By Connor Pignatello
Sam Presti has been the General Manager of the Oklahoma City Thunder ever since their days as the SuperSonics back in 2007. In an April article for Sports Illustrated, Lee Jenkins called him a “Blackberry-toting visionary” and Presti carries around a folder filled with 55 pages of his favorite quotes. Presti has managed the Thunder well for nine seasons, drafting Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden in consecutive years, but, as Jenkins put it, “[the] golden era ended before it began.”
Presti has been forced to make something out of nothing after Durant joined the Warriors last summer, and he has done an admirable job of it. The Thunder secured the sixth seed in the West this past year and Presti has made a series of calculated moves to improve the team this offseason.
All that was required to get George was Victor Oladipo, a 25-year-old shooting guard who spent just one season in OKC and was due for a massive pay raise, and Domantas Sabonis, a rookie who finished dead last in Offensive Points Added and fifth-to-last in Total Points Added.*
In fact, Presti shed about four million dollars of salary while acquiring the 2013 Most Improved Player, because George will actually make less money than Oladipo next year.
To understand the full genius of this move, we must go back to last year’s draft. On draft night, Presti sent former All-Defensive team member Serge Ibaka to the Orlando Magic in exchange for Oladipo, the draft rights to Sabonis, and Ersan Ilyasova.
In November, Presti sent Ilyasova to the 76ers in exchange for Jerami Grant, an explosive wing whose team option Presti picked up on June 28th. Later in the day on the 28th, Presti picked up the two assets that he recouped for Serge Ibaka and traded them to the Indiana Pacers for Paul George. So, in theory, Presti traded Serge Ibaka, a rim-protector who has never been to the All-Star game, for Paul George, a four-time All Star who is a definite top 20, if not top 15 player in the NBA.
Although George has been adamant that he wants to join the Lakers, his hometown team, those threats may have just been used as an excuse to get traded out of a stale situation in Indiana. The Pacers have not won a playoff series since 2014 and were swept in the first round by a far superior Cavaliers team this year.
Once George begins playing with this year’s MVP, Russell Westbrook, he may become fond of his situation in OKC and re-sign with the Thunder next summer.
Even if George leaves the oil wells of Oklahoma City for the sandy beaches of Los Angeles, the reward of playoff success for the Thunder outweighs the risk of George bolting for L.A. Presti did not give up significant assets to acquire George, so even if this experiment doesn’t work out, the Thunder will be in good shape, thanks to the heroics of Westbrook.
Presti also made some savvy free agent signings. As of July 7th he had agreed to terms with Patrick Patterson and Andre Roberson, two defensive-minded wings, as well as Raymond Felton, a veteran backup point guard. Presti also drafted Terrance Ferguson, a 19-year-old forward, with the Thunder’s first round pick.
Patterson, who has played for the Raptors the past four seasons, is an established veteran who can defend multiple positions, shoot threes, and impact the game whether he’s starting or coming off the bench. Presti locked up the former Kentucky Wildcat for 3 years and $16.4 million, a great value for the kind of resources that Patterson brings to the team.
‘2-Pat’ has made 304 three-pointers over the past three years, a great number for a power forward, and his gritty defensive style has transformed him into a quintessential ‘3-and-D’ player. This is an underrated deal for an underrated player, and Patterson’s annual salary of about $5.5 million will prove to be a bargain in the years to come.
Presti also locked up his defensive ace, Andre Roberson, to a team-friendly pact that ensures the Thunder have the defensive firepower to stop the high-powered offenses of many of their rivals. Roberson is truly one of the best defenders in the league, and signing him to a three year, $30 million dollar agreement is a real win for Presti and the Thunder.
Despite his shooting woes — his 3-point percentage of 24.5 was the worst in the NBA** and his free throw percentage of 42.3 was second worst in the league**– Roberson was selected to the NBA All-Defensive Second Team, and took on his team’s biggest defensive assignments night in and night out.
Roberson was the only guard or guard-forward to average at least one block and one steal per game this year, a feat that he achieved thanks to rigorous film study in which he spent hours analyzing the tendencies of his opponents. Roberson can guard positions 1-4, and his 6’11” wingspan enables him to block shots, intercept passes, and deny his opponents lanes to the hoop.
The 6’9” shooting guard appeared to have an open-market value of $12-15 million, because defenders of his caliber usually are paid handsomely. But it appears that Presti persuaded Roberson to take a hometown discount, as Roberson will earn “only” $10 million per year. Re-signing Roberson was vital for the Thunder, because All-Stars Paul Millsap and Jimmy Butler joined teams in the Thunder’s division during the past few weeks.
Presti has had a fabulous offseason, reloading the Thunder for a shot at contention in the Western Conference. The road to the NBA Finals will be tough though; Golden State and San Antonio’s cores remain intact, Houston added Chris Paul, Denver signed Paul Millsap, Minnesota acquired Jimmy Butler , and the Western Conference seems as difficult as ever. Presti has reloaded the Thunder for a playoff run, and thanks to a spectacular offseason, he is now a frontrunner for Executive of the Year.
*Total Points Added is a metric developed by nbamath.com which tracks how many points a player adds or subtracts from his team. Offensive Points Added is the same as Total Points Added except it pertains only to offense.
**Minimum of 100 attempts
All stats via Basketball Reference