When it comes to tanking, Sam Presti maddeningly playing Thunder both ways
Oklahoma City's general manager went long on Monday without ever telling us exactly what he's thinking, like what defines games 'of consequence'
You can’t write for the giants who read you.
Well, I guess you can, and some do, trading their integrity for atta-boys from a coach, player, administrator or other alleged VIPs.
But one shouldn’t.
It ain’t journalism.
Not that getting them can’t make an impression that affects nonetheless.
I’ve got two.
At Lloyd Noble Center one night, maybe six years ago, Billy Tubbs walked past press row shaking hands on his way out of Lloyd Noble Center and when he got to me, though we didn’t really know each other (despite my attending three of his basketball camps in the 1980s) he had a message.
“You do a good job,” he said.
The teenager who remains inside of me was thrilled.
Growing up on the Sooners, Tubbs’ basketball team had supplanted Barry Switzer’s football team as my fave, and 50-something me still believes Tubbs coached the best brand of basketball.
Fast, up and down, urgent, unapologetic, because who comes to watch the ball get walked up the court.
The next is today’s subject.
Covering the Thunder one night, for a change, they didn’t put me courtside, but above the first section. Can’t recall the opponent, maybe Lakers or Knicks, a squad covered by a horde, destined to bump locals out of their seats.
Anyway, Neal Peart, the greatest drummer who ever lived and perhaps its best lyricist, too, had recently passed, killed by a brain tumor not five years after Rush completed its final tour.
I wrote about it.
Peart was my guy.
I got a tap on my shoulder.
“You wrote the Neal Peart story, right,” Sam Presti said to me.
“That was awesome,” he said.
My parents were impressed.
I was, too.
I mention this to come completely clean with my admiration for Presti, general manager of the Oklahoma City Thunder.
I mean, how bad can anybody be who loves Neal Peart and Rush?
As for his day job …
I’m not dumb, he’s kind of a genius at that, too. Oklahoma City hasn’t accumulated all that draft capital on accident.
About that, let’s review.
As a timesaver, let’s limit it to first-round picks over the next two drafts.
2022: OKC’s own lottery pick, carrying a 12.5 percent chance of being the No. 1 selection. Another lottery pick, originating with the Clippers, which stands a 1.5 percent chance of being the No. 1 pick (acquired in the Paul George trade). The 30th-overall pick, originally belonging to the Suns (acquired in the Chris Paul trade).
2023: OKC’s choice of the Clippers’ pick or its own (part of the Paul George trade). The Nuggets’ pick (top-14 protected, thus likely to convey, via the trade sending Steven Adams to Memphis). The Wizards’ pick (top-14 protected, top-12 protected in 2024, top-10 protected in 2025, top-8 protected in 2026, becoming a second-round pick in 2027 if not previously conveyed (acquired by trading 16th pick in 2021 draft to Houston). The Pistons pick (top-18 protected, top-18 protected in 2024, top-13 protected in 2025, top-11 protected in 2026, top-9 protected in 2027, becoming a second-round pick if not conveyed previously; also acquired by trading 16th pick in 2021 draft to Houston).
It’s just the tip of the iceberg.
In the next five drafts, the Thunder hold the rights to 19 first-round selections.
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So Presti’s a genius, at getting picks and making them; Josh Giddey, the sixth selection last year the latest example; Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden the first three examples.
But he is a maddening genius, too.
A consternating genius.
Though he’ll kill you with words — he gave media two hours and 13 minutes on Monday — they’re never completely decipherable.
He gives you the forest.
Yet holds back the trees.
He’d probably like that description, “The Trees” being among Peart and Rush’s finest work.
Here is Presti’s forest:
“If we get to a situation where we're out of the ability to play games of consequence or meaningful games, then we've shifted to development, which is I think the responsible thing to do for any organization, and every organization does that.
“But we don't walk into the season eyeing how the season is going to go because the one thing you know is whatever your expectations are, that's what it won't be, because there's only one way for you to meet your expectation, and there's about 2 billion ways for it not to go that way.
“So we'll do the same thing next year; see where we are, compete, continue to focus on how we're working, not what we're trying to accomplish, and play it from there.”
It is a pretext for spending another season in the tank, hoping to lose, hoping to acquire better lottery odds, as was the case this past season, as was the case two seasons ago, albeit with a glimmer of hope it won’t come to that, which is nice but not very reassuring.
Here he is, appearing to be specific, but doing it with a scenario nobody’s asking for, even a dyed-in-the-wool anti-tankers like me.
“Like, if we were going to burn the boats to get to 40 wins, we could certainly do that. Is that in the best interest of the long-term of the Thunder? Probably not.
“People can mock us for not doing that, call us uncompetitive, whatever it is.
“The most competitive thing to do is exactly what we're doing, is taking a slow approach, not looking at the clock, letting other people do that, setting a pace for how we need to operate in Oklahoma City, and being confident in what we're doing.”
Because nobody wants the Thunder to give away all their draft capital to make a run at the eighth seed or the sixth seed or even the fourth. But they might want the organization to put a team on the floor it hopes to win every game it can, because not finishing in the draft lottery is not necessarily a huge future penalty, especially given the aggregate of picks the Thunder own over the next five years already.
On the no-tank side of things, the word itself — TANK — appears to irk Presti, which may be hopeful.
“I would say we have a rebuilding team now. Other people can — they like to name things because they have certain opinions that they are trying to — its performance art. That's what social media has become is performance art.
“We're not going to get caught up in that. Not everybody should be a publisher at the end of the day. No offense, but — and that's not directed to anybody in here specifically.”
They like to name things?
You say “development.”
I say “tank.”
But if you’re holding on to the idea you’ll get to cheer a team expecting to, as Lu Dort said, “definitely make it to the playoffs,” maybe hold on to this last thought of Presti’s.
“It all comes down to your current team in my opinion. And so, if the guys we have are really good and come together as a team, like that’s going to move the needle. But I think if you artificially try to accelerate something that needs to happen organically, I think that’s … where you can get yourself into big problems in my opinion. So I think the team has to declare itself.”
Presti asserted it’s no different than the previous two seasons. That it comes down to playing games “of consequence” or not.
Only that’s not entirely true.
The last two years, he did not talk about the needle being moved by the play on the court as he did Monday.
Three years ago, before taking the court with Chris Paul for one amazing season, Presti offered clarity in a way he hasn’t since.
“We’re not looking at this in one-season increments,” he said on training camp’s eve. “Obviously, the most important season is next season, and we want to maximize this season the best we can.”
Tuesday, he didn’t go that far, yet by saying it was in the players’ hands is the most promising thing he’s said since.
Writing this, I’ve wondered if I could have delivered the perfect question, fencing him in, pinning him down, making him tell us what he really thinks and believes.
I think I’ve got it.
Also, it’s probably too long for a press conference.
Imagine it in my voice:
“You don’t want to mortgage the future or be in and out of the playoffs. You want to be in them over the long term. We understand that. But if you’re 19-22 at the halfway point and that makes you the No. 9 team in the West, yet you see the team improving and you see it healthy and you see a corner maybe being turned if given the opportunity, do you give it the opportunity.
“Because a team like that might finish eighth, seventh or sixth in the West, might get into the main draw of the playoffs, and if it did that all you’ve mortgaged is one lottery pick and you should still have every confidence you’ll keep climbing, because the following season, 2023-24, Shai would be entering his sixth year, Lu would be entering his fifth, Josh would be entering his third and whoever you get in the coming draft would be entering their second. You should only get better.
“So if you get there, 19-22 or even 20-21, getting better all the time, healthy, do you pull the plug or let it ride? Would the games be consequential enough then?”
See what I mean?
But until we know the answer to a question like that, how much do we really know?
The man’s a genius.