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Sam Presti lost a potential Thunder dynasty. Now he can try again

Oklahoma City’s GM has put himself in the perfect position to redefine his legacy ... again.

What will define Sam Presti, NBA general manager? For some time, the Oklahoma City Thunder chief would have been defined by drafting Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden — three future MVPs — in successive years. There isn’t a better three-year lottery run in the modern era. This vision of Presti topped out in the 2012 NBA Finals.

Subsequent to that, Presti could be defined for being on the short end of the stick on the infamous James Harden deal, in which the Thunder — knowing they couldn’t afford to keep all three of their superstars plus integral big man Serge Ibaka — dealt Harden on his rookie deal for parts and picks. The parts didn’t help the Thunder much, and the best pick was Steven Adams, areally good player, but not nearly a Harden-level player. The Thunder did not get back to the NBA Finals after trading Harden.

This leads directly into the next popular definition of Presti: as the general manager who had a readymade dynasty, traded one piece, and lost another (the most important, Kevin Durant) in free agency. In this view, Presti lost a Thunder dynasty. That’s who he is.

Now, he can try again.

Presti has always received a high level of respect based on his strong draft record and his ability to turn dead-ends into assets. The wizardry of turning Serge Ibaka into Victor Oladipo (and Domantas Sabonis) and then Paul George is legendary. That trade has now morphed into the greatest package of draft picks ever assembled.

This skill is why the Harden trade sticks out so much and still gets mentioned in every piece on Presti. That should have been Presti’s greatest opportunity, and for various reasons, it didn’t really work. It was an enormously consequential trade for both franchises, and it can certainly overshadow all the A+ decisions Presti made before or since.

This, right here, the next few years — that’s Presti’s chance to change the narrative about himself, that he built a dynasty and gave it up before winning anything and watched it slowly unravel.

Per transaction expert Albert Nahmad, here’s what Presti has to work with over the coming years.

  • Likely two first-round picks in 2020.
  • Two first-round picks in 2021.
  • Two first-round picks in 2022.
  • Two first-round picks in 2023 (one could defer).
  • Three first-round picks in 2024.
  • One first-round pick in 2025, and three first-round picks in 2026.

Fifteen picks over seven years, with swap rights in multiple years that will marginally increase the value of the Thunder’s own picks. All of that is a real opportunity to build a new dynasty, whether by drafting stars or trading for them.

The best picks will likely by OKC’s own as the demolition continues. Right now, the Thunder are a low-lottery team as constructed. But with a reformed lottery — something Presti is reputed to have fought against, interestingly enough — being in the low-lottery range could mean a top-4 pick. The Pelicans, Grizzlies, and Lakers were not among the worst seven teams in the league last year, yet ended up with the Nos. 1, 2, and 4 picks respectively. The Thunder don’t need to immediately bottom out for their pick to have high value.

And even if the Thunder don’t get lucky in the lottery, they have so many bites at the apple that it’s bound to happen. We saw this with Sam Hinkie’s 76ers. The simple math is that if you have enough chances, you’ll win the potential to pick prizes eventually. And Presti has proven he doesn’t need No. 1 picks: Durant was No. 2, Westbrook was No. 4, and Harden was No. 3.

This will all take time. The first Thunder dynasty bloomed quickly, but there was a lean year in Seattle before the relocation, and that first OKC season was really bad. Westbrook’s rookie year, 2008-09, was tough. (Whither P.J. Carlesimo?) Devoid of stars now (no offense to Chris Paul, who is likely on his way out sooner rather than later), Presti has to begin assembling the new collection. Then we’ll see if he’s done it again.

At least he has a chance, not just to rebuild the Thunder, but to build a new dominant narrative on who he is as an NBA general manager. Presti can get away from being the GM who built and lost a dynasty before they could win anything, and become the GM who constructed multiple great teams.

He has a chance, at least.