When you were a kid, you were one of two ways when it came to money. You either spent it as soon as you got it on crap or you waited and saved for something good. Every kid was that way. You found a dollar? Let’s blow it on baseball cards. Or maybe you’ll save for a baseball glove. It was pretty much one or the other. And I think NBA general managers are the exact same way.
Some get a little cap room and can’t wait to blow it on some “big name” free agent. Doesn’t matter who’s out there or what could come available, if money is in the pocket, it’s getting spent. Others get some cap room, take a look at the options and just say pass. And obviously, it appears Sam Presti is the kid putting the dollar in his pocket. But with something like $10 million in cap room and free agents still out there, some folks are wondering why Oklahoma City isn’t getting into the game. Why isn’t OKC going after Lamar Odom? Why didn’t the Thunder press harder for Paul Millsap? What about guys like David Lee and Ramon Sessions? Why is Presti holding his cards?
It’s simple: Because he’s freaking smart.
If there’s one thing that sets a franchise back, it’s frivolous spending. Five years, $53 million for 30-year-old Hedo Turkoglu? Five years, $55 million for Ben Gordon? Four years, $20 million for Jarrett Jack? The full mid-level exception for Marcin Gortat? Those type of signings are so hit and miss that they’re almost not worth it. Sure they could improve your squad, but is the risk worth the reward? And when you’re running a low risk, high reward franchise like Presti, it’s easier to pass on those deals than you think. There is no sense in spending money just because you have it. Other teams can do that. Presti and the Thunder can’t.
Think about other big free agent deals. They’re almost as inconsistent as the draft. The Heat gave Brian Grant $84 million over seven years. Tariq Abdul-Wahad got $43 million and six years from the Nuggets in 2000. Juwan Howard got a $105 million contract. Vin Baker’s $87 million deal back in 1997. Raef LaFrentz’s last contract. Anything Tim Thomas ever signed. Guys that shouldn’t get paid big every year. It just happens. The key is staying away from those albatross contracts that will weigh down your cap for years to come. And that’s what Sam Presti is doing. A lot of teams bounce year to year, signing free agents and turning over their rosters. And for some, that’s necessary to keep their heads above water. But Presti hasn’t taken that approach.
The Thunder’s built a roster with eight players in their first, second or third season. That’s fairly remarkable. So when over 60 percent of your roster is that way, you’re not really looking for the quick fix free agent. It’s about developing what you have. Unless you don’t believe in your draft picks, what’s the point of even taking them if you’re not planning on developing them? Obviously you can trade to bring in bigger pieces, but at this point, there’s no huge rush. Develop what you have, figure out what you need and go from there. It’s really not a crazy idea.
Sure the money is there right now for the Thunder. And there will be even more next year. Etan Thomas’s new $7 million contract comes off the books next year, opening up even more cap room for OKC. But don’t forget the salary cap shrunk and is likely to tighten ever more next year. So if a player doesn’t fit or won’t step in and contribute to the existing team, why spend the money? Some people don’t seem to get this concept. Presti does. He’ll gladly sit on $10 million, just waiting for the right fit. And with an uncertain economy, that’s a great, great thing.
Now some teams I understand signing bigger free agents (though I’ll never understand overpaying them). Maybe you’ve got an aging roster than needs frontcourt help. Maybe you really feel you’re a good shooting guard away from getting to the postseason. Maybe some of the young players you’ve got didn’t work out. Not everybody is using the Thunder model and building for long-term success. Actually, according to Ric Bucher, OKC is the only team building for long-term success. But with so much pressure to win and win NOW, it’s understandable. Some fan bases won’t accept you standing firm and waiting for the right moves. Coaches will lose their jobs as a result. Fans will grumble. Ticket sales will drop. So it’s not like I don’t get it. I’m just extremely appreciative of the way a small market club like OKC is building.
The bigger markets don’t have to run in low risk mode like OKC. They can spend and if it doesn’t work out, no sweat. Just trade or squat on the contract. Wait until next year and sign someone else. But some markets have to be more prudent about their cash. And it’s the ones that spend frivolously that wind up regretting it. Team can set themselves back years. Instead of being a player at the trade deadline, instead of being able to sign multiple draft picks, they’ve got a bloated roster with fat contracts that aren’t doing anything.
Again, Presti has signed one (one!) player to a summer free agent contract – C.J. Miles last year. And that didn’t even work out. Presti also inked Nenad Krstic last winter, but that’s when nobody was really competing for him. As I’ve said, Presti prefers trades at the moment. He gets to set the price, pick the player he likes and skip negotiation. Obviously at some point he’ll pounce with this cap space. But not yet. There’s no need. The roster is basically full and until that Missing Piece is out there or some of the youngsters show they aren’t working out, he can wait.
Sure guys like Millsap and Lee and good players and would likely contribute positively with the Thunder. But for one, somebody is already playing their position and two, $$$. I like David Lee a lot. But unless we can get him with a coupon, I’ll just take the pass. At some point OKC will get in the free agent game. When the team is ready and that Missing Piece is out there, we’ll get him. But not yet. Don’t spend the money just because you have it because you won’t have it when you need it. If that makes any sense at all.
The Thunder want a team that is set up for a lengthy run. Bring in young players, develop them in house and re-sign them. That’s the plan. So dropping $52 million on a mid-level shooting guard or power forward just doesn’t make sense. The players Presti wants are already on the roster. It’s just about the process of getting them where they need to be and in a few years, keeping them around. That’s the plan and so far Presti the Patient is doing a pretty good job sticking to it.