By James Holas
During his time in Oklahoma City, General Manager Sam Presti has, by and large, done everything exactly how he’s supposed to.
An offspring of the San Antonio Spurs’ front office, Presti has followed the GM handbook (and his ownership’s directives) to the letter with mostly positive results: a Finals appearance, three Western Conference Finals, two MVP winners and one game short of upending the record-setting 2016 Golden State Warriors.
Yet, for all Oklahoma City’s success, Kevin Durant still turned his back on the only franchise he’d known for nine years.
Sometimes, you can do everything right and still come up snake eyes.
If there was a critique of Presti, it’s perhaps he was too conservative. While super teams coalesced, Oklahoma City, with Durant and Russell Westbrook, preached continuity.
“Where other teams went out and got that veteran guy,” Durant observed wistfully in his expansive Rolling Stone interview about his time with the Thunder, “we kept getting younger.”
How much can you fault Presti for being hesitant to shake up a roster that was consistently in contention with Durant and Westbrook at the wheel? That is a debate to which there’s no answer. Ultimately, the cold reality is the same Thunder that, at one point—brimming with All-NBA talent—was supposed to own the league, bowed out in five games to the third-seed Houston Rockets with only Russell Westbrook left.
Oklahoma City’s immediate path to improvement looked bleak this summer. With the combined $46 million dollars a year in extensions for Victor Oladipo and Steven Adams set to kick in, Presti had the monumental task of finding a way to install high-level talent alongside Westbrook with no wiggle room in cap space and a fistful of middling assets. By the book would no longer cut it. With the Thunder’s future on the line, Presti had to cut loose.
And cut loose he did.
In July, Presti flipped the underwhelming Oladipo and erratic rookie Domantas Sabonis for bonafide All-Star Paul George. He followed that up by inking veteran rotation stalwarts Ray Felton and Patrick Patterson to bargain deals. And this weekend, Presti capped off a stellar Thunder offseason by trading for embattled scorer Carmelo Anthony in exchange for Enes Kanter, Doug McDermott and a second round pick.
For the Thunder, the summer was a stark contrast to their order of operations. Presti has long preached continuity and player development, planning for a future with Durant and Westbrook until there was none. So, this surge of player acquisitions is about the present, not the future.
With Russell Westbrook’s massive contract extension still unsigned and Paul George entering free agency next summer, this has the feel of a last stand. A common refrain around the blogosphere is if Westbrook won’t sign his extension now, the Thunder must do their best to move him while he still holds some value.
Presti has gone the opposite direction, loading up with as much ammunition as possible to either convince Westbrook and Paul George that Oklahoma City is where they need to be long term, or for the Thunder to ride as deep as possible into the playoffs in one final blaze of glory, confident they did everything they could before having to strip it all down.
As stupid and unseemly as Durant’s tweets about Billy Donovan and the Thunder were, they weren’t exactly inaccurate.
Outside of Russell Westbrook, the roster wasn’t scaring anyone. Now, Presti has turned Serge Ibaka, Reggie Jackson and Cam Payne into Paul George and Carmelo Anthony (and Kyle Singler…because no one can shoot 100 percent forever). Add the steady presence of Felton and the versatility and shooting of Patterson, and suddenly the Thunder are among the most dangerous teams in the league: deep, versatile and armed with shooters and shot creators.
I’ve long posited that Melo has been miscast. Like Kyrie Irving, Carmelo Anthony’s value is as a deployable offensive weapon rather than a franchise cornerstone. The LeBron James, Kevin Durants or Steph Currys of the league have vast skill sets suited to be the fulcrum for franchise success, while a single-minded scorer of Melo’s ilk shouldn’t be held to those standards.
Pair Anthony with a high-level superstar, sliding him down from The Guy to The Sidekick, and suddenly the things he can do well (score on all levels, hit contested shots, post up) matter more than the things he can’t (function as a high-level playmaker, defend). With Westbrook and George taking the bulk of the ball handling responsibilities and Roberson, Patterson, Adams and George bringing the defense, we should finally see Carmelo Anthony free to be his best self.
Now, any thoughts of “Olympic Melo,” should be dismissed immediately. The other 29 NBA teams aren’t Nigeria or China and his 37-point semifinal performance was five summers ago. But the 2018 Melo won’t look like the 2014-2017 New York Knicks’ version either.
The Knicks have missed the postseason for the past four years, surrounding Anthony (and later, Kristaps Porzingis) with a revolving door of subpar teammates, leaving Melo to face set defenses free to rotate help to him without a care in the world. And still, Anthony managed to toss up 24 points per game and hit 36.5 percent of his five three-point attempts per night.
In Oklahoma City, Anthony is a cog (albeit, a significant one) fitting around other major pieces.
With Roberson and Oladipo on the floor together for the Thunder last year, defenses jammed up the Russell Westbrook-Steven Adams pick and roll, clogging the lane and giving Adams little room to attack the front of the rim for lobs and drop-off passes.
Though Oladipo shot a respectable 36 percent from downtown last year, his streakiness makes that a bit deceiving. He spent almost two months in the middle of the year shooting a chilly 32 percent.
With Carmelo Anthony (37.9 percent from deep as a Knick) and Paul George (39.1 percent from three the past two years) in the lineup, Adams should see wide open plains when he heads to the bucket.
Roberson’s shooting struggles are well documented, but Anthony’s presence lifts all offensive pressure off the defensive wiz’s shoulders; leaving Roberson to earn his keep as a cutter and by crashing the boards. Lineups featuring Westbrook, Roberson, George, Anthony and Adams should pack enough offensive pop and defensive backbone to give teams fits.
Melo won’t get the 19 shots a game he’s used to, but his efficiency (his 53.2 True Shooting Percentage over the last three seasons is below the league average of 54 percent) should skyrocket with the open looks he gets off Westbrook and George drives. Anthony will feast against mismatches, punishing smaller defenders in the paint and scoring points by the bushel against second units when Westbrook and George take a blow.
The biggest question is how the three will personalities fit. Westbrook is known for his furious intensity while George has an almost Tracy McGrady-like laconic appearance; picking his spots while cruising through games. Anthony has long been a rhythm player and, if he goes long stretches without touches, has been known to tune out. The onus is on third-year coach Billy Donovan to get these three distinct styles to mesh and it has to happen fairly quickly.
Unlike LeBron’s Heat or Cavaliers, this isn’t for the long haul; Oklahoma City can’t afford an uneven year trying to figure everything out.
The Thunder have gone from youthful upstart with a Finals appearance to perennial contender riddled with injuries; fallen to middle-of-the-pack scrappers and made it all the way back to potential contender.
Oklahoma City has experienced the unadulterated thrill of watching its youngsters blossom into true superstars and the bitter heartbreak of an MVP fleeing to greener pastures.
This summer, behind the keen moves of Sam Presti—adding the all-around excellence of Paul George, the tenacity of Ray Felton, Patrick Patterson’s shooting and Carmelo Anthony’s scoring burst—Thunder fans have a spark of hope against a Warriors team that not only stole their hero, but took glee in rubbing Oklahoma’s collective face in it.
Next summer could bring down the curtain on the superstar era in Oklahoma City if Westbrook and George leave for Tinsel Town, leaving Presti to move Adams for pennies on the dollar and shuttling Melo off to a bottom feeder for cap relief. But that’s next summer.
Until Durant’s departure, Presti had done almost everything right. With an uncertain future on the horizon, this summer, Presti did everything possible.