NBA

The Sam Presti Playbook: Thunder’s Front Office Tactics

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Sam Presti has been in charge of the Thunder for 14 years and is one of the NBA’s longest-serving managers. Only RC Buford and Pat Riley have spent more time molding their teams into championship contenders. Presti is an older statesman on his level, a far cry from the boy wonder who was handed the keys to the Seattle Supersonics in 2007.

During this period, Presti presided over the rebuilding of teams, taking on teams and teams with batting luck. With each iteration of the Thunder, its goals were different. With Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant at the helm, Presti focused on adding the kind of extra pieces that could help the Thunder win a title.

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With Westbrook as the only star, Presti’s goal was to build a team around Russell Westbrook without sacrificing assets the Thunder lacked. He achieved that goal and unfortunately Oklahoma City fell short in the playoffs.

At the moment, the Thunder are in a rebuilding situation and, naturally, Sam has been focused on long-term sustainability. He’s hoarding young players and draft picks to build a team that can compete outside the usual three-year window.

His vision of the Thunder has changed over the past 14 years and the same can be said for Presti’s ‘operational art’. “Operational Art” is a term derived from Sun Tzu’s Art of War and can be broadly summarized as the use of tactics to achieve a strategic objective.

Presti’s tactical approach is deeply interesting as a Thunder fan. Presti is a general manager in a small junk market who built one of the most successful NBA teams in the 2010s before moving into orderly, well-stocked rebuilding work. He delivered a bar in terms of results by winning a championship without benefiting from notable natural advantages. How does Presti do this?

It’s a question I’ve returned many times and after analyzing the Thunder’s front office operations, the answers are starting to become clearer. While Presti’s tactics have changed, his personality has remained the same. Sam likes to operate discreetly and extract every crumb of value from a transaction.

Rotate the list

As the Thunder progressed in their rebuilding, Presti showed a tendency to acquire players or picks in an effort to move those assets to improve the roster. In the 2020 offseason, Oklahoma City made 15 different trades as Sam tore down the roster to rebuild for the future. Players like Ricky Rubio, Danny Green and Kelly Oubre were all on the Thunder for a few days before being dealt out again.

Rotating the list and not settling for a simple return allows Presti to extract as much value as possible from an exchange. It may just be a matter of transferring a salary filler to another team for a second round or a heavily protected first-round pick, but those little trades around the sidelines have been invaluable for the Thunder.

Ousmane Dieng’s job is a perfect example of what working on the margins can bring to a team. The Thunder spent three first-round picks to bring Dieng to Oklahoma, but none of those picks belonged to the Thunder. The Nuggets first came off Grant’s salary dump.

The other two picks come from a trade with Houston involving Alperen Sengun. Sam Presti didn’t want to take a big buck in the 2021 NBA Draft and was locked on Tre Mann. The Thunder dealt No. 16 to bring two future firsts from Detroit and Washington.

At the time, I criticized those trades because two protected first-round picks in the top 14 didn’t seem like an adequate return. I fully admit that I was wrong in this example. Adding those two picks provided Sam Presti with more clout when it came to making an offer that couldn’t be refused.

Desire for calm

As a franchise, Oklahoma City tends to do business quietly and as quietly as possible. It’s rare to see the Thunder front office publicly pursue a player like some other teams have. In the past, the Thunder has been compared to a CIA office in the way the team controls information and does not expose the game.

Unlike other GMs in the league, Presti doesn’t seem to have a particularly close relationship with the media. Adrian Wojnarowski’s relationships with Neil Olshey and Sean Marks have been discussed a lot lately.

This is a quid pro quo agreement between the two parties; Wojnarowski posts stories that put his friends in a favorable light while executives provide Wojnarowski with up-to-date, breaking news. It’s the exact opposite of how the Thunder do business.

Presti only speaks to the media when he needs to and is low-key when it comes to roster-related matters. The silence appears to be a conscious decision on Presti’s part. By remaining silent, he can take advantage of the information gap that exists between him and his colleagues.

Paul George’s trade was a prime example of Presti making the most of silence. Nobody really knew what was on the table of the teams competing to acquire George, which allowed the Thunder to get such a run.

Draft Trends

Sam Presti’s draft preferences have evolved over the past fifteen years. At one point, it looked like Sam intended to take all the hyper-athletic wings that couldn’t shoot. Andre Roberson, Josh Huestis, Terrance Ferguson and Hamidou Diallo all fall into this category.

His approach was driven by the needs of the Thunder roster. Russell Westbrook was a singular offensive force who could deliver an attack, but his inconsistencies on defense needed accommodation. Russell liked to play on defense and his tendencies would often open holes in the Thunder’s defense. Having long wings that could light up every game made sense.

More recently, we’ve seen Presti focus more on high-level players in the college ranks and playmakers in the international game. Sam Presti has acquired Josh Giddey, Vit Krejci, Aleksej Pokusveski, Theo Maledon and Ousmane Dieng over the past two years. For the four of them, passing is their greatest strength.

In terms of college players taken by the Thunder, Presti tends to take players from programs that run NBA-style sets. I’ll admit Gonzaga relies more on Drew Timme post-ups than an NBA team, but even that was influenced by professional basketball. Gonzaga used to run post-up action with Nembhard, Chet and Strawther at the perimeter.

Gonzaga, Florida State and Villanova all play an open, wide-spaced style of basketball reminiscent of professional play. The advantage of taking players from these teams is that they often have a good understanding of next-level team concepts and fit into the offense without too much accommodation.

During his rookie season, Jeremiah Robinson-Earl started in center for the Thunder and led the team on the defensive side of the field. He anchored the defense and was always reliable. JRE played with a maturity beyond his years and was a big part of why the Thunder did so well on defense in the first half of the season. It took Tre Mann longer to acclimate, but he eventually learned how to get buckets effectively in the NBA.

Presti’s goals in the draft are constantly changing, but it’s obvious he has a type when it comes to signing players. Sam likes players who have good instincts on the court and know how to be productive in a team basketball setting.

I believe those three strategies Presti uses are what allow him to keep the Thunder competitive and find roster improvements when there is no easy fix. These tactics should hopefully serve the Thunder well as they move forward into another era of basketball.

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