They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Who could argue against it? It’s a way of paying homage to greatness, attempting to replicate/surpass the success of predecessors. Kobe Bryant is compared to Michael Jordan. Russell Westbrook to Allen Iverson. Nikola Jokic to Arvydas Sabonis. Sam Presti to Sam Hinkie. * record scratch *. Presti has taken a leaf out of the former general manager of the Philadelphia 76ers’ book.
His commitment to tanking this year with the Oklahoma City Thunder is outstanding. Given the minimal number of fans in attendance this season due to COVID restrictions, the dominoes could not have lined up more perfectly for him.
Presti can do no wrong
Sam Hinkie died for Presti’s sins. Hinkie walked so Presti could run. Hinkie… you get the point.
When Hinkie was general manager of the 76ers between 2013-2016, he stripped his roster to the bare bones. Trading away All-Star Jrue Holiday in 2013 for the injured Nerlens Noel and a 2014 first round pick (that was flipped for Dario Saric) was the starting point. That season went exactly how Hinkie would have wanted it to go: 19-63 which included a 26-game losing streak. The following season Philly drafted Joel Embiid 3rd. He battled with a foot injury even before the draft which ultimately cost him his first two seasons in the NBA.
They started 0-17, eventually finishing 18-64. The 15-16 season began by drafting Jahlil Okafor, a player who enjoyed street fighting as much as he did basketball, with the 3rd overall pick. Hinkie oversaw a team lose the opening 18 games and finally end up with a 10-72 record. Along the way, Hinkie was trading away anything he caught sight of. He knew that accumulating picks and selecting high in the draft was the key in turning around the franchise.
That is exactly what Sam Presti is doing.
Presti is a savvy general manager. Unlike Hinkie, he has built up enough equity in the NBA to tank this aggressively. Presti has been the general manager since 2007 and has overseen selecting Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka and James Harden. Last season was intended to be phase one of rebuilding.
Having lost to the Portland Trail Blazers in the first round of the 2019 NBA playoffs, OKC traded away Russell Westbrook to the Houston Rockets for Chris Paul multiple first round picks, and Paul George to the LA Clippers for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and a king’s ransom of draft picks. Chris Paul was never intended to remain in OKC for the entirety of the 2019-20 season. Paul, who was an All-Star in his one year with the Thunder, was staunch in his position of trying to win, and the team surprised everyone in finishing as the 5th seed. Now with Paul, Danilo Gallinari, Steven Adams all departed, again for multiple picks, Presti has finally launched phase one of the rebuild.
Not all tanks are made equal
Oklahoma City, as expected, have been dismal this season. There’s no need to dive deeper into the numbers more than acknowledging their current position in the standings. A 21-47 record his good for the 13th seed in the Western Conference; a half-game ahead of the Timberwolves and 5 games ahead of the Houston Rockets – an organisation that intended to compete this year even after trading away James Harden.
As bad as OKC have been this season, their situation does bare comparison with Houston. NBA discourse is seemingly more at peace with the OKC model of tanking than the Rockets’. As mentioned before in my winners and losers of the NBA trade deadline, Houston trading away Victor Oladipo at the deadline for Kelly Olynyk, Avery Bradley, and filler was pathetic. They essentially received zero picks going forward.
The rights to swap picks with Miami was nonplus considering Miami will have a better record than the Rockets. Sam Presti had the foresight in knowing the direction OKC were headed towards a year before they began tanking. It gave him ample time to slowly become accustomed to asset accumulation and the direction other teams in the NBA are headed towards which could prove valuable in selecting their pick.
Do you have a player on your team that you want off your books?
Well send them down to Oklahoma City (for the cost of a draft pick of course) and they’ll happily take them on board!
One of the legacies of Hinkie’s tank strategy was taking other NBA team’s trash for picks. No matter how little value the player (or the pick for that matter), Hinkie would salivate at the opportunity to accumulate assets. Presti is doing the same. Al Horford, and his 4 years $109 million contract, was traded from Philly to OKC back in December 2020 in exchange for Terrance Ferguson and Danny Green.
Green, no less, was traded by the Lakers to OKC a month prior for Dennis Schroder and the 28th pick of the 2020 draft. Danilo Gallinari was signed and traded to the Atlanta Hawks for a 2025 second round pick.
No matter what, Presti is hellbent on stocking up draft capital whenever a player moves on from his organisation.
Amongst all the assets that Oklahoma City have collected, one of the players involved in the Paul George to the Clippers trade has shown to be a foundational piece. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is a star. Playing in a team that is constantly chopping and changing, Shai has remained the constant and has seen a noticeable improvement in performance.
His responsibility in handing the ball has increased (averaging 4% rise in usage rate compared to last season), but it’s his efficiency that caught the eye.
Shai shoots 50% from the field (47% in 2019-20) and 41% from behind the arc (34% in 2019-20). Injury has kept him sidelined for over a month, however, OKC know they have something special with him. Same goes for Lu Dort. One of the more impressive defenders this year, Dort continues to show he is something OKC can grow with.
Presti will be confident in a high draft pick this year and going forward. The sheer number of assets will churn out a lottery pick somewhere along the line and by then, he will hope to build a contender for years to come. We’ve seen it before with Durant, Westbrook, Harden, and Ibaka. If any GM can make a viable contender solely through the draft it is Sam Presti.