Peace, Love and Thunderstanding: Long Term Planning

thunder up

Training camp started on Tuesday to usher in the second season of Thunder basketball.  While a minor trade (perhaps Brent Barry from Houston) might occur, or a rookie in camp could grab a roster spot, the team is pretty much set.  Gone from last season’s final roster will be:

  • Desmond Mason
  • Malik Rose
  • Robert Swift
  • Earl Watson
  • Chucky Atkins
  • Damien Wilkens

In their place, these guys will now be on the team:

  • James Harden
  • Byron Mullens
  • Kevin Ollie
  • Etan Thomas
  • Serge Ibaka

Truthfully, that is not an exciting turnover.  One of the youngest teams in the league became even younger, and the veterans that were added are hardly going to be expected to provide much on the floor.  Despite a plethora of cap space and a top-3 draft pick, Thunder General Manager Sam Presti basically chose to stick with the status quo (which won 23 games last year) in the off season.  No splashy draft pick (Harden was certainly the “safe” pick), no big free agent acquistions (there weren’t even indications that he courted any of the bigger names available) and no high profile trades.

The result:  likely a mediocre team.

Because of the nature of the league, Presti’s decision to stick with a long-term plan has given him superstar status from most experts.  Most GM’s would have seen the potential of a team like the Thunder and prematurely attempted to jump start their ascension to the league’s elite…especially with the assets and cap space that Presti had assembled to do just that.

A run of the mill general manager with a “team of the future,” these experts (such as Bill Simmons and Chad Ford at ESPN) will tell you, would have overpaid for a shot hungry, undersized shooting guard like Ben Gordon because he was the best player available or reached out to clubhouse cancer Allen Iverson because of his star power.  Instead, Sam Presti basically stood pat with a roster that could not win thirty games last year and will wait for them to mature before finally making bold moves.

Of course, this is not because Presti is a genius, although he probably is.  This is because he works in this market.

Don’t get me wrong.  Presti is certainly a world class basketball mind, and has been very shrewd.  However, if he were any other market, odds are that he would have been pressured into doing something rash.  Here is why he has not…

When Sam Presti was hired as the president of the Seattle Supersonics basketball operations, the writing was already on the wall that the team would not be in the state of Washington long.  This unique situation gave him a lot of freedom.  Normally, a new GM would have players on the roster, players that had won the hearts of the fanbase, that were basically unmoveable without alienating the fanbase.  In this case, moving Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis, two very good players who were overpriced and incapable of leading a team, would be toxic to the fanbase.

A GM in another situation would have had to let Ray Allen continue to play the role of star despite the game of a role player and re-upped Lewis for the max-deal he wanted despite what will turn out to be a second banana-type career.  Keeping them around would have retarded the development of Kevin Durant and assured a long, tiring string of crappy teams.  Instead, because ownership had no concern over placating a fan base they were trying to leave behind, Presti was able to get rid of both players acquiring Jeff Green along with a slew of draft picks and expiring contracts in the process.

The immediate results were as expected.  During the blow up phase, the team was rock solid terrible.  It was an awful product to watch, and as expected the people of Seattle were unhappy.  Again, this was acceptable to ownership because the fans who were upset by it were only going to be around as long as the lease to Key Arena, anyway.  The people who were going to be watching the team long term were actually being shielded from the unsightliness.

Then the team moved, actually a little prematurely.  So, Oklahoma City actually did endure year two of the rebuilding process, which was only slightly more watchable because it involved more players who were expected to make a long term impact.  (i.e. more Russell Westbrook-types and fewer Wally Szerbiak-types)  Of course, winning still didn’t matter because the Thunder are still in the honeymoon phase while this fanbase is just happy to have a major league sports franchise.

So, basically, Presti has had the luxury of long term planning that most other general managers have not been allowed.  If he had taken over the Celtics in Boston and been in year three of his term, they would be expecting a serious playoff run by now.  (Or even if the team had remained in Seattle.)  Instead, he gets to stick with his young core and let them develop.

So, maybe it is genius to take advantage, but personally, I think he owes more to the luck of landing in a unique situation.  I’ll give him the “genius” tag when he makes a bold move that pays off once the honeymoon has worn off and the team is measured more by results than mere presence in Oklahoma.