Few GMs get a second chance to build a contender after failing the first time. But Sam Presti isn’t just the general manager of the Oklahoma City Thunder. For Thunder fans, he is the most important person in the past, present and future of their franchise.
Thunder fans hate to hear this, but Presti wasted one of the most talented teams in NBA history. It happened through a series of horrific moves, including not retaining James Harden, trading for Kendrick Perkins and missing out on draft picks like Mitch McGary, Presti failed to build a championship roster around three future MVP to Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Harden. He also hired two below-average head coaches, Scott Brooks and Billy Donovan. A decade later, third-year head coach Mark Daigneault was one of three finalists for coach of the year. They finished as the No. 10 seed in the Western Conference, 13th in defensive rating, third in pace and fourth in possessions. As the team exceeds preseason expectations and earns a spot in the Play-in tournament, the mistakes of Harden, Durant and Westbrook are in the rearview mirror. With this new young Thunder core, Presti is ready to rebuild another contender.
Presti came to the Thunder via the Seattle Supersonics, where he was signed in 2007 before selecting Kevin Durant second and Jeff Green fifth (in a trade to the Boston Celtics for Ray Allen). The following year, he took Russell Westbrook No. 4 and Serge Ibaka 24th, just before the franchise transferred to Oklahoma City. Presti was hired by the Oklahoma City-based ownership group after buying the team in 2007. He looks like the prototype hipster from Seattle, with tailored suits paired with Nike sneakers, stylish haircuts and glasses on measure.
After ownership reneged on its promise to keep the team in Seattle, Presti was taken, along with the Sonics, to OKC, renamed Thunder. Once at OKC, he made it his mission not just to stay long-term, but to reimagine what a small market team is capable of. This became known as “The Process”, not to be confused with the Philadelphia 76ers named “Process” coined by former GM Sam Hinkie. Presti’s selection of three future MVP candidates is one of the greatest draft achievements in NBA history. Equally, his failure to win a title with those three is one of the biggest flops in talent utilization.
But with Thunder University 2.0, he’s amassed the greatest treasure trove of assets in NBA history to ensure he can outbid anyone in future trades. The Thunder have an astonishing 38 draft picks over the next seven years, with 19 first-round picks and 19 second-round picks, a feat no other team has achieved. Over the next two to three years, Presti will be able to outbid any team for any player with his draft cache and roster of young players on value offers.
The second rebuild began when he pulled off one of the best trades of this century, when he sent new Paul George to the Los Angeles Clippers in exchange for a king’s ransom from Danilo Gallinari, guard Shai Gilgeous -Alexander and a huge haul of draft picks, including five first-round picks. But the key element was Gilgeous-Alexander, who became an MVP contender in his fourth season with the team. Unfortunately, the draft picks Presti receives will likely be poor, as the Clippers will still be a contender with Kawhi Leonard and George on the roster.
Gilgeous-Alexander’s scoring has increased significantly this season, averaging 31 points with 4.5 rebounds, 5.5 assists and 1.6 steals per game. He is considered the league’s best in field goal driving, leading the league in shots per game at 23.9 while scoring 17.1 points per game on his shots. Just as important as on the pitch, Gilgeous-Alexander became the team’s top commercial off the pitch. Her experimental fashion sense, lovable personality, and advocacy of Thunder culture have made OKC hip again. That alone should earn him a price.
Knowing that great free agents will never choose Oklahoma City, Presti built this team primarily through the draft. This time, Presti targeted long and athletic players to build around SGA. Outside of Westbrook, Ibaka and Durant, Thunder U’s previous core lacked athleticism outside of their big three, and this time around prioritized guys who can run and shoot and play defense. Take, for example, Lu Dort. Despite being rated a five-star recruit by ESPN out of high school, Dort went undrafted in 2019 and was picked up by Presti. He has since become one of the best perimeter defensemen in the league while averaging 17 points per game. Dort’s versatile defensive skills allow him to guard all five positions and willingly take on the toughest defensive missions.
In the 2021 draft, Presti made a surprise move by selecting Australian pro Josh Giddey with the sixth pick. Giddey’s passing skills make him a visionary on the pitch, with huge potential for growth. He can also play in multiple positions, making him an essential piece for future draft picks. With the combination of Giddey’s and SGA’s bigger frames, Presti will be free to pick the best player available, regardless of position. Plus, once Giddey improves his three-point shooting percentage, he’ll become an even more dangerous threat in the Thunder’s offensive spacing.
In last summer’s draft, they nabbed one of the league’s best rookies in 12-year-old Jalen Williams. Williams finished first-team All-Rookie with a 59.7% true shooting rate, which is in the league’s 81st percentile. Want more? Williams has the third-best PER of his teammates at 15.3, was third in total assists, second in win shares and fourth in defensive rating at 113.3. He averaged 14.1 points, 4.5 rebounds and 3.3 assists as the Thunder’s starting forward. With his impressive athleticism and versatility, Williams possesses star quality and seems like the perfect stretch wing to complement the team’s many talented playmakers in transition.
Not to mention the second pick in this year’s draft, Chet Holmgren, who has been out since pre-season with a Lisfranc injury to his right foot. At 7’1 and with a wingspan of 7’6, Holmgren is long, athletic and a good finisher in the paint. He can also go out, space the ground with his shot, handle the ball and make plays on the dribble. The Thunder made the Play-In tournament with 6’9 rookie Jaylin Williams playing as an undersized center. When Holmgren returns next season, he gives them a five-man unicorn with the two-way ability and promise to pick-roll alongside Gilgeous-Alexander.
After two full seasons of tanking, the Oklahoma City Thunder have finally achieved competitiveness, marking the end of their rebuilding. They now have a true star in SGA alongside three very promising players in Giddey, Williams and Holmgren, and the biggest treasure chest of draft picks in NBA history. Presti’s number one goal this summer will be to use some of these picks to acquire veterans via trade. At a median age of 22.7, the Thunder are the youngest team in the NBA. They need veterans to complement the rest of the roster and add leadership and stability on and off the pitch. Presti can’t go on to another season without adding some tough, playoff-tested veterans to the roster. Once he does, a top-five seed in the Western Conference is the second goal.