The State of the Oklahoma City Thunder

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I don’t have a lot of time these days, not for writing, not for social media. So it really irks me that every time I get online to see what’s going down in the world of hoops – and in particular the Oklahoma City Thunder – I am greeted by some short sighted and simply ill-informed or wrongly perceived opinions. As fans, I love the passion that we show, but I also believe we really need to be realistic and understand how the business of sport works.

The one consistently annoying message I see almost daily (and nearly ALWAYS after a Thunder loss) is about Sam Presti. Poor Sam is the General Manager of the organisation that is the Oklahoma City Thunder. He gets such a bad rap that I feel like his personal “Batman” each time I log into Facebook or Twitter.

So allow me to break down some hard truths for you.

Sam Presti doesn’t suck.

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He’s quite an astute GM who has a number of objectives and key performance indicators he has to address, meet and hopefully exceed. If you think I am talking a bit too “business-like” then you clearly don’t understand that the NBA is a business. A big time, serious business. Sam Presti’s schedule of works looks something like this: responsible for overseeing all of the business and financial operations of the team, public relations as the public face of the team, player personnel decisions, including drafting, handling free agents and contracts and plenty more.

So you can see, this role is no picnic.

No-one does their job without flaw. No-one expects you to get it right 100% of the time (apart from fans of course!) and there will be some mistakes. Mistakes don’t make you a bad manager, repeated mistakes do. Presti hasn’t always hit the nail on the head when it comes to drafting. For every KD & Russ, there is a Cole Aldrich & Mitch McGary, but for the most part, when it comes to selecting talent, Presti has done a great job. KD, Russ, Harden, Serge Ibaka, Reggie Jackson, Steven Adams….. ask around – other front offices are jealous of the Thunder’s ability to find quality at the latter end of the draft and to nail the lottery.

There has been plenty of talent leave the Oklahoma City Thunder organisation too, and this is where the blame starts to be unfairly placed on Presti. OKC have seen Jeff Green, James Harden, Reggie Jackson, Serge Ibaka and of course, Kevin Durant walk out the door in recent times. But that isn’t all on Sam Presti. You see, he has to “oversee the financial operations of the team” and that includes trying to put the best team out on the floor while working within the salary cap, luxury tax, repeater tax and other fiscal thresholds. Then, add in the complications of the changing landscape of the salary cap and Collective Bargaining Agreements and situations (like the Harden one) cannot be measured in todays’ terms.

Outside of losing Durant for nothing (and he did everything in his power to create a contender – which OKC were – and then brought in Oladipo etc to get them over the hump, but KD obviously bolted) Presti has always been able to find quality return for his assets. Whether it be players, picks, or trade exceptions, Presti doesn’t lose talent for nothing and doesn’t take the risk. If you don’t sign an extension, he rarely allows the franchise to get involved in a bidding war, because the Thunder (and owners) do not have the deep pockets of some larger organisations. You may not like the moves, you may not agree with them, but that doesn’t mean Sam Presti isn’t a great employee.

In fact, the reason the Oklahoma City Thunder have continued to be a perennial playoff team is because Presti is damn good at his job. You only need to look at the ESPN Front Office Surveys to see how highly rated the front office in OKC is (the Thunder finished 8th in voting in 2015).

 

Times Change

We’ve just seen a new CBA that means, in principle, we avoid a lockout – which is great news for all involved. It also means that the sporting landscape will change, just as it does (and did last year) with the rise in salary cap. Now – everyone say this next part with me – you can’t judge past deals and situations with current rules and regulations. It’s not fair, it’s not comparing apples with apples, and it does not tell you the correct story.

The Thunder have always tried to stay ahead of the game. They have to. They know a small market team like theirs isn’t a free agent destination choice. They can’t spend hand over fist like some teams with multi-billionaire owners can, and they can’t sell the location – so they have to be smart. They have developed an incredible culture that is forged around sustainable success, being able to compete year in and year out. It means the fans are always treated to a playoff appearance (apart from their very first season in Oklahoma City and the one season where KD was injured & OKC missed out solely based on the tie-breaker with the New Orleans Pelicans). That’s 6 of the past 7 years that the playoffs have featured the Thunder.

Sam Presti has nearly always succeeded in delivering a post-season appearance to the fans. That, in any sport and in any language, is a terrific measure of success. It has also brought an NBA Finals appearance and Western Conference title, numerous Western Conference Finals appearances, plenty of Divisional titles and the list goes on.

Players are also changing with these times and choosing where they want to play. Sam Presti and the Oklahoma City Thunder could not have done anything more to keep KD in a Thunder uniform. He wanted to play in Golden State – said it himself – and so he did. It wasn’t that the Thunder were a poor team, or hadn’t been successful, he just exercised his right as a free agent to play for whoever he wanted to. (Just happened to really suck that it was the team OKC had just lost to in the WCF)

 

The current roster was built around Russell Westbrook and KD

Why is this relevant? Because every damn day I see some tweet or facebook comment about “how Russ needs help or he will demand a trade and / or walk when he can”. News flash people – Presti had built a roster a CONTENDING roster around Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. He had made the move to acquire Victor Oladipo to bolster the scoring – not to replace one of the games best. It’s going to take time to bounce back from a loss of a top 5 superstar. Facts.

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As soon as KD left, Presti went about signing Russ to an extension. And then he turned his attention to putting his team in the best position to compete at very short notice. He created a trade exception when he brought in Grant, the Thunder extended Steven Adams and Victor Oladipo to go with Westbrook, and he made a few bit piece moves like Joffrey Lauvergne. You can’t introduce a handful of new players and expect things to be the same – especially when you have a gaping 30ppg hole at the small forward position – and expect to be the same team. It takes time.

The Thunder still haven’t had Cameron Payne on the floor this season – so they have yet to be at full strength. After winning 7 of 8 games, they have dropped their last two while Oladipo has been sidelined – and people with their knee jerk reactions are heading for the hills. It’s ludicrous. People also don’t understand that as this team starts to move in a different direction and become structured solely around Russ, it was also heavily reliant on December 15 hitting the calendar. Most of the league aren’t eligible for trade before this time, so everyone expecting Presti to hit a home run in the first month of the season just isn’t being realistic or reasonable.

 

What Now?

If you’ve taken the time to read this so far, then I hope I have been able to provide a different point of view and give you some background as to how NBA teams work – especially the Oklahoma City Thunder. But, that’s all well and good. Where do OKC and Sam Presti go from here?

I am not privy to any inside information or hot tips, but I have followed this team and NBA basketball long enough to have a rough idea of how things might pan out. And you better believe a trade is coming. Now, this is also murky with fan bases because when you think of a potential trades you almost certainly ALWAYS look at it so it benefits your team and do not identify there are two or more parties making the move. For instance, no matter how you dress it up – there isn’t a GM on earth who is taking Kyle Singler, Josh Heustis and pieces for Gordon Hayward or Paul Pierce (yes, these are literally some ideas I have witnessed on social media!!!). It also means that the Thunder are going to have to part with something in order to get the help they need and the only players with any trade value are guys like Cameron Payne (if he can get healthy and show the same form he did in Summer League and at stages in his rookie season) and Enes Kanter. It would suck to lose either of them, but unless OKC leverage their first round pick or put together a multi-player package that suits a particular team who has the piece OKC want and are willing to trade, there is no other way.

The Thunder need outside shooting and they need another scorer. So far, teams have been able to pack the paint which limits Russell Westbrook’s effectiveness (and he is still averaging a triple double!!!) and also makes life difficult for Steven Adams. Defences can cheat and leave players like Roberson, Grant and others alone from deep because they won’t get burnt – and they focus on Russ and Funaki. That has to be rectified. Whether it be Rudy Gay (who has been linked to OKC ever since KD flew the coop) or someone completely different, the Thunder need to target a shooter / scorer / floor spacer who isn’t a liability on the defensive end.

 

In Closing, Thunder fans have been treated to some incredible basketball since the franchise moved there in 2008. Sam Presti has been a pivotal piece of this sustained success and will continue to be moving forward. He hasn’t been perfect, but he’s been brilliant – and we will no doubt see some more of that during the season as the Thunder once again take aim at the post-season.

One Comment

  1. Fred Pahlke

    December 16, 2016 at 2:58 pm

    I could not have put it any better. Excellent writing Mark. fredsportsextra.com

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