The Myth of Sam Presti

On June 7, 2007, Sam Presti took over basketball operations in Seattle. The team was dreadful, their two best players wanted out, and Seattle was about to lose the team.

Fast forward five years, and the Thunder is playing in its second straight Western Conference Finals. To say that Sam Presti has done a poor job would be laughable.

However, for some reason, he seems to be “untouchable” in NBA circles. It’s extremely difficult to find a single negative article on him or how he has built his team.

I don’t know why.

From where I’m sitting, his team is poorly built.


Thunder GM Sam Presit (Image credit: Nate Billings, The Oklahoman)

Poorly built teams can still win games. Poorly built teams can go far in the playoffs. Sometimes, poorly built teams can even win championships. That doesn’t mean that they aren’t poorly built. That just means that they were talented enough to overcome their shortcomings.

For example, nobody will ever convince me that the 1991 Chicago Bulls were well-built.

They didn’t have a point guard, a center, or a bench. Fortunately for them, Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen were simply too good to let them lose.

Jerry Krause hadn’t built a great team. On the contrary, he had completely whiffed on certain moves (drafting Brad Sellers, Stacey King, Mark Randall, and trading away Charles Oakley for Bill Cartwright). It didn’t matter. Jordan and Pippen provided the makeup for an otherwise ugly team.

Sam Presti does not know how to build a team.

What he can do is evaluate talent. This is indisputable. Carl Landry, Glen Davis, Serge Ibaka, Rodrigue Beaubois, and Quincy Pondexter were all drafted by Presti outside of the lottery.

However, while he has done a fantastic job of accumulating pieces, he has not always put those pieces in positions to succeed.

Let’s go back to 2007 and do things a little differently. At the end of this hypothetical, you can decide for yourself which Thunder team would look better.

Two quick notes:

  • None of the moves can be made “from hindsight.” Every move we institute had to have been defensible at the time. Just because Chandler Parsons has ended up being one of the best rookies of this year’s draft class doesn’t mean we can go back and say the Bobcats should have taken him early. Nobody thought Parsons would be this good. That would be a “from hindsight” sort of move.
  • The entire premise of the piece is based on the assertion that Kevin Durant will be an All-Time Special Player, as well as one of the greatest scorers we have ever seen. If you don’t agree with this statement, you may as well stop reading.

Let’s also recognize that if some of these moves had been different, the Thunder may not have been able to draft in the same spots. Just follow the hypothetical as best as you can.

June 2007

The then-current roster of the then-Sonics looks as follows: Ray Allen, Nick Collison, Damien Wilkins, Chris Wilcox, Robert Swift, Earl Watson, and absolute garbage. (This is assuming you don’t think most of these guys qualify as being absolute garbage.)

Ray Allen wants to be traded, and you have the second pick in the draft. Kevin Durant is all yours, now you have to decide how to turn Allen into an asset.

What Really Happened: Presti flipped Allen for Delonte West, Wally Szczerbiak, and the rights to Jeff Green (whom they instructed the Celtics to pick for them).

The Flaw: The Sonics already had Damien Wilkins at small forward, and now they were bringing in not just one, but two players who played the same position. The Thunder struggled tremendously for the next four years while trying various thing that never worked.

In Durant’s rookie year, he played a lot of shooting guard while Green played small forward. Since that clearly didn’t work, they tried to force Jeff Green to become a power forward until they had to trade him for Kendrick Perkins. No matter how you slice it, Jeff Green and Kevin Durant play the exact same position, and Presti picked them three spots apart from each other in the same draft. Not only did this most likely stunt Durant’s growth as a player, but it also severely limited the Thunder’s ceiling until they could unload Green a few years later.

What Should Have Happened: Make the same trade with Boston, but instruct them to draft Joakim Noah instead.  Remember, Noah would have been the #1 pick had he come out a year earlier, and people still loved his motor, defense, passing, and intangibles.

The Sonics didn’t draft Noah because they had misevaluated Robert Swift, foolishly believing that he was their answer at center for the future. Had they drafted Noah, they would have had a starting lineup of Watson, West, Durant, Collison, and Noah. Not great by any means, but at least everyone would have had a legitimate position and role on the team.

June 2008

You are Sam Presti.

Your team is growing. You have a legitimate center for the future in Noah and one of the best young players alive in Durant. You can already see that Durant will be a 30-ppg scorer for the conceivable future, and you need to build around him.

Your three biggest needs are as follow:

  • Find a true point guard who will make it his personal mission to get Durant 30 points a night.
  • Find a power forward that is a great passer, can score on the block, and most importantly hit the midrange jumper to keep the floor spaced for Durant.
  • Find a shooting guard who can make open shots and possibly play some defense.

The following players are in this year’s draft:

  • Derrick Rose – He’s going #1, but he didn’t fill any of your needs anyways.
  • Michael Beasley – He’s going #2, and he doesn’t fill any needs either.
  • OJ Mayo – Fills a need, but he was drafted right before your pick.
  • Russell Westbrook, Kevin Love, and Eric Gordon.

Of those players available to you, only one player doesn’t fill a need – and that’s Russell Westbrook. Eric Gordon would be a fantastic sidekick for Durant with his pure stroke and ability to score. Kevin Love fills the power forward role to perfection.

What Really Happened: Presti drafted Westbrook. Now obviously, Westbrook has become a great player in this league; but in 2008, we had no idea if he would ever be able to be a point guard.

The Thunder also acquired Thabo Sefolosha (filling their need at the SG) and Serge Ibaka (is a PF, but doesn’t fill any of the requirements that you were looking for).

The Flaw: To this day, there are still questions concerning whether or not Westbrook and Durant can coexist together, and they steal shots from each other nightly. Even on nights when Westbrook plays well (like last night when he finished with 27 points and zero turnovers), there are long portions of the game where Durant doesn’t even touch the ball.

Further than that, you are cementing your identity as a perimeter team. With Westbrook and Durant as your main two options, you will always be limited by how well you are shooting jump shots.

What Should Have Happened: Draft Kevin Love. It made so much sense.

Not only does Love mesh perfectly with Durant (he’s a willing passer, always looks up for outlets to start fast breaks, and pulls down every rebound so Durant doesn’t have to), but he also goes perfectly with Noah. He can score with his back to the basket, but can also hit three-pointers and stretch the floor so Noah can stay down low and do the dirty work.

With Noah and Love on the same team, you are leading the league in rebounding margin every single year. Plus, you have rare size and athleticism that includes Iceboy Slim Kevin Durant. No team has the bodies to hang with all three.

Plus, you still wind up with Serge Ibaka off the bench!  Now, he can fulfill his destiny: be the ultimate high energy bench guy that comes in and blocks shots and ignites the crowd.  You don’t need him to play good defense, and that’s good…because he doesn’t.

June 2009

Unbelievably, you get a lucky break and wind up with a high lottery pick again. Noah, Love, and Durant are the front line for the future. Ibaka gives you energy and size off of the bench. You have one goal:  land a point guard.

Fortunately for you, the greatest passer since Magic Johnson has decided to enter the league.

What Really Happened: Even though the Thunder already had one of the best scorers in the league, and an athletic scoring guard playing the point, they decided to draft James Harden – an athletic, scoring shooting guard who was one of the best players in college.

The Flaw: You are what you are now – a jump shooting team. Even if Harden can occasionally drive to the basket and score at the rim, your three best players all play better when they are scoring the basketball.

What’s so weird about this is that even today, the Thunder understand that they need Thabo Sefolosha to start and play a lot of minutes in order to relieve some of the pressure on Westbrook/Durant at the defensive end.

During crunch time, your lineup includes three guys that feel like they should take every shot and two guys that should never take ANY shot. For some reason, this doesn’t feel like a well-built team to me.

What Should Have Happened: Draft Ricky Rubio.

Who cares if he can’t shoot and never learns how to shoot?  As we have seen in Minnesota, when he and Love are on the same team passing the ball all around the floor, basketball cannot be more beautiful or fun to watch.

Rubio would have taken it personally every time Durant didn’t score 35. Durant already scores 30 a game by himself, just imagine what he would be doing with Love setting picks for him and Rubio creating for him.

The Thunder’s 2012 Conference Finals roster could have/should have looked as follows:


  • PG Ricky Rubio
  • SG Thabo Sefolosha
  • SF Kevin Durant
  • PF Kevin Love
  • C Joakim Noah


  • Serge Ibaka
  • Nick Collison
  • Daequan Cook
  • Eric Maynor/Derek Fisher

Depending on the circumstances, you could go big or small. You have depth down low. You don’t have to depend exclusively on jump shots. You have tremendous defensive players. You will never get out-rebounded.

Most importantly, you have one of the greatest scorers in NBA history, and he is getting every single look down the stretch. And with Rubio and Love, most of those are GOOD looks.

Now that’s well built.

Instead, the Thunder are what they are: exciting; tremendously talented; fun to watch; and flawed.

Is that flaw fatal? It might be. It’s sure looking that way right now.

Even if turns out to not be fatal, remember to put it into the proper perspective, which will be that Durant and Westbrook rose above a poorly-built roster – just like Scottie and Michael did – to lift their flawed team to a title.

Sam Presti…untouchable genius?

I think not.

About Jon Washburn

Jon Washburn grew up in Indianapolis, IN and as such, is a diehard Pacers, Colts, and Cubs fans. When it comes to college, he cheers for Notre Dame football fan and Purdue basketball. Yes, this sounds shady, but since he grew up without cable, he learned to love Notre Dame - the only team on TV. Glenn "The Big Dog" Robinson was at Purdue when Jon was in his formative years, so he latched onto them as well. Did that make him a fair-weather fan at the time? Sure. Give him a break...he was 8...and he has stayed with those teams ever since. Currently, he lives in Charleston, SC with his wife who grew up in Cleveland. Although he is no longer physically in the Midwest, his heart will always be there. Jon goes by the name "Twitch" because he has Tourette's Syndrome. Hit him up on his twitter @jwtwitch.


  1. Javery56 says:

    This article, if you can call it that is pure trash. Was the writer even born in 1991 to watch the bulls.  

    • Not that it matters, but I watched every single NBA Finals game with my father in 1991.  Thanks for the insight.

      • TEAMis1 says:

        Age, who you’re a fan of, where you’re from…none of it matters or is even relevent pertaining to the article. I am a huge Thunder fan and enjoyed every bit of the devil’s advocate role being played in this article… great points were made for many different scenarios and potentially how good a very different bunch would be. A lote of Presti’s success has been with a little luck on his side…anybody who disagrees is just probably a radical homer or someone who gets their idea of a good professional athlete from watching the kardashians parade around  one future should-have-been after another. the fact is that this”luck” happens all the time in sports…if it didnt we would never have the tremendous stories that we do and superstitions, rituals, and the hope for some luck from time to time.  individuals and organizations uniting to give us these stories we all love because we are true sports fans would mean much less without luck getting some credit and making people and teams our heroes. these stories we remember from our childhood  as you stated, and some will be our children’s heroes.  i just have a little bit of a problem with the fact that as a reader i came away with the impression that this position of yours didnt let presti be a hero and no credit for success. i came away feeling as if luck got too much credit and his decisions were somewhat trashed…almost as to insult his intelligence and the path he chose in creating this young and often times lucky team. you made it sound like it would be ill advised to do it exactly the same if done again…how many teams in the league would be very happy to be in the position the thunder are in…NBA FINALS. how many teams would be lining up to have westbrook as their point even though he still has quite a bit of maturation to take place before he even has a chance to be considered an all time great? the truth is that he isnt a point guard…we all know that. thats just part of the reason for the criticism he takes daily for shooting too much or not being a great passing point guard… but he has adapted and is getting better and has taken on the challeng of making the best with the pieces that you have instead of excuses for the ones you dont. it has driven him to achieve a greater level of success and want to get better… and  that holds true throughout the organization and has to be some of the reason for the thunder being where they are.  this young group has adapted to change, picked up a few huge pieces along the way and made them work so quickly that at first may have been thought of as unwise decisions or doubted to help build a team due to the lack of a big name super star deals or trades. the building blocks were put there and those blocks you may say were stacked uneven. i was uncertain at first also and dont argue the fact for the success to partially be from those other role players that have been snatched up along the way and the ones that have been there longer and rarely recognized its a team sport! all those factors helped as they had to unite as a team that a few years back would have never been predicted to be in consecutive wcf series an now in a position to win a world title for the TEAM and city they have grown to love. as a fan i think its a great story of how this bunch has had most of the pieces in place for the past few seasons and have found the missing pieces that have lead to this great run by a group of players, coaches, and one other important individual that nobody here in oklahoma questions now …its united a state that was cowboys or sooners in the past with the lack of any professional franchise to all become THUNDER…and no matter how it happend OKC is still proud of the team and organization for doing what people thought would be impossible just a few seasons ago. i did see what point you were making and enjoyed seeing how lineup scenarios could have gone differently but please don’t seem as insulting to any individual or organization when they clearly deserve credit for getting there and becoming heroes with or without luck.  

  2. Presti Fan says:

    I’m a huge Presti fan (run his Facebook page), but I have to say this article is on point.

  3. Edward von Havren says:

    This is the dumbest article I may have ever read. Look, I get your point, but there is simply NO WAY it would have broken down that way. Those pieces don’t just fall into your lap. Anybody would agree with you, Noah > Green. With that said, if the Thunder draft Noah, you simply have to assume that give them another few wins, maybe 3 or 4. So the probability of them landing a top 5 pick the next year are slim. So then what? Then there is no Love/Mayo/Rose/Beasley and they would likely still take Westbrook or maybe Gordon. You can’t assume a Euro like Rubio is just going to come over the next year. With that said, Westbrook > Rubio. Simple. I love Rubio’s passing ability, but that is his only advantage. Either way, it wouldn’t matter, with that core, they would have had a better record than they did, so there simply wouldn’t have been a way to draft Rubio, or Harden for that matter. I’d say they would have drafted around 6/7 instead of third. So they would have likely taken Curry. So is a team comprised of young guns Durant/Noah/Gordon/Curry better than Westbrook/Harden/Durant/Perkins(understandably, Perkins isn’t young, but Green became Perkins)? The only one I agree on is Noah, but the rest simply wouldn’t have turned out the way you say. So, in the heat of the moment for each draft, I’d say Presti did a damn good job. 

    • I addressed this point in the column…there is no way of knowing how many more wins they would have gotten had they drafted better.
      Past that, you are making my point.  Presti ABSOLUTELY BLEW the Green pick.  It was SO BAD, that they got a lottery pick the next year.  That’s not great management.  That’s not fantastic team building.
      Again, he’s a great evaluator of talent.  But to think that Green and Durant could have ever coexisted was just a bad move.
      Concerning Westbrook, I agree that he’s a better player than Rubio right now.  But how much better would Durant be with a point guard that lived and breathed with one purpose – getting him the ball?
      Again, the point of my article was clear.  Presti hasn’t built a cohesive team.  He’s drafted great players who may overcome their team’s shortcomings…but he hasn’t BUILT anything great.

      • Presti Fan says:

        You’re assuming that he’s done building though. Prior to the Perkins trade this team would have made even less sense, correct? If I had to guess, I’d say he’s got something up his sleeve with a trade of either Westbrook or Harden coming up. He’ll probably cash one of those chips in for a bevy of young talent (i.e. cheap, cap-friendly talent) and high draft pick(s). These will turn into pieces that fit better around the remaining core.

  4. Hi Jon-
    Great aritcle. My friends and I in OKC always talk about this.
    First of all- Durant landed in his lap. Secondly, let’s not forget about all of his bad draft picks, which you already did (still no idea why we drafted Cole).
    Sam is a good GM, but he’s not a genius.

  5. I generally agree with your opinion on this topic and look forward to new posts and comments here at Keep up the good work!

  6. Fantastic blog! Do you have any helpful hints for aspiring writers?
    I’m hoping to start my own site soon but I’m a little lost on everything.

    Would you suggest starting with a free platform like WordPress
    or go for a paid option? There are so many choices out there that I’m totally confused ..
    Any suggestions? Kudos!

  7. Ahaa, its nice conversation about this piece of writing at this place at this webpage, I have read all that, so at this time me also commenting here.

  8. 9/9/2016 @ 07:43:33 In my view, does a great job of dealing with subjects of this type! Even if ofttimes deliberately contentious, the posts are more often than not thoughtful and challenging.

  9. I could not refrain from commenting. Perfectly written!

  10. Incredible! This blog looks exactly like my old
    one! It’s on a totally different topic but it has pretty much the
    same layout and design. Outstanding choice of colors!

  11. Well-written piece. I just forwarded this on 9/15/2016 to a classmate who’s been doing a little research of her own on this subject. To show their appreciation, they just bought me a drink! So, I should probably say: Thanks for the meal!

  12. My partner and I absolutely love your blog and find a lot
    of your post’s to be just what I’m looking for. Do
    you offer guest writers to write content for yourself?
    I wouldn’t mind publishing a post or elaborating on a number of the subjects you write related to
    here. Again, awesome blog!

  13. In my estimation, does a good job of handling subjects of this kind. While ofttimes intentionally contentious, the information is more often than not well researched and thought-provoking.

  14. Greetings I am so grateful I found your blog,
    I really found you by mistake, while I was researching on Digg
    for something else, Regardless I am here now and
    would just like to say many thanks for a incredible
    post and a all round thrilling blog (I also love the theme/design), I don’t have time to read through it all at the moment but I have saved it and also added
    in your RSS feeds, so when I have time I will be back to read a great deal more, Please do keep up the great

  15. Ive in no way read anything like this prior to. So good to locate somebody with some original thoughts on this topic, really thank you for beginning this up. this site is one thing that’s essential on the web, somebody having a small originality. helpful job for bringing something new towards the online!

  16. You made some decent points there. I checked on the net for more info
    about the issue and found most people will go along with your views on this web site.

Speak Your Mind