The Real Mr. Thunder?@sublime50illustrations

The Real Mr. Thunder?

More than anyone, Sam Presti has molded OKC's identity

On January 10th, Russell Westbrook returned to play in Oklahoma City as a Houston Rocket. Kendrick Perkins took to Twitter to declare that Russ is the greatest to ever play in OKC and thus deserving of the title of “Mr. Thunder”. Cascading layers of analysis, hot takes, jabs, and comedy (shoutout to one @KDTrey5 aka Kevin Wayne Durant) unfolded as a result. 

As sincere as Perk’s statement may have been, he is unquestionably wrong. No disrespect to the 15 year veteran. And to those of you who are now thinking, “Then it has to be KD”, it must be said that you’re wrong as well. There’s one individual whose contributions to the Oklahoma City Thunder and the legacy of basketball in Oklahoma City dwarfs those of both Kevin Durant AND Russell Westbrook.

It’s not even Nick Collison.

The title of “Mr. Thunder”, as Perk called it, truly belongs to Sam Presti.

Russ’s greatness, while undeniable, has always been tinged by an indomitable stubbornness that often veers into selfish territory. Both Russ and KD have remained mostly quiet about their shared dynamic during their tenure with the Thunder, but the case can be made that Westbrook’s voracious appetite for control of the offense at least partially contributed to Durant’s desire to leave. 

Russ stayed. He wrung out every inch of his talent and effort in the service of the Thunder, their fans, and Oklahoma City. Paradoxically, the intensity of Russ’s commitment to his no holds barred style (both on and off the court) is key to understanding why he is NOT the most impactful member of the franchise’s history. Russ’s approach is unsustainable. He knows this. The day will come when the fire starts to die, the legs start to give out, and the shots stop falling. There have already been glimpses of it both in OKC and in Houston. While Russ is undoubtedly special and looms large over any conversation about the Thunder, allow me to make the case for Presti’s supremacy in the history of the franchise.

Presti’s halcyon days

Sam Presti’s tenure has been unusual since the beginning. The youngest GM ever at the time of his hiring in Seattle, Presti almost immediately changed the trajectory of the SuperSonics/Thunder. Eight days after being hired, Presti drafts KD. A year later, he drafts Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka on the same night. A year after that, he drafts James Harden.

A young prodigy of a GM had built a young prodigy of a team with three future MVPs on the same roster, though we didn’t know it yet. We just enjoyed it as the collection of talent crystallized into a gem–truly beautiful to behold. As the team fought but fell to the late Kobe Bryant’s Lakers in the first round of the 2011 playoffs, the entire basketball world took notice.

The team was now marked for greatness, and they delivered. The Thunder’s appearance in the 2012 Finals was a crescendo of pride and joy for Oklahoma City in a way that is difficult to put into words (probably best captured by Sam Anderson in his masterpiece, BoomTown. If you’re reading this article and don’t hate it, do yourself a favor and buy BoomTown ASAP). Though they lost to LeBron and the rest of the Heatles, the concept of the Thunder as a budding dynasty with one of the brightest futures in league history was nearly unanimously considered fact, not conjecture. Presti had been, rightfully, nearly buried under an avalanche of praise. Leave it to the NBA to remind us that nothing is certain.

A turning point

At this point, Presti is faced with his first real dilemma as a GM. There are many differing accounts of the summer of 2012 and the Thunder’s negotiations with James Harden. I certainly have no concrete understanding of what happened behind the scenes, but I do know this: Presti refused to budge. James Harden returned the favor. A seemingly inconsequential amount of money (by NBA standards) had become an impassable canyon. James Harden had played his final game for the Thunder, and was dealt to Houston four days before the 2012-2013 season. 

The trade was bemoaned by many from the minute the news broke. There is no mythologizing this part of Presti’s legacy: this was a horrendous decision from the minute it happened, so much so as to be nearly indefensible. Presti’s unblemished history with the team had been deeply marred. 

The Harden trade still lingers over the Thunder to this day, although in a less significant way. I believe Presti’s logic for making the trade is a part of its now diminished importance. Presti likely felt he had to trade Harden, because Harden’s insistence on the maximum contract violated a cultural value Presti had worked from day 1 to instill: team over individual. We over me. The many are more important than the one. However you’d like to word it, Presti deeply believes this and has embedded it into every aspect of the Thunder organization. It’s one reason every single player visits the OKC bombing memorial upon his addition to the roster. Presti rigidly requires it.

I don’t believe Harden’s stubbornness angered or embittered Presti. I think it saddened him. In trading Harden, Presti stayed true to his own values. Is that ever truly a mistake? This is what separates Presti from almost every other GM. His philosophy is so deeply established in himself and within the organization that there is no other way forward. 

The slide

The Thunder’s continued competitiveness after moving Harden surprised precisely no one. Russ and KD’s undeniable dominance ensured that. But the feeling around the team began to change. The euphoric aura began to give way to grimacing about shot distribution, roles, and injuries. The team faded in the national conversation somewhat. Presti’s belief in the talent he had assembled never gave the appearance of wavering over the next several years. And then the Thunder showed everyone why, roaring to a 3-1 lead over the 73 win Golden State Warriors in the 2016 Western Conference Finals. Their command of those first four games remains one of the more jarring basketball memories of my lifetime. The Thunder humiliated a true juggernaut in those three wins. A championship seemed sealed. 

The glittering gold of the postseason turned to dust yet again. Klay Thompson erupted for 11 threes in Game 6, and the Warriors battled back to beat the Thunder and advance to the 2016 Finals.

The incredulity of the fanbase quickly dissolved into anxiety, though. There had been whisperings that Durant might leave in free agency since around midseason, but the loss and the summer brought not whisperings, but rumblings. Presti was in another dilemma. We all remember that 4th of July. KD was gone.

The recovery

This is where Presti’s undeniable legacy shines. In the ensuing season, he empowered Russ, allowing him to become a fully unleashed version of himself. The team belonged to the one who stayed now, and the record books weren’t ready. Russ responded by carrying the team to the playoffs, averaging a triple double, leading the league in scoring, and beating out James Harden himself for that season’s MVP. There is no replacing a talent like KD, but Presti made the most out of the hand he was dealt this time. With every dunk and primal scream, every banked in three, and every explosion of vicious energy, Russ drove the Thunder, and allowed the fans to trade their disappointment in losing another supreme talent for gratitude that they still had one on full display.

Don’t forget, Presti certainly enabled this season of indulging on the good, the bad, and the ugly of Russell Westbrook. It was exactly what the Thunder organization and their fans needed. Catharsis. 

That would have been enough. But Presti is never done. There’s always another move, a brighter future ahead. Paul George’s future had already been decided in the summer of 2017. He was en route to the Lakers, biding his time with the Indiana Pacers until they traded him there or he could sign with them as a free agent. There were a few rumblings of other interested teams, but all with serious trepidation that any George trade would be a short term rental. The Thunder were not on the radar. Presti, however, still believed in the culture he had built. He believed in Russ’s undeniability. He believed he could sell George on this team long term. And *boom*. George to the Thunder was done.

A few months later, Presti swung a deal for the Knicks’ disgruntled Carmelo Anthony. Presti had gone from zero undeniable talents, all the way up to three, back down to one, just to pull multiple rabbits out of a hat and recreate the kind of three-headed monster that every major market team dreams about. This couldn’t happen in Oklahoma City, could it?

Keep pressing

The Carmelo experiment failed. Not spectacularly, but slowly, like a romantic relationship that drifts apart over the course of time. But it hardly mattered. George and Russ were spectacular together. The Thunder flashed brilliance in fits and spurts once again, made the playoffs again, disappointed in the playoffs again. But this time the offseason held not disappointment for Presti, but a coup. George committed to four more years with Russ, Presti, and the Thunder. Presti had locked in a superteam for the foreseeable future once again. Just for kicks, Presti also acquired Dennis Schröder leading up to that 2018-2019 season. 

The pattern is becoming familiar now, isn’t it? Another solid regular season with flashes of brilliance, another first round playoff disappointment. By the end of last season, there was major Westbrook backlash across the basketball world, fair or not. The Thunder were an extremely talented team that seemed to be stuck on the upper echelons of the treadmill of mediocrity. Their enormous financial commitment to their core of Westbrook, George, and Steven Adams was a concern for some. How would a team that had balked at paying the luxury tax for a title contender feel about doing so for year after year of first round exits? Presti had played his hand nearly flawlessly at every opportunity since the Harden trade, and yet seemed locked into a good team with no hope of winning a championship. It was an impressive feat, considering the KD departure, but a disappointing one all the same after the highs of that 2012 Finals appearance. 

Starting over

And then, another offseason shocker–this one the most shocking yet. Paul George was being traded to the Clippers. Kawhi Leonard’s unrivaled dictation of terms during his free agency included an insistence that the Clippers acquire George. And here we saw Presti’s growth since the Harden trade. This time, when faced with making a move he did not want to make, but felt that he had to, he ensured the future of basketball in Oklahoma City for years to come, as well as the here and now.

The historic haul of picks and players the Thunder raked in for both Paul George and Russell Westbrook over last offseason has yet to fully play out. We know that Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is going to be special, barring injury. We know this team is exceeding all expectations. And we know that Chris Paul has embraced Presti’s We over Me ethos more fully than many thought possible, and maybe more than any Thunder player ever. This team exudes “Just win, baby”. Ego is absent. And in that sense, they are the team most truly reflective of Sam Presti during his entire tenure.

Mr. Thunder

We didn’t even cover much of Presti’s laudable draft record, or many of the ancillary moves he’s made over the years. And that really captures the significance of what Sam Presti has built: it is almost too expansive to be exhaustive in discussing its scope. Because yes, Sam Presti has built a basketball team that is fun and exciting and talented and undeniable, time and again, in a small market in the middle of America. But much more than that, he has built a living, breathing organization that reflects, adapts, and grows with the city it exists in, and the fans that root for it.

He has locked in a basketball future in one of the league’s smallest markets, despite one fantastic blunder and many unforeseen challenges. And he has done it all his way, and will continue to be the driving force of this franchise after Paul and Steven Adams and Danilo Gallinari and maybe even Gilgeous-Alexander are long gone.

And after he’s long gone, the lessons he taught us and the culture he’s built will still be here. Sam Presti is the real Mr. Thunder. Thank you, Sam. Can’t wait for the next trade nobody sees coming.

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