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.
Go back as far as July 11, 2007, when Presti pulled the trigger on his first major move as GM and orchestrated a sign-and-trade with Orlando to send Rashard Lewis to the Magic. You'll find maneuvers like those still have a lasting impact today.
Serge Ibaka, Cole Aldrich and Byron Mullens are here today because of Presti's ability to gain a $9.5 million trade exception for Lewis rather than overpaying him with a $100 million contract.
Thabo Sefolosha is now the Thunder's starting shooting guard because of another under-the-radar deal that sent Johan Petro to Denver in exchange for Chucky Atkins in January 2009. Because the Thunder had cap space, it could take Atkins' contract off Denver's hands. But Presti plucked another first-round pick as well. The pick was later dealt to Chicago to acquire Sefolosha. The Thunder then re-signed Sefolosha at a very reasonable $13.8 million over four years before the deadline that would make him a restricted free agent. It saved the team money both in the short and long term.
In the summer of 2009, Presti packaged Atkins and Damien Wilkins to Minnesota for two 2010 second-round picks. One of those second-round picks eventually netted the Thunder Daequan Cook and a first-round draft pick from Miami. That first-round selection from the Heat was sent to the Los Angeles Clippers for a future pick, and that future pick was the final piece of the deal that brought Perkins to town last week.
In December 2009, the Thunder again used its salary cap to land reserve point guard Eric Maynor in a trade with Utah. Because OKC was under the cap, it could take on injured forward Matt Harpring's expiring $6.5 million deal to provide financial relief for the Jazz.
The final stroke of salary cap wizardry came when the Thunder used space to ink Nick Collison to a heavily front-loaded extension this past November. Roughly $6.5 million under the cap at the time, Presti offered Collison a raise of that amount to bump his current deal to more than $13 million. Collison agreed to an additional four-year extension worth $11 million.
Perkins' deal was structured the same way, and it could be the final piece that turns the Thunder into a power.