For those of us NBA fans who's teams are sitting at home and watching the playoffs like us on TV, the post-season can be an extremely valuable time. On display are the 8 best teams in each conference and each team provides lessons about how to build a team.
The man behind OKC's emergence has been Sam Presti. He's been pulling the strings since June 2007 when he was hired as GM of the then Seattle Supersonics and turned them into a rising Western Conference power in three years.
Before coming to Seattle Presti began his management career in San Antonio where he landed an internship after meeting Spurs GM R.C. Buford in Aspen, Colorado at a basketball camp.
After just one year with the Spurs, Presti was named the team's special assistant which led to a defining moment in his career. Coach Gregg Popovich was unimpressed with a young guard, Tony Parker from France, that they had been working out. "You're wasting my time," said Popovich to Buford and Presti. "This kid is terrible." Convinced that Parker had special skills, Presti put an eight-minute videotape together highlighting Parker's talents which swayed Popovich to give him another look, ultimately leading to the decision to draft him with their 28th pick.
During his time working in San Antonio, Presti helped build championship teams in 2003, 2005 and 2007 all teams that Tony Parker started at point guard for. Not bad for an intern.
By the time the Sonics came knocking on his door with an offer to build a team of his own, he was well prepared for the challenge.
One of the most valuable assets in being a successful GM is luck. That happened for Presti in the form of the No. 2 overall pick in the 2007 NBA Draft. It was known that the Blazers were taking the consensus No. 1 prospect in the draft, Ohio State center Greg Oden with the first pick in the draft. This left the Sonics in a position to take Texas' Kevin Durant with the second pick in the draft.
We'll never know if Presti would have taken Durant over Oden if he had landed the top spot. I would guess that he wouldn't have after seeing the value of a great big man like Tim Duncan with the Spurs, but as I said luck helps a lot in becoming an elite GM.
Drafting Durant was east, but Seattle was coming off of consecutive 30-win seasons. Franchise player Ray Allen was still under contract until 2010 and his 2nd best player, Rashard Lewis, was a restricted free agent that was certain to leave with the Sonics unlikely to match any significant offer he received.
Presti had a mandate to rebuild an aging team and decided it was time to blow up the squad. He traded Ray Allen and the rights to the 35th pick in the draft, Glen Davis, to Boston for Wally Szczerbiak, Delonte West and the rights to the No. 5 pick in the draft, Jeff Green.
In Durant he drafted a player that was going to be the cornerstone of the franchise for years to come. Green was the perfect sidekick - a versatile forward that combined exceptional passing skills with above average defensive capabilities.
Next he had to deal with the Rashard Lewis situation. Lewis signed a ridiculous six-year, $110 million offer sheet with the Orlando Magic. Seattle had no intention of matching the offer, but rather than have Lewis walk away for nothing, he agreed to a sign-and-trade in which the Sonics received a conditional second round pick and an $8 million trade exception.
He also hired P.J. Carlesimo that summer to take over as head coach for the franchise. That was a move that didn't work out, but I'll get back to that later.
With the youth movement in full swing, Presti started to stockpile draft picks. Armed with the trade exception he gained in the Lewis trade, Presti took advantage of a Phoenix Suns organization desperately trying to cut salary. He sent them the trade exception and a conditional second round pick and in return the Suns shipped Kurt Thomas and first round picks in 2008 and 2010 to Seattle.
Sidenote: The idea that Phoenix's style can't win a championship is foolish. This is a team who's fans have watched as Robert Sarver traded away multiple first round picks for cash. Let's not forget about the Joe Johnson saga either. In spite of all that they came a Robert Horry hip check away from a championship ring in 2007.
Heading into the season Presti continued to look for ways to acquire more draft picks and maintain financial flexibility under the cap.
He was active in this regard at the trade deadline that year. He shipped Kurt Thomas to the Spurs and in exchange received expiring contracts in the form of Brent Barry and Francisco Elson along with San Antonio's 2009 first round pick. Then a minute before the deadline expired, Presti sent Szczerbiak and West to Cleveland in exchange for the expiring contracts of Donyell Marshall, Ira Newble and Adrian Griffin.
At the conclusion of Durant and Green's rookie season both had been named to the All-Rookie team and Durant won the Rookie of the Year award.
With the No. 4 pick in the 2008 NBA Draft they selected UCLA guard Russell Westbrook. Serge Ibaka from the Congo was selected with No. 20 overall pick acquired from Phoenix. Westbrook was named to the All-Rookie team and has developed into one of the best young point guards in the NBA while Ibaka just finished his first season in the NBA and was a defensive force inside with 2.6 blocks per game.
It is critical for a GM to recognize your mistakes and fixing them immediately rather than hoping they pan out. Presti corrected the one mistake he made during his first two seasons on the job.
When the Thunder got off to a 1-12 start to begin the 2008 season he fired P.J. Carlesimo and replaced him with Scott Brooks. Brooks just won Coach of the Year leading the Thunder to a 27-game improvement and the franchise's first playoff birth. He has also been critical in the continued development of Durant, Green and Westbrook.
During the 2008-09 season Presti signed center Nenad Krstic to a three-year deal. He also dealt for Chucky Atkins, cash and a 2009 first round pick from Denver for Johan Petro and a 2009 second round pick. Nearing the trade deadline, he then swapped Denver's first round pick for Chicago's Thabo Sefolosha.
Both Sefolosha and Krstic now start for the team with Sefolosha developing into one of the league's best perimeter defenders.
Looking to add depth to the team with the starting lineup set, Presti drafted James Harden with the 3rd pick in the 2009 draft last summer. He also traded the 25th pick in the draft, Rodrigue Beaubois and a future second round pick to Dallas in exchange for the right to the 24th pick, Byron Mullens.
Mullens is raw and appaeared in only 13 games this season for the team, but the former McDonald's All-American is a project and could develop into an athletic, shot-blocking center. Harden has been a valuable contributor for the team off the bench in his first season.
His most recent move was to capitalize on a Utah team looking to get under the luxury tax threshold by trading for the expiring contract of Matt Harpring and point guard Eric Maynor in exchange for the rights to 2002 draft pick Peter Fehse. Maynor has been an effective back-up point guard.
The oldest player in their rotation is Nick Collison who is 29. This is the rest of the core with age in parentheses:
Durant (21), Westbrook (21), Green (23), Harden (20), Sefolosha (25), Ibaka (20), Krstic (26), Mullens (21), Maynor (22)
That's how you build a team.
Their two best players Durant and Westbrook just turned old enough to legally buy a drink. None of these guys are even close to their primes yet and they earned a playoff seed in the Western Conference even though they were the youngest team in the league. The scary part is they are only going to get better this summer as their players continue to develop.
The Thunder also have two first round picks in this summer's draft, 21st and 26th overall, as well as the the second pick in the second round. Presti will surely use to address the team's lack of size in the frontcourt as well as drafting a shooter to space the floor. Their cap situation is great with only $40.3 million in committed salary for next year. This gives them over $15 million in cap space if they want to make a splash in free agency, thought I doubt they will.
The Thunder are in a similar situation to Portland's last summer with a young playoff team on the verge of taking the next step as one of the league's elite teams. They would be wise to be cautious as we saw how injuries can undo the best laid plans and it will be interesting to see how he handles contract negotiations as Durant, Green and others get closer to free agency. He hasn't had to handle free agency yet, but if he can keep his core together the future looks bright.
Throughout his time with the Thunder Presti has never once compromised his team's financial flexibility and future by looking to make a big splash in free agency or in trades. Instead he's chosen to build through the draft and used the ample cap space and ability to absorb unwanted contracts as a bargaining chip to acquire first round picks from teams looking to cut salary.
Building a team takes time and requires patience. In three years Presti has transformed the Thunder from a 30-win team into a rising power in the West. He's made the most of his good fortune in getting Durant by surrounding him with great complementary players and along the way had no problem fixing his own coaching mistake.
Here's to you Sam. When we get our team, we'll be trying to run it as well as you've managed the Thunder.