No GM gets more blind devotion than Sam Presti. Why, you ask? Just look at his list of first round picks since 2007:
’07 No. 2: Kevin Durant
’08 No. 4: Russell Westbrook
’08 No. 24: Serge Ibaka
’09 No. 3: James Harden
’09 No. 25: Rodrigue Beaubois
’10 No. 18: Eric Bledsoe
’10 No. 21: Craig Brackins
’10 No. 26: Qunicy Pondexter
’11 No. 24: Reggie Jackson
’12 No. 28: Perry Jones
In other words, holy s***! In five years of drafts, Presti has somehow found three franchise players, an above-average center, two high-potential guards who have panned out to varying degrees, two rotation guys, and only two misses (Jones and Brackins, and Jones needs a bit more time). Presti is probably the best pure drafter in the NBA.
But, is he the best overall GM? That’s where things get dicey. We love praising small market teams who build through the draft, but the reality is that the only post-merger team to win championships that way is the Spurs. The Lakers signed Shaq and traded for Kareem; the Celtics traded for McHale and Parish and later, Garnett and Allen; Miami signed LeBron; the Bulls traded for Pippen and Rodman; and pretty much every other champ has had at least one major piece brought in another way.
Sam Presti’s trade history? Let’s just say it’s not as glowing. Here are the highlights:
2007: Ray Allen in his prime for Jeff Green
2009: Rejects Joe Smith and Chris Wilcox for Tyson Chandler after a failed physical
2010: Eric Bledsoe for a future protected pick (later traded to Boston)
2011: Jeff Green for Kendrick Perkins
2012: James Harden for Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb and two first round picks
In other words, we might have to break out the Isiah Thomas alert. Presti has made exactly five major trades as a GM and has somehow missed on ALL OF THEM. Why are we so quick to call him the messiah again?
Think of where the Thunder could be if just one of these trades hadn’t happened. Just for fun, let’s go through each one.
2007: Ray Allen would have fit in perfectly as a mentor to Durant, teaching him the ins and outs of the NBA game and more importantly, about conditions (Allen is a conditioning freak; we’re six years in with Durant and he still doesn’t have an ounce of muscle on him).
Let’s assume that OKC ends up with Westbrook anyway because even though they picked fourth, they had the league’s second worst record. They weren’t falling out of the top five. They may lose Harden, but he’s replaced by someone in the 6-7-8 range, which essentially means Stephen Curry or, worst case, Brandon Jennings/DeMar DeRozan. Also, if Allen sticks around, that means he never plays for Miami, which means no 2012-13 title for them, which means a win for all of us.
2009: They don’t miss out on Harden (Chandler was too injured to make a difference anyway), but when he comes back, the Thunder roll forward with a ridiculous seven-man nucleus of Durant, Westbrook, Chandler, Harden, Ibaka, Green and Thabo Sefolosha. Does that team win 65 games in 2011? More?
Even when they inevitably lose Green after the season, they’d still be the odds on title favorite in 2012 assuming they could keep Chandler (which, since they kept Perkins, is distinctly possible). In fact, they’d be the favorite for at least the immediate future, because they would’ve kept Harden, too. What’s the point in picking Ibaka over Harden when you already have Chandler? The core would’ve been Durant, Westbrook, Chandler and Harden. That’s at least two or three titles, maybe more.
2010: Worst case: the best bench backcourt in the league (Harden and Bledsoe). Best case? An awesome trade chip they could’ve used with Green to get a real center instead of Perkins OR Harden insurance in case he left. Also, even if everything else goes as planned, if Westbrook still gets hurt, Bledsoe could’ve come in and maybe even taken them to the Finals.
2011: No Kendrick Perkins contract extension, no James Harden trade. It’s that simple. The 2012 Thunder would’ve honestly been better off without Perkins, anyway. They could’ve moved Durant to power forward and Ibaka to center to counter Miami’s small-ball lineup and potentially beaten them. Perkins was their weak link.
2012: My thoughts on the Harden trade are well chronicled. Bottom line: OKC handed Miami the 2012 title on a silver platter by giving away Harden. They also threw away a dynasty.
In other words, besides the Bledsoe deal, if Presti gets just one of these deals right, the Thunder end up with multiple titles. Period. End of story. He’s messed up five times, and now the Thunder are paying for it. They have two blue chippers (Durant and Westbrook), one sorely overmatched third guy (Ibaka), and a bunch of nothing.
Kevin Martin is leaving. Unless Jeremy Lamb turns into something, they’ll have essentially lost Harden for nothing, and their bench is a bunch of has-beens, never-will-be's and Hasheem Thabeet (let’s just say I’m not complimenting him by leaving him out of the first two groups).
Oklahoma City has exactly one way to put their team back into contention with Miami. There’s good news and there’s bad news. The good news is that it involves the draft, specifically their No. 12 pick on Thursday. The bad news? It also involves trading.
You aren’t getting a blue chip player at No. 12 in a weak draft. It’s just not happening. But at No. 4 or No. 5? Entirely possible with a bit of luck. Unless you have LeBron, you need three blue chip guys to win a title. This is OKC’s last chance to get one barring something ridiculous like a Westbrook trade (which isn’t happening, he’s the fourth best player in the league).
If Oklahoma City walks out of this draft with another project like Perry Jones last year, they’re going to lose next year. I don’t know if it’ll be to Miami, San Antonio or someone else, but you aren’t winning the title with just Westbrook and Durant unless Durant jumps to LeBron’s level or Westbrook jumps to Durant’s.
Oklahoma City has one move: they have to trade up. Specifically, they have to get one of the high-end wing guys available in the top-5.
If I had my pick? Ben McLemore. The guy is a stud. He's going to be a cross between Harden and Eric Gordon. He’s the rare young guy who doesn’t need to be a star, is happy being a team player, and is the perfect fit for OKC. You know, kind of like Harden. His shot also stretches the floor for Westbrook to get to the basket, and his body is built to defend the new breed of smaller, quicker shooting guards.
If I can’t get him, I’d go for Victor Oladipo, who no, is not Dwyane Wade, but a smaller Luol Deng. He gets to the basket and plays awesome defense. That’s his game. Wing defense and easy shots are huge in today’s “mid-range jumpers are worse than herpes” game.
Hell, I’d even settle for Trey Burke or C.J. McCollum, two instant offense guys who give OKC’s bench a new dimension and could both easily slide into the crunch time lineup with Westbrook defending shooting guards (probably the right move anyway, I’d rather have him roaming the passing lanes than playing the ball).
In such a weak draft, someone is bound to want to move down. Someone will be comfortable picking at No. 12, ideally a team that wants to grab as many ping pong balls in next year’s Andrew Wiggins sweepstakes as possible. Let’s say you’re Phoenix: why not trade No. 5 for No. 12, 29, 32 and Jeremy Lamb? Pick up some depth now, suck for another year, and then, hopefully, get either Wiggins or one of the other stars next year (and believe me, there are plenty). Ditto for Charlotte, who’s going to suck next year anyway.
If OKC stands pat and takes some project like Steven Adams, they’re going to waste yet another major asset on a project. When you’re this close to a title, you have to go all in, and lately it hasn’t felt like the Thunder are doing that. They have to come out of this draft with someone who has close to star potential AND can contribute right now.
By my count, there are eight guys like that: Nerlens Noel, McLemore, Oladipo, Burke, McCollum, Anthony Bennett, Otto Porter and Shabazz Muhammad. Seven of those guys will be gone at No. 12, the eighth is probably someone they’re going to avoid. If OKC doesn’t walk out of the draft with one of them, it’ll be a failure.
I don’t know if I trust Sam Presti to pull this off. He’s reached into the draft well so many times and come away with so much that asking for another home run might be a bit too much, especially when you consider his trade record.
It’s ironic; OKC needs the draft. It’s their one real avenue for talent. Now, when they need it most, they get stuck with a late-lottery pick in the worst draft in a decade. The gravy train had to end at some point, I just can’t imagine Sam Presti thought it’d be this soon.
Now, they’re staring down the barrel of turning James Harden into nothing. If he wants to keep any claim over the “best GM alive title” (which, for the record, is RC Buford’s unless he somehow trades Tony Parker for Antoine Walker), he’d better nail this draft, because when it comes to lottery picks, he won’t have another one any time soon.
By: Sam Quinn