When the Supersonics fired their former general manager, Rick Sund, I remember being very excited about the prospect of SamPresti being the guy in charge of basketball operations when the team moved here. The guy, who graduated high school only one year before I did, was a wunderkind who was credited with convincing the San Antonio Spurs to take a chance on Tony Parker. It indicated to me that he was a young guy, who thinks outside the box, and does a great job of evaluating talent.
Early on, he was everything I anticipated. His first draft pick was a no-brainer, taking Kevin Durant at #2 overall, but following that, he actually showed his acumen. Realizing that the Sonics roster situation at the time was not going to take them anywhere, and seeing that their days in Seattle were numbered, he gutted the team and put them into instant re-building mode. He jettisoned star player, fan favorite, and Seattle lover Ray Allen and his atrocious contract to Boston for the #5 pick in that draft (which became Jeff Green) and a plethora of players that could be traded later.
When free agency came that Summer, he refused to overpay the team’s own free agent Rashard Lewis who ended up signing a max-level contract with the Orlando Magic. Except, he didn’t just let Lewis walk away. In return for being the one who wrote up the contract (allowing Lewis an extra year on the contract), he got a first round pick from Orlando in a sign and trade. Later in the year, he used the salary cap space the team saved by not having Lewis to acquire Kurt Thomas from San Antonio who gave the team three future first round picks (including a Phoenix pick in next year’s draft that is shaping up to be very valuable) for saving them money. So, in essence, he turned a guy he was going to let walk into four first round picks.
Over the next couple of years, he shuffled around players that the team didn’t need for players whose contracts were soon to expire and created a ton of cap space. Everything he did was enacted with the long term plan in mind. That’s the good that has been built into tale of how infallible the great Sam Presti has become. But is he really a genius?
I started to question him during the 2008 draft. With the #4 overall pick, he went with what everyone thought was a reach when he selected Russell Westbrook. It obviously was not a bad pick. Westbrook turned out to be one of the league’s best rookie’s last year.
Of course, some context needs to be added here. While Westbrook broke out by scoring well for a point guard and grabbing rebounds at a good clip for a guard, he did so with the benefit of playing for a team that was destined for the lottery and gave their young players free rein. Also, last year’s draft class was stacked. Michael Beasley, the second pick overall, averaged 13.9 points and 5.4 rebounds in 24 minutes a game for a playoff team and was considered a bust. Normally, those would be numbers would have had him in running for rookie of the year. To get a good player in such a draft pool, Presti could have pulled a name out of a hat (and maybe he did).
Regarding the pick of Westbrook, Presti was hailed as a guy who would go with the best available player, regardless of if the player fit a need or with regard to where the player was projected to be selected. It added shine to the idea that Presti was always thinking long term.
You had to look at it that way to be happy with it, because Westbrook, for all his great tools, was a project. He played shooting guard in high school and college, had never been expected to run an offense full time and now on the biggest stage in basketball he was going to learn on the job. And if Presti had drafted for need, the biggest being a center, he would have taken Brook Lopez, who also had an awfully good rookie year.
That’s where I really question Presti’s vision. Knowing that he could have filled a hole like center with Lopez, a solid defending true seven footer with refined offensive skills, an inquiring mind would want to know why he didn’t. Westbrook wasn’t a slam dunk to ever become a true point guard, and still isn’t, and even at this point last year we knew the 2009 draft would be loaded at the point guard position and devoid of centers. Barring the opportunity to take Derrick Rose, who went first overall, one would think they would take their chances on filling the point the next year…or take a point guard who had actually played the position before, like D.J. Augustin (who was, and this is goes to my point about how stacked last year’s draft was, impressive as a rookie).
(Note: Some can say I have the benefit of hindsight, but if you read my draft diary from last year, I made all those points at the time.)
Last week, with the 2009 Draft, Presti started thinking short term, and many of the people who respected his long term planning shifted right into this sudden change of course. This time with two picks in the first round, the Thunder’s main concern was addressing weaknesses in the roster. Rather than taking point guard Ricky Rubio, a player the GM who did take him called “a transformational player,” Presti settled for an asthmatic shooting guard who didn’t even fully address the team’s real weakness of needing shooters to complement Kevin Durant. James Harden, who is by all accounts a nice guy and solid player, has never been described by anyone as “transformational”, but he does play one of the two positions for which the team was trying to find a new starter.
With the second pick, they addressed the glaring hole at center by taking a guy nicely described as “a project.” B.J. Mullens could be the next Tyson Chandler, keeping in mind that Chandler was considered a bust before he started playing with a true point guard who set him up for easy baskets, or he could provide as much Robert Swift did for the Thunder.
The dirty little secret to all of this is that those two players are the guys Russell Westbrook wanted the team to take. He bristled at the idea of Presti drafting a guy who would compete with him for the starting point guard role or force him to shift back to his natural shooting guard position. And you can bet that his agent, Arn Tellem, a veteran who has been fighting with general managers for decades was going after the young, inexperienced Thunder general manager with all of his energy.
A lot of me thinks this has to be the actual source of what I considered to be an awful draft. Tellem fought, Presti backed down. My evidence is that the Timberwolves wanted Rubio badly and wanted to get as high as the #2 pick to assure that he would be available. They got the job done by acquiring the #5 pick from Washington, and paying a high price in the process, but originally expected that to be the first step in moving even further up.
Let’s look at what the Wolves were willing to give up for a piece of what they were willing to give up for Rubio:
Just imagine what Minnesota would have been willing to do for the #3 pick which was their ultimate goal. You’re telling me Presti couldn’t have acquired Mike Miller and the #5 (where Harden probably would have still been available) and convinced the T-Wolves to take Earl Watson and Damien Wilkins off of our hands?
The fact that he didn’t make such a deal suggests to me that Rubio was initially the target and that Tellem made him an offer he couldn’t refuse…likely beginning with Westbrook demanding a trade.
So, for the guy they passed on Brook Lopez for, the Thunder also passed on Ricky Rubio. Had they never acquired Westbrook, the Thunder would have a starting line-up of Rubio, Thabo Sefolosha, Durant, Green, and Lopez. They could have even used that #25 pick on a sharpshooter like Wayne Ellington instead of praying that B.J. Mullens will become a serviceable big man despite not starting for Ohio State.
Which leads me to ask, is Sam Presti really the genius he is portrayed as? From a transaction standpoint, I can’t argue with the results. He turned a going nowhere roster into a team with a lot of potential, but I still think he has botched the last two drafts. Considering his laurels rest in how great he is at talent evaluation, that scares me.
Perhaps he’ll make some trades or make a shocking free agent acquisition in the next couple of weeks that will change my mind, but right now, I think there is more myth to Presti’s mystique than a lot of fans want to admit.
Aside about Rubio: I wrote this article about a week ago before news that Rubio was likely to stay overseas for up to two more years became feasible. Now, public opinion has likely shifted to believe Presti knew this was a likelihood. That’s not necessarily a good conclusion.
It should be noted that Rubio has a ginormous buyout ($6.6MM) necessary to get out of his contract in Spain. Being selected with the #5 pick and being selected at the #3 pick means a difference of several million dollars in his rookie contract, making that buyout even more onerous. Also, the Thunder were one of two teams that Rubio angled to get drafted by, while Minnesota was a team whose possibility of drafting him made the youngster bristle.
And why would he bristle? Well, the Wolves followed the selection of Rubio with another point guard (who couldn’t possibly share the floor with him), not a player to complement the guy they labeled “transformational.” And the roster they already possessed did not compliment him. The team is built around immobile big men Al Jefferson and Kevin Love who will mire the team’s offense in a grind-it-out, half court style system.
Had Presti drafted Rubio, I have no doubt the situation would have turned out differently. A roster of young, athletic players who need nothing but a point guard who can facilitate an up tempo offense and could have paid him enough to satisfy the terms of the buyout likely would have convinced Rubio to follow through on his lawsuit against DKV Joventut.
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