Sam Presti, mixed bag

Sam Presti, mixed bag


Sam Presti
Image: AP

Sam Presti is lucky he’s in Oklahoma City. He would be held accountable for his screwups if he were in charge of a larger market franchise with a longer-tenured and demanding fanbase. But, before we tackle those, Presti has proven to be one of the best judges of talent and character. He has crushed most of his first-round picks and currently holds a historical treasure trove of draft capital. The Thunder own 38 picks through 2029, including 19 in both the first and second rounds — including the value acquired from the Clippers in one of the best trades in NBA history pulled off by using leverage to move Paul George. They also have one of the best young cores in the NBA, featuring Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Lu Dort, Josh Giddey, Chet Holmgren, and Jalen Williams. They also have a collection of low-ceiling, high-floor guys in Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, Aaron Wiggins, Darius Bazely, Tre Mann, and the beloved bum, Aleksej Pokuševski. As Thunder fans are known for saying, Presti zigs where others zag.

This preseason, Giddey has emerged in the absences of SGA and Holmgren as a go-to option on offense, with an improved shot, thanks to new shooting coach Chip Engelland and his competitive chagrin intact. So far this preseason, Giddey has shot 50 percent from deep on three attempts per game. Not a bad metric to add to a player who poses a triple-double threat on any given night. The Thunder are currently 4-1 in the preseason, a sign that Presti has built a core too good to tank without their general manager purposefully sitting their players instead of trying to win games.

But if you lament Presti’s pros, you must also admit his flaws, something fragile Thunder fans have trouble doing. Perhaps it’s because Thunder fans are the youngest fanbase in the NBA, considering the franchise has only been around since 2008. They have yet to know true losing, and their naivety blinds them to the fleeces Presti has been prone to giving up in trades. Like when Presti traded Rubio and the 25th and 28th picks in the 2020 draft to the Minnesota Timberwolves in exchange for the 17th overall pick, where he chose the inept and athletically impotent Pokuševski, missing out on the picks that would become Immanuel Quickley (25th) and Jaden McDaniels (28th), two players better than Poku. Or when he broke up the overachieving 2020 playoff team and got back underwhelming packages for almost every single player, including trading future HOF guard Chris Paul for a goofy return of players who have since all left OKC for minimal return and a 2022 draft pick (30th) they also traded away. At this point, after Paul dragged an overachieving bunch of role players to the playoffs, Presti essentially received nothing in return.

So, let’s talk about the players they have. Just how many superstars are on that roster? SGA appears to be the real deal and should become a household name this season, that is, if he does not fall victim to another Presti tank. Dort figures to be an excellent two-way starter, while Giddey and Holmgren are both great unknowns with incredible upside but major deficiencies as well: Shooting for Giddey; strength, and health for Holmgren.

NBA observers were hoping this upcoming season would end the perverse tank Presti has been forcing on Thunder fans since they dropped a first-round series to the Rockets in 2020. Alas, Presti has been egregious in his pursuit of Lottery luck. He’s purposely rested his best players to chase the loss, ruining the beautiful game of basketball and disgusting those of us who tune in to see the best play the best. That’s not to say the injuries are not real. It just means the required rest for said injuries remains mysteriously open-ended. Through it all, Thunder fans are relatively silent on the tank job. Instead, they preach patience and apologize against Presti’s slander, flagellating themselves instead of holding their leader accountable for doing everything he can to lose in the short term.

Thunder news rarely gets noticed outside of their small market pipeline, but those paying attention have seen him strip his team of outlier depth over the last few days. This week, he has traded away young guys with potential, all with some semblance of potential, for what accounts for a bag of scraps. It all started in July when he inexplicably waived forward Isaiah Roby, whom the Spurs swiftly picked up. Strange to let a 24-year-old kid who averaged 10 and five and shot 50 percent from the field go for nothing when there was a team out there interested. A flop by Presti and the fanbase for not asking aloud, “what the fuck is going on?”

Since he was traded to OKC in 2021, Thunder fans have been hopeful former No. 3 pick Derrick Favors would eventually be “flipped” for further capital. Yet, he has remained on the roster despite playing the fewest games last year since his sophomore season. Late yesterday, under the cover of night and malaise, Presti finally traded Favors. Not for draft capital. He had to give up a second-round pick, but for a bunch of bums at the end of the Houston Rockets bench.

ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski was the first to report the Thunder traded Mo Harkless, Derrick Favors, Ty Jerome, Theo Maledon, and the 2025 second-round pick from Atlanta to the Rockets for David Nwaba, Sterling Brown, Trey Burke, and Marquese Chriss. Harkless had just been acquired two days before in another under-whelming trade which netted the Thunder another yawn-inducing second-round pick while sending off Vít Krejčí in the deal. Now, Krejčí has been nothing special. He’s been oft-injured, recently coming back from an ACL injury, but at 6-foot-8, he’s shown flashes on the offensive end and at 22 years old. He’s the type of player you stash and develop, not trade for an expiring veteran and a second-round pick you will probably end up using on a player exactly like Krejčí.

That Presti traded off veteran Favors, who was projected to see an increase in minutes after the Holmgren injury, signals he is all in on another gross tank job. Buried in the trade was the end of the Theo Maledon experiment, one of Presti’s rare recent misses in the draft but a kid with potential. The same could be said for Ty Jerome, who was part of the national championship-winning Virginia squad and has shown enough as a pro to warrant an investment as a bench piece. Strangely, the Thunder are willing to get rid of the few valuable bodies they have to get back-washed veterans and second-round picks. Especially when they are projected to have more incoming picks than allowable players on the roster. Why not hold onto these young kids and kick the can down the road in a season or two? Or play them in these games you are trying to lose and see what they got?

Presti’s most ardent apologists will carry water by celebrating the GM going under the cap. For what? What good does cap space do to a team like Oklahoma City, a bottom-tier destination for any free agent? They also received two trade exceptions, one of the more overrated assets in the NBA, especially for a team seemingly not looking to add players. What do these trades do for the team but ensure losing? This begs the biggest question, how much longer can the young core handle not only losing but Presti sitting them to lose? This is why SGA answering this question was the biggest highlight and takeaway from the team’s media day. Now that the Thunder are making moves to opt themselves out of competitive basketball, the only thing relevant in OKC is how much more losing SGA, which the rest of this talented young core can handle. And for how long?



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About the Author

Anthony Barnett
Anthony is the author of the Science & Technology section of ANH.