Four years ago, Oklahoma City Thunder general manager Sam Presti set out on a rebuilding project that once was mocked but is now being mimicked.
With that initial project officially complete, the Thunder GM is now carrying out one of the most creative game plans for how a small market team can continue to compete.
As the payrolls of NBA rosters continue to skyrocket, and the league sees its most coveted superstars steadily jumping ship to join one another in larger markets, it's the small-town franchises like the Thunder that are being threatened to get left behind. That's what's quickly become the inconvenient reality of the NBA.
But through shrewd moves like Monday night's signing of newly acquired center Kendrick Perkins, the Thunder has managed to stay even with, if not ahead of, even the best competition — which today is defined by teams whose owners have the deepest pockets.
While some fans and analysts thought the Thunder was refusing to dip into its ample salary cap space the past two summers to acquire a marquee free agent, Presti actually was using the resource. Just in a different way. Each time Presti passed on splashy signings like David Lee or Paul Millsap or Macin Gortat, he kept his flexibility intact. What were perceived to be minor deals frequently would follow.
Today, though, the Thunder has blossomed into one of the most respected rosters in the NBA, and a potential perennial power, because of that patience.
The transformation becomes mind-blowing when you realize it's happened without a single major free-agent acquisition.
“Sam is as thorough as a general manager as I've ever been around,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. “He understands the dynamic of team very well. He understands chemistry and important pieces that make teams work. … He does his homework as well as anybody. He's methodical, he's patient and he understands what we need. And he's willing to search for those answers every day.”
The Presti plan started in 2007. Back then, it was about tearing down before building up. Presti had walked into a mess of a payroll with the Seattle SuperSonics and had to clear things up. The objective was to ship out long and lucrative contracts and replace them with a stockpile of draft picks to rebuild with youth. At the same time, Presti made it a point to acquire additional assets like trade exceptions and expiring contracts.
Teams like Cleveland, Minnesota, Sacramento and Utah now are employing a similar strategy. The Thunder, however, is what the picture looks like when the right amount of luck meets the perfect blend of planning and patience. Nearly every player on the Thunder's current 14-man roster is a product of that recipe.