Fasten your seat belts Thunder fans, we are now experiencing incoming turbulence in the form of uncertainty and nervousness for the first time in franchise history. Sam Presti and Russell Westbrook are in the pilot seats with “Now I do What I Want” playing full blast while the fans and media members on board are either celebrating or rocking back and forth in the fetal position and biting their fingernails.
Last Friday, days before the anniversary of Durant’s “My Next Chapter,” Sam Presti sent shock waves throughout the NBA by orchestrating a trade to send Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis to Indiana in exchange for Eastern Conference All-Star Paul George.
After months of whispers and leaked sources, Boston, Cleveland, and the Lakers —the supposed front-runners in the Paul George sweepstakes— were all standing in line with their Net’s draft picks, three team trades, Guy Harris packages, and Kevin Love.
Meanwhile, the Thunder were stuck somewhere in a proverbial NBA prairie rubbing two sticks together for warmth alongside the other teams lacking assets.
When notified by phone update that Paul George was coming to the Thunder via trade, I paused the film my wife and I were watching and said “I'm sorry but I'm gonna need a second.” I had to stand up, refresh twitter, catch my breath, check the fridge for beer, and pace the front room of my house. I was in shock--complete mass hysteria. Sam Presti did it again. But wait… Sam Presti did what?
I felt uncomfortable, joyous, and nervous at once, and I was waiting for the music to start playing any moment, and the narrator of my life or the basketball Gods to start speaking about the “dimensions as vast as space and as timeless as infinity,” or the middle ground between light and shadow,” and saying I was “crossing over into the Twilight Zone.”
As I frantically scrolled through Twitter, I questioned the actions of my own GM--did Daryl Morey take over Presti’s body? Since when does Presti swing for the fence instead of laying down a bunt to extend a base runner?
Unlike the national NBA media, I didn’t think it was an absolute fleecing from a trade perspective. Paul George leaving after a year is a real concern. That wasn’t the aspect of the trade I was having an issue digesting. The giant “what in the world” lump I couldn’t get out of my throat was Sam’s own betrayal of “Sam Presti logic.”
For the first time during my days a Thunder fan, he chose risk and uncertainty. He chose “the middle ground between light and shadow” over tangible assets under contract.
He walked up to the dark and cavernous cave of the NBA offseason without a flashlight; whereas, in the past he would have ordered the cave to be completely excavated, supplied with maps detailing every turn and passageway, and had electricity installed before taking a step inside.
This trade for Sam Presti Is like watching Homer Simpson get home from a long day of napping at the power plant and walk over to the fridge only to grab a Cranberry LaCroix instead of a Duff Beer--it was out of character. Welcome to the unpredictable next chapter of Thunder basketball--the Westbrook Zone.
It’s no secret that Sam Presti historically has refused to operate in the unknown, and most certainly does not put the franchise in positions of uncertainty. He doesn't operate in “what ifs” and he doesn't fantasize over false gold. Every move is calculated and likely has benefits for the future of the franchise.
Stability is the Thunder way--Right? It's the tune of Presti’s Drum--take the longview. He avoids uncertainty at all cost, because he likes to be the guy making decisions and not reacting to others’ decisions.
Sam would rather prepare for the worst and look ahead than bask in present success while risking the future. He isn’t reactionary. He doesn’t get attached to players or ideas--he believes in himself and putting the franchise first. “How does this move, player, or draft pick impact the franchise “down the road” or “in two years” is often valued over what may help the Thunder short term.
As such, the largest factor in Presti’s decision making is sustainability and maximizing opportunity and value by holding controllable contracts. He will dictate the future of the franchise directly, and will not let his players control the outcome--which is becoming harder in the modern NBA.
Unfortunately, one could argue that this way of operating is what ultimately lost Kevin Durant to the flashy blue-and-gold of Oakland.
In a Rolling Stone piece, following Kevin’s decision to leave, he criticized “Presti Logic.” He critiqued Presti and the organization for always taking the long view, and not doing everything in their power to win now.
Durant via Rolling Stone:
“Where other teams went out and got that veteran guy, we kept getting younger.”
As much as I despise Kevin Durant’s decision to join the Warriors, I think he has a point. And it was a concern Thunder fans always had in the back of their minds--even if they wanted to pretend otherwise.
After all, Presti traded James Harden for two first-round draft picks, a second-round pick, Jeremy Lamb, and Kevin Martin. The Thunder were in the finals the previous season with Harden as both the team’s number-three option and the NBA’s Sixth Man of The Year.
With Finals appearances fleeting, even for a young core, Presti defied “win now” mode for future assets.
Again, two seasons ago, following one of the most exciting postseasons in Thunder History —as OKC took Golden State to game 7 of the Western Conference Finals just a few weeks before Durant was set to make his decision— Sam traded Serge Ibaka’s uncontrollable contract for Victor Oladipo and Domantis Sabonis.
If any hope at that time indicated Presti would alter his philosophy and make some “win now” moves, such a notion was dashed in Durant’s mind by that trade. “Here we go again…” I’m sure he thought.
So what’s changed? Why alter the “Presti Logic” now? Paul George is a black hole of uncertainty? He isn’t a controllable contract… WHAT ABOUT THE LAKERS!? What about Russell and Paul George to the Lakers? What about 2018-19?
The answer is simple… Russell Westbrook is not Kevin Durant.
One of my biggest critiques of Durant and the way he left the franchise in ashes last summer was his lack of communication with the organization. It was made clear after he left, that his main reasons for leaving OKC were his disapproval of the team’s offense, and the “Presti Logic” of always choosing youth, the longview, and controllable contracts as opposed to bringing in veterans to win now.
But, how strongly did Durant communicate this information to the front office? Did it fall on deaf ears? Did Presti let Durant’s complaints and advice go in one ear and out the other?
After the decision, Durant’s mom was quoted as saying:
“For nine years, he refused to speak a word against that team – he loved those guys and that city. But this summer he said, 'Mama, I can't do it anymore. They're not in this thing with me, we're not together like we were – I feel like I need something different.”
What I think is exactly what Wanda just said about her son.
Durant is a pleaser, a follower, and a “yes man” per say and I don't believe Durant owns the personality to march into Presti’s office and demand more veterans. He doesn’t have the internal fortitude to ask Westbrook to play differently. He always said the right things and possibly never unveiled his critiques--at least to the point to where it was clearly established that his future in OKC hinged upon those requests.
For the most part, He kept them to himself, and burned the Thunder later for it. It always seemed as if he was talking out of both sides of his mouth--a walking contradiction.
One must wonder what his private conversations with Sam were like?
What if Durant had told Presti that if he didn’t implement a more veteran layered “win now” roster he was going to leave? Had he done so, do you think Serge Ibaka would have been traded for a lottery pick and an unproven young player? I doubt it.
I think Durant said all the right things, and falsely led Presti to believe his choice of roster moves were not problematic and he (Durant) stood beside them. Durant avoids confrontation.
I mean look at how he left OKC. Look at how he told Russell he was leaving? In front of Presti, Durant was the company man, and waited until he was out of earshot or out of town before his critiques began to spill out. But now the franchise is in the hands of Russell Westbrook, and just like his attitude on the court he has the opposite mentality and personality of Kevin Durant.
It was reported by Royce Young that Westbrook asked for this type of splash from Sam--to a certain extent. He wanted to become a contender again. Royce reported:
“Westbrook's primary message to the Thunder following the season was wanting an improved roster that could get closer to actual contention.”
In order for Westbrook to sign an extension with OKC he would need a stronger roster to contend now. He wanted Presti to alter his philosophy, and loosen his grip on “Presti Logic.” He was telling him to break his habits, and step out of his comfort zone.
What happens after Russell makes it clear that rolling back the team using the slogan “internal development” as a crutch is not what he wants to ink his name to long term?
Answer: Paul George is putting on a Thunder uniform for the 2017-18 season, even though he has made it publicly clear he wants to wear purple and gold; Andre Roberson (All-Defensive Second Team) is back; veteran Patrick Patterson is coming to town (as the largest FA addition in OKC history); and OKC is heading into the luxury tax.
While George is a free agent at the end of next season, and acquiring him without a commitment has to make Presti’s head spin, he is doing it because well… the MVP asked for it.
Sam Presti is going all in this season, and the OKC plane is running low on fuel. With “Presti Logic” he needs to land early and refuel before risking that his team can make it to success with the fuel light on, but Westbrook is asking him to keep it in the air--a tough decision for him and an unnatural one.
But Westbrook is in the co-pilot seat banging his head and singing. Presti got the plane in the air, and Westbrook is going to see it to the end.
Oklahoma City is a contender again—even if doomsday looms.
Although Sam has been convinced to alter the “Presti way,” for now, I don’t think he would create such a doomsday scenario for next summer if he didn’t already have a very strong indication that Russell was going to re-sign with the Thunder.
The year of Paul George and Westbrook is completely worth the plane ride with low fuel even if Paul George packs his bags and walks.
But, If Presti thought Russell would not be re-signing, I don’t think he would give his star an opportunity to employ a “wait-and-see” approach for this entire season without the threat of a trade. Westbrook wants to win a title, and Sam Presti is altering his logic and taking the risks to make it a possibility.
Now all we can do is sit back and put our faith in the hands of Sam and Russell. Which fan are you after the Summer of Sam? Are you on the plane cheering your head off and popping champagne, or are you in the corner biting your fingernails scared to feel too much joy?
Welcome to the 2017-18 season, known as the Westbrook Zone, filled entirely of uncertainly, terror, and nervousness, but always excitement.