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OKC’s Sam Presti is an overrated draft savant

OKC’s Sam Presti is an overrated draft savant

Sam Presti is the only NBA executive ever to draft three future MVPs and he did it in three consecutive drafts. It’s a maniacal stroke of luck and an exercise of risk/reward, chance and foresight. By doing so, Presti at the time guaranteed short-term success for the soon-to-be relocated Seattle Sonics into the Oklahoma City Thunder. The new franchise would operate in the league’s smallest market and need super-sized star power to sustain them financially and competitively. Presti delivered by selecting Kevin Durant second in 2007, Russell Westbrook fourth in 2008, and James Harden third in 2009. While epic, since 2009, Presti has not drafted another player who has earned All-Star or All-NBA honors, or any of the league’s end-of-the-year awards. While he deserves credit for kicking off OKC’s start as a franchise, he has been embarrassingly bad at scouting talent since Harden.

But first, the good. Durant would win MVP in 2014, Westbrook in 2017 with the Thunder, and Harden in 2018 with the Houston Rockets. It is one of NBA history’s great scouting acumens, selecting three guys who would go on to be not just MVPs but named Top 75 Players in NBA history and surefire first-ballot Hall of Famers. The trio shares 33 All-Star selections, 26 All-NBA Team nominations, nine scoring titles, and five season assist leader titles. But while Durant won two championships with the Golden State Warriors, during the three years the trio shared in OKC and the 11 years Westbrook spent with the team, Presti could not bring a single championship to the franchise. It is one of the all-time underachievements in sports history. But look closer, and you will find another.

How it all fell apart

Now that we have acknowledged the historic back-to-back-to-back future NBA draft selections Presti found in the top four, we can dive deeper into what he did in the draft afterward. During the Westbrook-Durant run, from 2008 through 2016, the team was too good to have a pick in the draft lottery, so simple Presti sycophants (of which there are many in OKC fandom) will point to Presti needing to take major swings to build a supporting cast for contention. But the Thunder were only able to reach the Finals once, in 2012, an embarrassing defeat with three, and then two superstars. Even if Harden was in a reserve role, one in which he won Sixth Man of the Year award, he was a superstar in waiting and capable of taking over games on his own. Failing to resign Harden and trading him to future legacy in Houston remains a Presti foil for another time.

From 2011 to 2017, Presti had a first-round pick selection in every draft except for 2016. And instead of picking surefire complimentary players who could plug in around Durant, he took what Thunder interns dub “big swings.” This is important because he has continued this failed approach with Thunder 2.0, taking misses in the first and second rounds while trying to build around future MVP Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who he snagged in the biggest fleece of the 21st century. Below are the first-round selections Presti made from 2011 – 2017.

2011: Reggie Jackson, 24th

2012: Perry Jackson, 28th

2013: Steven Adams, 12th

2014: Mitch McGary, 21st

2015: Cameron Payne, 14th

2017: Terrance Ferguson, 21st

Except for Adams, that’s a lot of busts. I won’t waste time going through every player Presti could have selected instead, perhaps a safer or better fit around Durant and Westbrook. But just looking at guys like Ferguson tells you everything you need to know about how bad Presti’s eye test failed during the 2010s. And it’s continued into this current rebuild.

Lu Dort was an undrafted gem Presti picked up in 2020 before overpaying him with a five-year, $82.5 million extension, including $65 million guaranteed. His biggest lottery whiff was Josh Giddey in 2021 with the sixth pick. This season, Giddey was accused of having sex with an underage girl, and thanks to her parents refusing to cooperate, he has avoided further problems. On the court, he is averaging career lows in points (11.4), assists (4.4) and rebounds (6.1). Presti bounced back in 2021 with the star-in-making selection of Chet Holmgren, who will actualize his potential if he stays healthy. In that draft, Presti also got the steal of the draft with Jalen Williams at the 12th pick, which made his draft day trade with the New York Knicks so damn odd. The Thunder traded three future protected first-round picks on draft day to the Knicks for the 11th pick, taking long-term project Ousman Dieng, who has been out of the Thunder’s rotation. The head-scratching move was unnecessary in hindsight, especially considering those picks were initially acquired by the Thunder when they selected, then traded Alperen Şengünin 2021. That fumble is Presti’s worst draft-day move and one he will regret.

Out of the times Presti has selected in the lottery (2007, 2008, 2009, 2013, 2015, 2021, 2022 (twice) and 2023), he hit on seven (Durant, Westbrook, Harden, Adams, Holmgren, Williams, and Wallace) and missed on three (Cameron Payne, Giddey, Dieng). That’s a pretty solid rate over the last 15 years. But beyond that, when it comes to less surefire selections, Presti has been atrocious. Of the 18 times he has selected (and retained) between the 15th and 60th picks, he has only hit twice in his entire career: Serge Ibaka at No. 24 in 2008 and Reggie Jackson at No. 24 in 2011. Washouts like Mitch McGary, Ferguson and Theo Maledon were all out of the NBA in four seasons or less.

And what draft-day trades has Presti made since taking the job? He’s lost every single one. Take a look:

2010 (Lost): The Clippers acquired the 18th pick (Eric Bledsoe) in exchange for a future-protected first-round draft pick. The Thunder subsequently included that pick in a trade with Boston, which netted them center Kendrick Perkins.

2018 (Lost): The Memphis Grizzlies acquired the 21st pick (Brandon Clarke) for the 2019 draft rights to the 23rd pick (Darius Bazley) and a future second-round draft pick from the Thunder. Bazley is no longer in the NBA.

2020 (Lost): Minnesota Timberwolves acquired Ricky Rubio, the 25th (Immanuel Quickley) and 28th picks (Jaden McDaniels) for the No. 17th pick (Aleksej Pokuševski). Poku was waived earlier this month.

2021 (Lost): Houston Rockets acquired 16th pick (Alperen Şengün) for two future highly-protected first-round picks from the Wizards and Pistons. Those picks would be packaged to select Dieng in 2023. Dieng is out of the Thunder rotation.

2022 (TBD): Dallas swapped the 10th pick (Cason Wallace) for the 12th pick (Derek Lively). While Wallace is an elite defender and three-point shooter, Lively is exactly the kind of rebounding big they needed to back up Holmgren. The Thunder are currently bottom of the league in rebounding.

The Thunder waived Poku earlier this month. Both Quickley and McDaniels are starting for their respective teams. Even worse was when Presti drafted current Most Improved Player candidate Şengün in 2021, just to trade him on draft night for future protected picks he would use in the trade with the Knicks to acquire Dieng. This season Şengün is averaging 21.1 PPG, 9.3 RPG and 5 APG. The squandering of Şengün is not just Presti’s worst draft decision ever, but one of the worst draft trades of the 21st Century.

This is not to say Presti has not been one of the best executives of a small market ever. And his acumen in building teams from the ground up has few peers. The trade for Gilgeous-Alexander remains the biggest fleece of the modern era. But his talent for building through the draft largely rides the coattails of his back-to-back-to-back future MVP selections of the late 2000s. Since, he has been one of the worst in the NBA at taking swings in the lottery and especially at finding players who have even decent careers late in the first and second rounds. But like Presti’s simps love to say, “Scared money don’t make money.” Well, apparently, it doesn’t make championships, either. 

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OKC’s Sam Presti is an overrated draft savant
OKC’s Sam Presti is an overrated draft savant
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