OKC Thunder: Presti avoids trends charting path to the future

OKC Thunder general manager Sam Presti enters the draft with three first-round picks and three second-round picks.cover2
OKC Thunder general manager Sam Presti enters the draft with three first-round picks and three second-round picks.cover2 /

Throughout the period leading up to the NBA Draft, there were copious stories tied to the OKC Thunder. The most popular suggested Sam Presti was looking to trade up specifically into one of the top four positions. It was easy to buy into these rumors because the best way for a small market team like OKC to formulate a title-worthy team is through the draft.

Four players were noted to be generational talents and with their horde of draft picks, it made complete sense Presti would try to trade up from sixth.  Subsequently, there were rumors of the VP offering Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and the sixth pick to Detroit to get the top pick (Cade Cunningham).

Likewise, rumors swirled of trade talks between the Thunder and each of the top four positioned teams. Chris Manning confirmed OKC inquired about the Cavaliers’ third pick but didn’t include SGA in any trade discussions.  Bleacher Report’s Jake Fischer stated there was a sense among team officials that the Thunder and Raptors explored swapping picks.

OKC Thunder VP Sam Presti charts a new path to the future

When draft night arrived and every team ahead of the OKC kept their pick the resounding question in Thunder Nation was why hadn’t Presti been able to move up? The obvious answer is he needed a willing trade partner. The more in-depth response is dissecting precisely what GMs wanted in exchange for their pick.

John Hollinger who writes for the paid-for subscription The Athletic presumed the top four clubs were asking for a king’s ransom. The implication being opposing franchises view the horde of draft picks Sam Presti has amassed as disposable. That’s something the VP will have to deal with since it’s become a running joke that OKC will eventually be making all 14 lottery picks in an upcoming draft.

While that might be humorous to some it’s a reality Presti will have to thwart and this draft and early offseason are demonstrating he’s doing his due diligence. Since the Thunder won’t ever be among the clubs who have players flocking to their market in free agency to accept veteran minimum deals that are far below their value, he has no choice but to take the draft path in his rebuilding efforts.

"One presumes any team in the top three is demanding a huge sum from the Thunder, and it’s an easy ask because Oklahoma City has such a ridiculous horde of picks.In fact, I wonder if teams in the top three are actually being too careful here and pricing too much certainty into the eventual quality of their draft picks. What are the odds of the second or third pick in the draft actually turning out to be better than Gilgeous-Alexander? Go back and look at the last 10 drafts before you answer."

Still, Hollinger’s warning should be heeded – teams who place too much credence on draft prospects over proven NBA talents do so at their own risk.

There is a sprinkling of late draft picks who’ve exceeded expectations. The best current example is Nikola Jokic who was selected 41st in 2014 and was recently crowned league MVP. Yet, those Cinderella success stories are the exception rather than the rule. The OKC Thunder have one of those rare examples on the club already (Luguentz Dort) who went undrafted.

Certainly, the Thunder have a history of overperforming in the draft and they’ll continue to take chances on high-risk, high-reward selections. Aleksej Pokusevski was last season’s example. This year’s top Thunder pick Josh Giddey was viewed as a reach at sixth by most.  I’m not in that club, as my mock draft ranked him seventh with the potential for the Raptors to trade down to six to get him.

Presti continued to surprise his peers with the moves he made in the 2021 draft trading away the 16th pick and packing the 34th and 36th picks to move up to 32nd for Jeremiah Robinson-Earl. Nothing he did on July 29th was predicted and perhaps that was the point.

The NBA is a league where franchises follow the trends of the moment. Like copy-cats, teams adopt whatever is the new hot thing. Unfortunately, for a small market joining the super team trend isn’t feasible.

The closest the Thunder came to competing on that playing field was 2017 when trades added Paul George and Carmelo Anthony to form an OKC Big 3. That move didn’t translate into success, pushed the Thunder into the luxury tax, and proved unsustainable.

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In this first full season of the rebuild, Presti was presented with a paradox. If he succumbed to the exorbitant price teams were requesting it would establish the benchmark for all future seasons.

His choice was to stand firm and establish he wasn’t simply going to throw away copious portions of his accumulated draft capital. He’s chosen to practice patience with the hope those lottery balls will bounce in the Thunder’s favor next time.

The basketball magician has wowed the Thunder fanbase with many prior tricks pulling off unforeseen trades or finding hidden gems in the draft. Yet for the long-term objective of the Thunder to be accomplished Presti will need to perform several moves to create a championship-level roster.

That’s not to say fans won’t experience another Presti magical moment. Rather, it’s likely he’ll take the long play this time. And like every great magic trick, will follow the three parts of a grand illusion starting with the pledge (tanking), the turn (developing some high-risk, high-reward talents), and finally the prestige (landing a generational talent or two in the draft).

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