. There is no such thing as a perfect general manager. Maledon and Poku both appear to be on the verge of retiring from the league.
Presti stunned the league by selecting Australian pro Josh Giddey with the sixth choice in the 2021 draft. On the court, Giddey exemplifies everything that makes Presti special in the front office. Giddy’s ceiling is as sky-high as a passing visionary.
He can also play four positions, possibly five in small-ball combinations, which makes him a valuable asset for future draft picks. Thanks to Giddey and SGA’s enormous frames, Presti will be able to choose the best player available, regardless of position.
Giddey has a knack for improving others and pulling off late-game heroics. With 13, 8, and 6 points per game, he was named to the NBA Rookie First Team. He’ll become an even more lethal cog in the Thunder spacing offense once his 3-point percentage rises above 26%.
With SGA as a legitimate first-round pick, Dort as a defensive stalwart, Giddey as an emerging star, and supplementary players like Tre Mann, Darius Bazely, and Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, the only piece missing is a big man.
Presti’s decision to trade Alperen Engün for Mann with this year’s 16th choice was unfortunate. Mann wants to be a reliable shooter off the bench, but he never had the ceiling of Engün, who is averaging 9 and 5 as a rookie off the Rockets’ bench.
It’s pointless to cling to old fleeces, but the Thunder’s path to contention appears to be smoother than other rebuilding teams’. It will only take a short time for the core to gel once they add the center. Presti, on the other hand, is known for being patient. The team has one of the best development coaching staffs in the league.
This isn’t even taking into account Presti’s historic store of draft capital for the future. Over the following seven drafts, the Thunder will have 38 picks.
Each draft has an average of five picks. There are 19 first-round picks and 19 second-round picks among the 38 total picks. When the current superstar-laden clubs’ windows close in 2025, the Thunder will control draft picks for the following teams with varying degrees of protection:
- Thunder have the right to swap between Houston (Protected top-10) or Los Angeles
- 76ers top-six protected
- Clippers unprotected pick
- Rockets top-four protected
Not to mention the fact that the franchise owns all of its draft picks and that a slew of first-rounders from other teams will be transferring before 2025. Presti will be able to combine other teams’ FRP with his own in order to trade for a spring star or supporting players for SGA, Giddey, Dort, and others.
By the time they reach the playoffs in 2025, the Thunder will have valuable draft picks from rumored bottom-feeders to deal with. If their present core continues to develop, it might happen sooner than later.
It wouldn’t be the first time a Presti team outperformed expectations. It will be up to him to better manage contracts and egos than he did the previous time around. If he succeeds, he might bring in a new era of positionless basketball.