Nine days ago, Oklahoma City Thunder general manager Sam Presti sat in a small room around midnight with a smaller-than-usual number of reporters in front of him. The Thunder had just selected Terrance Ferguson with the 21st overall pick, and Presti rattled off the usual bevy of compliments for the young player. But there was a decided lack of energy in the room, and Presti didn’t carry his usual edge and sharpness.
The feeling among many around the organization post-draft was disappointment, an air of “that’s it?” with only a single selection, one who was viewed as a project. With Russell Westbrook set to win the MVP a few days later and an upcoming decision to make on committing to the franchise for the next five seasons, the Thunder didn’t have much apparent momentum.
Presti was asked about any other activity that night, if they were close to doing something bigger and more dramatic than just taking Ferguson. In the wake of the Thunder acquiring Paul George in exchange for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis a couple of hours before free agency opened, Presti’s answer was quite telling.
“We’re involved in everything,” Presti said with a clear sniff of aggravation. “We’re going to pursue everything. Don’t be upset just because it’s not spewing out of this building, that we’re not pursuing the same things that you read about on the internet. We’re going to make all those calls. We’re going to pursue all those things.”
The trade for George was a stunner, a jaw-dropping pull of the lever that few saw coming. With rumors swirling about Boston and Los Angeles and Cleveland, no one saw Oklahoma City lurking. But the reality is, Presti has been in pursuit of George for weeks, even months now. On draft night, Presti was pushing for a deal, but the Pacers were set on players plus picks, preferably in the lottery. The Thunder couldn’t secure the right package to include a third team and still keep Oladipo on his way to Indiana. But when the price dropped Friday, Presti was ready.
The move is an obvious risk for the Thunder. They give up two young building-block players for George, who will be an unrestricted free agent next summer. It’s a dangerous proposition to face a single year with George, especially with it being one of the league’s worst-kept secrets that he fancies Los Angeles.
But the Thunder are willing to take the gamble as they enter into the prime years of Westbrook’s career. Presti’s vision was always to produce a high-level contender in the prime of the careers of Westbrook and Kevin Durant, but Durant’s departure completely flipped that plan on its head. So while Westbrook was putting up triple-doubles and breaking records, Presti was formulating his countermove to re-engineer the roster. That started with collecting tradable young assets that could potentially net a supporting star.
“We’re involved in everything. We’re going to pursue everything. … We’re going to make all those calls. We’re going to pursue all those things.”
Thunder GM Sam Presti, nine days ago
The most prescient move of all, though, was the acquisition of Oladipo and Sabonis on draft night a year ago. The Thunder moved Serge Ibaka, a loyal soldier to the organization who was about to enter the final year of his contract, for youth, upside and added talent in the backcourt. The Thunder added Oladipo with a plan to install him as their sixth man, trying to recreate some of the magic they had with James Harden in that spot. Durant left a couple of weeks later for the Bay Area, and suddenly Oladipo was Westbrook’s Robin. The partnership never completely took off, the “Flash Brothers” moniker failing to come to fruition. Oladipo was solid as a spot-up 3-and-D option, but not the secondary handler and scorer the Thunder and Westbrook craved.
The other obvious angle here: Westbrook’s future. The Thunder will offer, or maybe already have offered, Westbrook a five-year designated player supermax extension. There was always optimism Westbrook would accept it, as a way to set the compass on the direction forward, but with George en route and his future unknown, Westbrook might press pause on his decision. Whether it’s now or later, Westbrook will get all the same money (he’ll qualify for a 10-year max next summer). He can now hit free agency alongside George, both Southern California kids, something you can be sure Los Angeles Lakers executives are already thinking about as they carve out cap space.
Westbrook’s primary message to the Thunder following the season was wanting an improved roster that could get closer to actual contention. Presti has apparently delivered that, or at least taken a considerable step toward it. And the Thunder see this as their chance to reclaim their spot in the West and give them a shot at continuing an extended run of success. Oklahoma City wasn’t even going to get a meeting with George next summer in free agency, but now the Thunder are in the mix. They see themselves as a fit with George and feel this is giving them a running head start at George’s free agency recruiting. Get him in their state-of-the-art practice facility. Introduce him to a spare-no-expense support staff. Let him play under Billy Donovan. Put him alongside the reigning MVP and all the fury and competitive will that comes with playing with Westbrook.
The Thunder had nothing to lose, except for everything next summer. Presti tried the proactive approach last summer, adding Oladipo and then opening his meeting with Durant with a plan to add Al Horford. Durant left anyway. This time, Presti went a step further.
Because what choice do the Thunder really have? They actually cut salary in the short term, and if George leaves, they unloaded Oladipo’s $84 million extension. They at least have contingency options available and can hit the nuclear option and deal both Westbrook and George for a massive asset return if they have to.
What they hope for, though, is a beautiful partnership pairing two top-15 players together to rise back into the conversation. The organization was brought to its knees when Durant left, and then lifted off the mat a month later when Westbrook signed an extension. Presti’s plan in the wake of last summer has been to collect assets in preparation for an opportunity. One finally presented itself, and Presti didn’t miss it.