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.
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.
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.
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.
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.