The Thunder, Sam Presti's 'pivot' and why the darlings of the NBA are preaching patience

Josh Giddey gets the basket plus the foul (0:17)

Josh Giddey gets the basket plus the foul (0:17)

SAM PRESTI WAS in no hurry.

Presti, the Oklahoma City Thunder's executive vice president and general manager since the franchise's final season in Seattle, settled into his chair at the front of the Paycom Center interview room the morning of Sept. 27, the week before training camp.

He was dressed for comfort, wearing a plain, dark blue T-shirt, knowing that he'd be in that chair for quite some time. Presti's semiannual news conferences -- occurring immediately before and after each season -- have become known for their marathon length. This occasion certainly followed suit.

Talking points were scribbled on a notecard placed on the table in front of him, but Presti rarely glanced down during his 34-minute opening monologue or throughout the 77-minute Q-and-A session that followed. Presti offered franchise history lessons, pontificated on his basketball and team-building philosophies and incorporated offbeat examples ranging from "Spinal Tap" to a jazz piano concert in Cologne, Germany, to illustrate his points.

The throughline was Presti, the architect of a massive rebuilding job he refuses to expedite, preaching patience.

The "pivot," in Presti's parlance, started with the Paul George trade in the summer of 2019. Presti was able to capitalize on Kawhi Leonard's decision to sign with the LA Clippers in free agency, which hinged on the acquisition of George, his chosen co-star. George's exit delivered first-team All-NBA guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and first-team All-Rookie forward Jalen Williams to OKC, with more first-round picks and swaps on the way.

It continued weeks later with the Russell Westbrook deal -- for which the Houston Rockets owe OKC top-four-protected picks in the 2024 and 2026 drafts -- and remains an ongoing process. It has provided the Thunder a historic stockpile of draft capital and has already paid dividends, producing arguably the NBA's best young core.

Led by Gilgeous-Alexander, the eldest statesman in Oklahoma City's starting lineup at 25 years old, the Thunder made a 16-win leap last season, finishing 40-42 to qualify for the play-in tournament despite No. 2 overall pick Chet Holmgren taking a rookie redshirt year due to a Lisfranc injury to his right foot.

But Bricktown is buzzing again. The 7-foot-1 Holmgren is healthy now, instantly addressing the Thunder's glaring needs for rim protection and perimeter shooting. The optimism about the Thunder isn't limited to Oklahoma City; some rival scouts and executives believe the Thunder can be a top-four seed in the Western Conference this season and are on a path to title contention in the not-too-distant future.

Presti tempered immediate expectations. He repeatedly stressed the statistical improbability of the Thunder's drastic improvement last season, stating that Oklahoma City hit the "7% high-end bandwidth" of possibilities with its jump up the standings. He emphasized regression is a normal, healthy part of a young team's evolution. He fretted about how the young Thunder will handle the "silent force" of social media -- "now the fifth major sport in North America," Presti bemoaned -- as hype hums around this team.

"I'd rather not be in the business of predictions," Presti said, "but I think with where we are, it's mostly about observations. And we're good with that. ...

"I'm not trying to dismiss everyone's excitement, but we're not a .500 team. We have to finish our breakfast before we start acting like we're on the cusp of something."

IT WAS SUGGESTED to Presti that the Thunder, armed with such a deep stockpile of draft picks to dangle, will be in the conversation every time a superstar becomes available in the trade market.

"We will be in the conversation," Presti interrupted, "or people will put us in the conversation?"

The Thunder aren't by any means desperate to add a big name to the roster. Quite the opposite, actually. "To do that would be almost performative. I don't think you can make a rational case for it now," Presti said.

Oklahoma City was involved in the most recent blockbuster deal, but only on the periphery. The Thunder helped facilitate the James Harden trade, agreeing to send the least favorable of their three 2026 first-round picks to Philadelphia in exchange for 2027 swap rights with the Clippers. In essence, the Thunder gave up a bit of quantity for yet another potential swing at lottery quality.

Oklahoma City's pick count over the next seven drafts: 14 first-rounders, 22 second-rounders and enough picks swaps to make your head spin.

"When you simulate the GM mode in [NBA]2K, I tend to take the Sam Presti route and stack up picks," Phoenix Suns star Kevin Durant, the face of the franchise during Oklahoma City's previous stretch as a contender, said last month. "You got so many assets in this league, you can do so much with a team."

The Thunder have the luxury of such extreme patience in part because their superstar buys into the big picture. Gilgeous-Alexander signed a five-year maximum contract extension in the summer of 2021 when Oklahoma City was coming off a 22-50 season, a deal that notably does not include a player option. He doesn't spend any time worrying about the Thunder's timeline, trusting Presti to figure out the best path toward "sustained high performance over a long period of time," as the GM put it.

"I just control what I can control," Gilgeous-Alexander said after the Thunder's home opener. "I work hard. I try to be the best me every night. The group of guys around me try to do the same thing, so it makes it easier to play.

"But I honestly don't even focus on that."

The most aggressive transaction Presti made this offseason was moving up two spots from No. 12 in the draft to select Kentucky guard Cason Wallace with the No. 10 overall pick. The Thunder paid a premium to prevent a team from leapfrogging them, allowing the Dallas Mavericks to dump Davis Bertans' $17 million salary on OKC. Acquiring Bertans, who has $5 million guaranteed of his $16 million salary in 2024-25, assured that the Thunder wouldn't be high-end shoppers in free agency. But that was never the plan.

Presti, who used the bulk of the Thunder's remaining cap space this season to add a total of five future second-round picks in a series of salary-dump acquisitions of players who didn't make the regular-season roster, considered future luxury tax bills and restrictions for expensive rosters in the new collective bargaining agreement as he proceeded with caution. Maintaining a "functional payroll over time if our players turn out to be as good as some people are projecting" is on his mind.

So is giving the young core room to grow, as well as providing the coaching staff and front office opportunities to determine how well the group fits together or where gaps exist. "Discovery" is a priority this season that Presti shares with coach Mark Daigneault, the 38-year-old former coach of Oklahoma City's G League team who replaced Billy Donovan as the Thunder committed to a roster teardown.

"It's not looking for anything," Daigneault told ESPN of the discovery process. "It's more staying open to everything and understanding that even [with] your own team, as well as you know them, you can have your best guess at what that's going to look like, and it'll still surprise you. Players will still surprise you, especially young players when you give them opportunities.

"How it actually fits together, we have to unpack and peel back."

The Thunder are certain that they have a superstar in Gilgeous-Alexander, who earned that status in part by averaging an efficient 31.4 points per game last season. They are intrigued by the possibility that some of their recent lottery picks -- specifically Holmgren, Williams and 21-year-old, 6-foot-8 playmaker Josh Giddey, the No. 6 overall pick in 2021 -- will ascend to that level.

"We have a great group of young dudes, extremely talented, and we have a lot of room to grow, even with how talented we are," Holmgren told ESPN in July during Team USA camp in Las Vegas, where he joined Williams on the select team that featured some of the league's most promising young players.

"I don't want to obviously give us any limitations on what we can and can't do," Williams told ESPN, "but I think everybody's just kind of excited."

Daigneault has settled on a consistent starting five -- 24-year-old defensive stopper Lu Dort joining Gilgeous-Alexander, Giddey, Holmgren and Williams -- but is known to tinker with lineups and schemes.

For example, Daigneault intends to give second-year big man Jaylin Williams significant minutes alongside Holmgren. The Thunder want to put the prized 7-footer in situations as a weakside defender in addition to his primary role as a more traditional defensive anchor. Holmgren, who possesses shooting and ballhandling skills that are rare for his height, will also be given freedom to spread his wings offensively while always playing alongside at least two, if not three, playmakers.

"The development goals are because we want to win," Daigneault said. "I think sometimes it gets presented as a binary thing, like you have to choose between the two. ...

"The reason we're so hell-bent on developing the roster is because we want to have a lot of success for a long time. We're not quiet about that, but we're willing to be measured in that process and we're willing to be patient in that process if it's going to yield a longer runway or a higher ceiling."

NOT THAT ANY regular-season result is worthy of too strong a reaction, much less one in October, but Oklahoma City's home opener -- a 128-95 loss to the defending champion Denver Nuggets -- could be perceived as a symbolic indication of just how far the Thunder must still travel.

Nikola Jokic's Nuggets, who first qualified for the playoffs in the two-time MVP's fourth season and broke through with a title run in his eighth, also serve as an excellent example of the potential benefit of taking a patient, measured approach with a talented core and coach.

"There is a lot of players who were coming and going, but they believe in us," Jokic said postgame, referring to the Denver front office's faith in the foundational duo of guard Jamal Murray and himself.

"Success cannot come overnight in one [or] two seasons. Maybe some people don't think that way. I think that way. You need to have a little bit of struggle and you still need to keep believing in the guys, and they need to figure it out."

Jokic, who praised Holmgren as a "unique talent" and half-jokingly advised him to "eat bad" to add some bulk to his slender frame, sees the Thunder's potential to mature into a legitimate contender. It's possible that the Thunder, like the Nuggets, won't need to make splashy deals for stars to get there.

The two critical trades Denver made -- deals to acquire power forward Aaron Gordon in 2021 and shooting guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope in 2022 -- were for high-level complementary players who fit phenomenally with the Nuggets' core of Jokic, Murray and Michael Porter Jr.

"These guys are coming," four-time champion Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr said after a razor-thin 141-139 win in Oklahoma City on Friday, when Gilgeous-Alexander was sidelined by a sprained knee. "Everyone can feel it. You could feel it last year, and now they have Chet back healthy and obviously playing at a high level. He's really added a different dimension. So OKC's coming."

But there remains no rush for Oklahoma City, with assets that make countless options possible, to figure out moves to help get the Thunder to the summit.

"For us, we can't be emotional or impulsive, because if we do that, all the progress that we've made and all the investment that we've made will get multiplied by zero," Presti said. "If you become impatient, irrational or give into those defaults, you can end up either stuck on the mountain or at the very bottom of the mountain again."

ESPN's Tim Bontemps contributed to this story.