For the second consecutive season, the Oklahoma City Thunder are one of the worst teams in the NBA. For Sam Presti, it’s all going according to plan.
There may not be another executive as intrinsically tied to his team’s success as Sam Presti. The current tankathon the Oklahoma City Thunder have been on for the last two seasons has pushed the team as far from the national spotlight as you can get. The mainstream media seldom covers the team. The Athletic doesn’t even have a Thunder beat writer. But through it all, Presti has quietly, slowly built one of the top five young cores in the NBA.
Presti has an elite eye for talent. The proof is in the dozens of his draft picks succeeding at the highest levels across the league. And we’re not just talking about Russell Westbrook and James Harden. Cam Payne was a Presti pick. As was Reggie Jackson, Steven Adams, He’s had some misses (who hasn’t) but he’s also found solid NBA players up and down the draft.
Presti is often ridiculed across NBA circles for stockpiling an absurd amount of draft picks and taking tanking to his own extremes. But, there is a method to his madness. He’s swung wide and hit homers in the last few drafts. But in the process, he’s built a young core that is one of the best in the league, hinting at a bright future of positionless basketball. And he’s done it with big trades that have prioritized the draft, counting on the ability of him and his team to find value.
Paul George to the Clippers might be one of the most lopsided trades of the last decade. The Thunder sent off a second-tier superstar and leveraged the hungry Clippers to send back L.A.’s unprotected first-round picks in 2022, 2024, and 2026, along with 2021 (unprotected) and 2023 (protected) first-round selections via the Miami Heat and the option to swap picks with the Thunder in 2023 and 2025, according to the ESPN report.
That is one hell of a return. It bankrupted the Clippers’ draft capital well beyond the prime years of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. Not to mention the Clippers sent over current Thunder cornerstone Shai Gilgeous-Alexander in the deal. SGA has become one of the best guards in the league and had already shown massive potential with the Clippers before he was traded. In Oklahoma, Presti has surrounded him with playmaking, positionless wings that take pressure off him to facilitate while making his scoring ability easier and within a spaced-out system.
Stockpiling draft capital was a brilliant strategy for an executive who understood clearly he had no other realistic way to improve. No matter how cool the food scene becomes in OKC, no major free agent will ever willingly choose it as a destination in free agency. Trades are possible but should come at the end of the process – bringing in a final piece to complement an already established core. The Thunder can’t risk their only capital – draft assets – in an arbitrary trade before their core is set. So Presti has been wise to hold on to his draft assets until the right piece becomes available.
Sam Presti has already scored huge wins for the Oklahoma City Thunder
On the current roster, Presti has zeroed in on two-way players who thrive in transition and can fit any offensive style of play. For example, Lu Dort went undrafted in 2019, even though ESPN ranked him as a five-star recruit out of high school, and was swept up by Presti. He currently stands as one of the best perimeter defenders in the league while averaging 17 points per game. Dort can guard all five positions and is a bright, selfless player who takes on the toughest defensive assignment with glee.
The 2020 draft is the only one Presti has whiffed at. His selections of the wildly mediocre Théo Maledon (taken 34) and the high ceiling/basement-dwelling floor of Aleksej Pokusevski (taken 17th) were risks Presti was willing to take in a reasonably top-heavy draft. Presti’s biggest L’s have always been the head-scratching draft-day trades. He should regret not keeping Immanuel Quickly in 2020 when he traded him in subsequent deals to land Maledon. No GM is perfect. Both Maledon and Poku seem destined for an early professional exit from the league.
In the 2021 draft, Presti shocked the league when he selected Australian pro-Josh Giddey with the sixth pick. Giddey, in a way, embodies on the court everything that makes Presti unique in the front office. As a passing visionary, Giddy’s ceiling is sky-high.. He also can play four positions, perhaps five in small-ball lineups, making him a linchpin for future draft selections. With the large frames of Giddey and SGA, Presti will be able to draft the best player available, regardless of position.
Giddey seems to have a penchant for making others better and late-game heroics. He is an All-NBA Rookie First Team honoree by posting 13, 8, and 6. Once he raises his 3-point percentage above 26 percent, he will become an even deadlier cog in the Thunder spacing offense.
With a bonafide first option in SGA, a defensive ace in Dort, a rising star in Giddey, and complementary players like Tre Mann, Darius Bazely, and Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, all that’s left to add to this core is a big man. It was a regrettable move that Presti had Alperen Şengün with this year’s 16th pick and traded him for Mann. Mann is looking to be a solid shooter off the bench, but he never had the ceiling of Şengün, who is averaging 9 and 5 off the Rockets bench as a rookie.
There’s no sense hanging on to past fleeces, but the Thunder’s road to contention seems smoother than most rebuilding teams. Once they add a center, it will just take time for the core to gel. However, Presti has shown a penchant for patience, and the team has one of the best coaching staffs in the league for development.
This is without mentioning the historic treasure trove of draft capital Presti has stockpiled for the future. The Thunder own 38 picks over the next seven drafts. That’s an average of five picks per draft. Out of the 38 picks, 19 are first-round, and 19 are second-round picks. In 2025, when current superstar-laden teams see their windows shut, the Thunder will own draft picks with varying degrees of protection for the following teams:
- 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
This is not to mention the team owning all their picks and a bevy of first-rounders from other teams transferring before 2025. Presti will be able to package other teams’ FRP with their own to trade for either a spring star or supporting pieces around SGA, Giddey, Dort, and others. The Thunder will have precious picks from perceived bottom-dwellers to trade by the time they enter contention in 2025. It could come sooner if their current core continues to grow. It wouldn’t be the first time a Presti team has overachieved ahead of schedule. It will be on him to manage the contracts and egos better than he did the first time. He could usher in a new phase of positionless basketball if he does.