Reading the Presti Leaves

Reading the Presti Leaves

Sam Presti had an extended session with Oklahoma City media today ahead of training camp, and Erik Horne has helpfully summarized the biggest headlines that came from the Thunder’s GM’s statements. There weren’t a lot of surprises: he refuted Doc Rivers’ characterization of the team’s eagerness to break up its core; he gave measured assurances that Andre Roberson would be playing soon; he kept walking the high road in response to Kevin Durant’s franchise-bashing; and he thinks the fans should be excited to see a Hall of Famer like Chris Paul suit up for the Thunder this season, even if the win totals drop off.

Careful as always, Presti came with a message and stuck to it no matter how reporters in attendance prodded. And if we’re reading between the lines, the beats he chose not to hit might be as notable as those he did.

What Presti didn’t say: SGA’s long-term placement

I will stop beating this drum if and when the Thunder’s conductor gives a direct cue, but thus far Presti has publicly commented on the state of the team three times since trading away his superstars and receiving back Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, the presumed building block and consensus best asset from his remarkable haul. There has been nothing even approaching “franchise cornerstone”, or “someone to build around” language from Presti. 

Of course, part of his understated comments for the would-be point guard of the future could be to simply temper expectations for Gilgeous-Alexander’s sake. Playing in Russell Westbrook’s shadow would be pressure enough without the front office implying you would eventually fill the Brodie’s Oklahoma-sized shoes. Still, Presti has yet to speak of SGA as anything other than a young player he’s excited to watch develop, being sure to call out Steven Adams as another promising young player in the same breath on two occasions now. 

Do I think the Thunder will be shopping SGA this season? No. Do I think they consider him untouchable? Not until they say otherwise. And that wasn’t the only unanswered question from today’s presser.

When’s the rebuild?

In some corners, Presti’s use of “replenishing” for the current roster has been taken as a euphemism for “rebuilding”, but he repeated today that a proper rebuild is coming at a later time, in full. He was again forthright about being “committed to the process” (emphasis mine) and not sacrificing long-term success for short-term gains. The Thunder won’t be tanking this season, but I would be shocked if they made any win-now moves this season or the next (or the next?). And the more of those draft picks they pick up deeper into the 2020s, the less likely we should view anyone in the 25-and-over club as young enough to target for the rebuild’s first phase, whenever it does arrive.

How do the Thunder fit in today’s NBA landscape?

Presti heartily endorsed Adam Silver’s “leadership” on the issue of tampering this summer, echoing the commissioner’s framing of the matter as one of concerning fairness and a level playing field between teams. And while he said he didn’t believe any illegal player-to-player rule-breaking occurred in the lead-up to the stunning Thunder breakup, he did say that June 30th was “not a shining moment for the league”. 

In ownership disputes of the past, the Thunder have gotten a reputation for being something of a squeaky wheel: the small market team piping up to resist structures it finds to be stacked in favor of organizations with inherent resource advantages already. But with a unanimous vote and murmurs of big market teams getting salty themselves this summer, there’s been no indication that OKC needed to drum up any sympathy among the other governors this time around. 

Of course, Presti stopped short of saying he believed the new measures would make for significantly better results in reality. In the immediate aftermath of the tampering vote, the first team put in the doghouse was not the Clippers, who made out quite nicely after some inconsequential wrist-slaps for their brazen recruitment strategy over the last year. Instead the hammer fell on little old Milwaukee, who had the audacity to be explicit about their wishes to keep their homegrown superstar (Giannis Antetokounmpo) on the team for which he’s under contract.

It was just a year ago that the Thunder had defied the perception that they couldn’t land and/or keep marquee names in Oklahoma City, after acquiring Carmelo Anthony and then re-signing Paul George on the open market. That feels a bit like a mirage now, as even Russell Westbrook welcomed his departure from the team on just the second year of his five-year, $205 million contract extension that felt like till death do us part when he first signed. If the Durant/Westbrook era was cut short when the former departed as a free agent, the Westbrook/George partnership was unceremoniously hacked up like a victim in the first act of a slasher movie.

How will Presti adapt to the player movement environment, which he acknowledged as increasingly liquid, with his trademark commitment to patience and sustainability? That’s a riddle he’ll be trying to solve before our eyes in the coming years.

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