Now, the Thunder is making its opponents disappear.
Built by scalpel-sharp General Manager Sam Presti, who shuns the spotlight like deer in a housing subdivision, the Thunder swept the defending champion Dallas Mavericks during the first round of the NBA playoffs. In the best-of-seven Western Conference semifinals, the Thunder holds a 3-1 lead against the Lakers with Game 5 on Monday night in Oklahoma City.
The Thunder has hit it big the old-fashioned way: by building through the draft. In five years leading the ballclub’s basketball operation, Presti has produced second-to-none results. Core-of-the-roster players Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Serge Ibaka, each acquired through the draft, are all part of Presti’s hot streak. The characteristically self-effacing Presti isn’t seeking applause — just wins.
“None of us are gonna take any bows for Russell’s talent or development, or Kevin’s, or James’s . . . or for knowing Serge Ibaka would turn into this type of player in his [third] year,” Presti, who rarely grants interviews, said during a lengthy phone conversation last week. “We just try to do the best we can and shift the odds.”
Even the worst sports executives can get lucky once or twice in the draft. When it happens time and time again, you’re dealing with a master’s eye for talent.
The skill Presti has demonstrated in managing the league’s Byzantine salary cap (the Thunder has retained its star-powered young nucleus while maintaining a payroll below the punitive luxury-tax threshold) and creating a winning culture (“we’re looking for great people as much as players,” Presti says) is as important as his success in assembling a watch-out-for-those-guys roster. Under Presti, the NBA’s smallest-market team is proving a point: Size isn’t all that matters.
“I don’t know if there’s a right way to build a team; every situation is different,” he said. “Every place has different circumstances. But finding [players] with tremendous makeup and tremendous focus and determination . . . those are driving qualities to success” anywhere.
With each Northwest Division title (the Thunder has won the past two) and playoff appearance (three straight), the Thunder is landing combination blows to the widespread belief that professional sports now mirror the real estate market: It’s all about location, location, location.
Sure, it has been historically easier for clubs in Los Angeles, New York and Miami to attract the highest-profile superstars in free agency. Many pro athletes are drawn to the biggest stages and the chance to join forces with players of comparable — or greater — ability (though so far, LeBron James hasn’t had quite the South Beach experience he envisioned). Luring big-name performers from other teams has been as much a part of the New York Yankees’ identity as their pinstripes. But smarts and sound judgment can be equalizers.