Sam Presti's plan is one that can easily be lost in translation. When the general manager of Oklahoma City's NBA franchise talks about how he wants to rebuild his roster, he uses words like methodical and meticulous, flexibility and sustainability, development and discipline. But there's meaning behind each of Presti's sometimes mystifying words. And it's important to understand Presti's language because every move he has made to this point — and each one he'll make from here on — will link back to that terminology. Presti's No. 1 goal is to build a roster that one day consistently competes for championships. He isn't likely to make many decisions aimed at addressing the short term. Most every transaction is made with the future in mind. It's a philosophy that sometimes will appear to be a one-step-backward-two-step-forward approach. But it's one Presti and his staff can live with so long as the franchise creeps closer to consistent championship contender. "Everyone has gone through a period where they've got a transition with their team,” Presti said on July 10. "And when that comes about there's a way that you can do it and try to overhaul it really quickly, or you can try to build in a way that allows it to grow and sustain over time. "We're choosing to not skip the steps so that we can grow and sustain it over time.”
MethodicalTo understand which direction Presti is headed with the roster he's brought to Oklahoma City, you have to understand his rationale behind the moves he made in Seattle that began shaping this team. Presti shook the NBA world less than three weeks after his hire when he traded franchise guard Ray Allen to Boston in a draft-night deal for guard Delonte West, forward Wally Szczberiak and that year's No. 5 overall pick, which Presti used to select Jeff Green. Less than two weeks later, Presti parted ways with the team's second-best player, forward Rashard Lewis, sending him to Orlando in a sign-and-trade deal that paid Lewis $118 million over the next six seasons. Many outsiders not-so-quietly charged Seattle executives with cutting costs under the new ownership group and aiming to sabotage fan interest in preparation for a move to Oklahoma City. Instead, the two bold moves were the start of Presti's rebuilding plan. At the time, Allen was weeks away from his 32nd birthday, old and entering a declining stage by NBA standards. He was coming off ankle injuries that limited him to 55 games that season and was due $52 million over the next three years. Despite averaging a career-high 26.4 points the previous season, he did little to help the team win. Only once in Allen's full four seasons in Seattle did the Sonics finish with more than 37 wins and make the playoffs, this despite Allen and Lewis each averaging 20-plus points in their final three seasons together. Presti had studied the team's stagnant ways and decided a change was needed.
FlexibilityBy dealing Allen and Lewis, Presti avoided putting the franchise in a long-term salary cap jam. Allen and Lewis would have eaten up nearly $35 million in cap space this coming season, a hefty price tag for two players who weren't leading Seattle to the playoffs. They would have tied up nearly $38 million in 2009-10, making it even harder if not impossible for Presti to add complementary pieces. And so Presti decided to turn coveted players into value. In exchange for Lewis, he acquired a future second-round draft pick and a $9.3 million trade exception, which allows teams to trade for a player without having to match salaries. One week after Lewis joined Orlando, Presti used much of that trade exception to acquire veteran center Kurt Thomas from Phoenix along with first-round picks in 2008 and 2010. This year's pick turned into power forward Serge Ibaka at No. 24 and the team still holds the Suns' 2010 first-round selection. In mid-February, Thomas was sent to San Antonio in exchange for Brent Barry, Francisco Elson and a 2009 first-round pick, which bumped the team's number of first-round picks to six over the next three seasons entering the 2008 draft. One day later, Presti shed more salary by shipping Szczerbiak (due $13 million this season) and West to Cleveland in the blockbuster three-team, 11-player trade that included Ben Wallace and Chicago. All told, Presti cleared enough cap space for Oklahoma City to have around $20 million in cap room next summer and roughly $40 million in the summer of 2010 based on projections of the league's salary cap increases. The 2010 free agent class could include LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Amare Stoudamire, Yao Ming, Dirk Nowitzki, Josh Howard and Tyson Chandler in addition to Brandon Roy, Tracy McGrady, Joe Johnson, Michael Redd and Richard Jefferson.
SustainabilityExamples of Presti's rebuilding plan can be found in New Orleans, Utah and Portland. Four years ago, the Hornets won just 18 games and the Jazz won 26 games. Three years ago the Trail Blazers were a 21-win team. All three franchises have rebuilt with youth, adding complementary pieces through the draft, trades and in free agency. It should come as no surprise the Hornets, Jazz and Blazers are now three of the teams expected to soon emerge as perennial championship contenders out of the Western Conference. "The plan has always been to identify the pieces that are going to be here for a while and play those guys and let them grow together,” said then-Sonics coach P.J. Carlesimo in February. Oklahoma City will be doing just that this season. Presti has his franchise player in Kevin Durant, the 2007 No. 2 overall pick, and additional building blocks in Green, Russell Westbrook, this year's fourth overall pick, fellow rookie D.J. White and forward Nick Collison. The bulk of the playing time likely will be reserved for allowing that core to develop and learn one another. The upcoming salary cap space puts the franchise in a position to add another major component when Durant and Green are expected to hit their stride in 2009 and really blossom by year four in 2010. Whenever asked about his timeline for success, Presti becomes cagey, reverting back to what can be described as his own code language. "A lot of it will be based on decision making by the front office, development on the floor by our players and maximizing some of the flexibility that we have coming up and some of the other assets that we have,” Presti said on July 10. "But we're focused on continuing to build the young core that we have and developing that young core and continuing to add to it over time.” Dissect Presti's language and you'll discover the GM expects OKC to take off in 2010.