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Sam Presti’s Process is Putting the Thunder in a Prime Position

By dealing superstars for picks and seemingly drafting well the last few seasons, the Oklahoma City GM is setting the franchise up for what could be a blossoming future.

Sam Hinkie resigned from his post in Philadelphia — or perhaps more accurately, the NBA ousted him — in 2016, but there’s another Sam pursuing his own path similar to the 76ers’ infamous Process in Oklahoma City.

Thunder GM Sam Presti started the Thunder’s dramatic rebuild in 2020 by trading superstars for draft picks, young talent, and financial flexibility. All things considered, the team is currently overachieving at 7-8 despite having the league’s most youthful squad (22.6 years old) with the fourth-lowest payroll ($94.8 million).

Up until 2020, the Thunder had made the postseason in 10 of 11 seasons. They suddenly fell into the lottery with a 22-win season in 2020-21 and a 24-win tally last season. For Presti, it was all part of the plan. However, he recently admitted how the 2023 CBA has major implications for how OKC spends in the future.

“When you’re at the stage where we are, like you said, going into our second draft, we reposition the team financially on and off the floor, but the thing that really shapes everything in every sport is what are the rules that are governing the CBA essentially,” Presti said.

“Like I said, if I was a fan right now I’d shut my ears because this is not interesting, but if you’re trying to run an NBA franchise in 2022 and beyond, in 20 of the 30 cities, you’re going to be tuned into CBA, revenue sharing, and TV deal. Those things really set the cast for how you operate.”

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The Trades

  • July 2019: Traded Russell Westbrook to the Rockets for Chris Paul, first-round picks (2024, 2026), plus pick swaps in 2021 and 2025.
  • July 2019: Traded Paul George to the Clippers for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Danilo Gallinari, and five first-rounders.
  • November 2020: Traded Chris Paul to the Suns for four role players and a 2022 first-round pick.

The Cornerstones

Heading into the 2022 NBA Draft, OKC amassed 38 picks over the next six years. But thanks to Hinkie and the 76ers, the Thunder will never boast as good of odds as they once could’ve, even if they finish with the league’s worst record. Prior to 2019, the team with the worst record boasted a 25% chance (5% higher than the second-worst team) of getting the No. 1 pick through the lottery. But in an effort to curb tanking, the NBA opted to adjust the odds starting with the 2019 draft, giving the three teams with the worst records an equal 14% chance at No. 1.

As Hinkie knew, it was all about getting as many chances at a potential superstar as possible. The thing is, the Thunder may already have one in rising star Gilgeous-Alexander. They’ve built the team around him, even extending the 24-year-old to the tune of a five-year, $179,299,750 contract. SGA is currently averaging a career-high 32.3 points per game on 54% shooting in 14 games played.

It’s not only the SGA show in OKC, though.

  • Lu Dort: undrafted in 2019. Known for being a pest on the defensive end, pundits deemed his prowess the ‘Dort Chamber’ as he worked his way into a five-year, $82,500,000 deal this past offseason.
  • Josh Giddey: No. 6 in 2021. Presti hit the jackpot in 2021 with Giddey, who last year tied Luka Doncic for the most triple-doubles (4) before turning 20 years old. He’s on the second year of his four-year, $27,214,807 rookie deal, and becomes eligible for an extension after the 2023-24 season.
  • Chet Holmgren: No. 2 in 2022. The 7-1 phenom out of Gonzaga has tremendous upside, but we won’t get to see it until next season. He sustained a Lisfranc injury in his right foot this past summer in a pro-am.

Presti’s picks have franchise-changing implications. These were his highest picks since selecting Kevin Durant second overall in 2007, Westbrook fourth overall in 2008, and James Harden third overall in 2009.

Business Side

Of course, a rebuilding team in a small market doesn’t sound very enticing to fans. Through the first month of the season, they have the third-lowest attendance in the NBA ahead of only the Spurs and Pacers, and they’re the 24th-highest-valued team in the league at $1.87 billion.

After the 2019 season (when they went full rebuild), OKC was the only team in the league to have an operating loss ($23 million) because of the $61 million luxury tax bill. Meanwhile, a half-dozen teams had profits of at least $100 million that same season.

They also haven’t had a top-selling jersey in the league since Westbrook in 2018. Maybe that’ll change with Gilgeous-Alexander on the prowl for his first All-Star bid.

The Outlook Is Good

They’re in good hands with Mark Daigneault at the helm, not to mention their star-studded backcourt is becoming a force to be reckoned with — perhaps earlier than anyone could’ve ever imagined. If they compete, it’s a sign that they’ve done a good job developing their young players. If they tank out, then they’ll get another lottery pick and a chance at Victor Wembanyama.

Presti’s Process doesn’t sound so bad after all.

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