Words to live by: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Surely Sam Presti and Clay Bennett of the Oklahoma City Thunder have heard that expression, as both are smart, successful businessmen with good educational backgrounds, although they are a generation apart in age.
Presti is the wise child who built the Oklahoma City Thunder from scratch, taking over at age 30 on June 7, 2007, prior to the team’s final season in Seattle, renting a small apartment with his then-girlfriend near the team’s downtown training facility, then proceeding to dismantle the Sonics.
On draft night, Kevin Durant fell to him at No. 2 after the Portland Trail Blazers made the Greg Oden mistake. Then Ray Allen was shipped to Boston along with the draft rights to Glen Big Baby Davis for Wally Szczerbiak, Delonte West and the draft rights to Jeff Green, the fifth overall pick, who would eventually be traded back to Boston for Kendrick Perkins.
In early July of 2007, he let Rashard Lewis walk when the Orlando Magic offered him one of the most ridiculous contracts in NBA history.
You have to tear it down before you rebuild it, and Presti was dynamic in his use of dynamite.
In 2008, as the team was relocating, Presti selected Russell Westbrook with the fourth overall pick (Michael Beasley was taken second by Miami; and O.J. Mayo went No. 3 to Miami) and Serge Ibaka with the 28th pick (which was acquired by Presti from Phoenix in one of the most lopsided trades in the history of sports, a salary dump deal in which Phoenix sent Thomas and two No. 1 draft picks to Seattle for a second-round-pick.)
In 2009, they drafted James Harden with the third overall pick. (Hasheem Thabeet went to Memphis with the second pick).
It took three years, but Presti built the foundation of a team that would grow together and peak together, reaching the 2012 NBA Finals with homecourt advantage, which they utilized last June with a Game 1 victory before a critical non-call in Game 2 helped LeBron James and the Miami Heat turn the tide.
And since that tide turned, it hasn’t turned back.
In training camp this season, the Thunder told Harden they were willing to give him $56 million over four years — and not a penny more. Harden, knowing that No. 3 draft picks who pan out and win major awards should be rewarded with max money, said no. Days later, he was $26 million richer when the Houston Rockets acquired him for free-agent-to-be Kevin Martin, the rights to Toronto’s top-3 protected 2013 pick, plus assorted flotsam.
And now look where the Thunder are — back in Tornado Alley watching the rest of the playoffs on TV after losing four straight to the Memphis Grizzlies.
Presti made the Harden trade because he wanted to save money under the cap to be able to sign Serge Ibaka to a long-term deal this summer. If the Thunder had maxed out Harden, they’d lose Ibaka.
But the flaw in that strategic planning was that Presti didn’t have to make that move prior to the season. Yes, he would have been at risk of losing Harden for nothing in free agency — but he also would have had a season to consider whether keeping Ibaka happy was more important than keeping Harden happy. By making the decision prematurely, he artificially inflated Ibaka’s value (which was quite low on the value scale when the Thunder needed Ibaka to be more of a scorer in the playoffs after Westbrook’s injury) while also removing from the roster the one player who was capable of replacing Westbrook as the primary ballhandler, distributor and secondary offensive weapon.
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It wasn’t broke, and Presti didn’t need to fix it.
And as I say in this episode of #Hoops from CineSport, it is a decision that will haunt Oklahoma City for a long, long time. Also, the Atlanta-Journal Constitution’s Chris Vivlamore and the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel’s Charles Gardner discuss the Hawks and Bucks coaching situations.