Thunder GM Sam Presti evolves, surrounds Russell Westbrook with stars

OKLAHOMA CITY — Sam Presti has evolved with the times.

Oklahoma City’s general manager is perhaps best known for drafting Kevin Durant, James Harden and Russell Westbrook. Over the years, instead of adding big-name free agents and making blockbuster trades, he has added relatively inexpensive players around his stars and built through the draft.

His plans have mostly worked. The Thunder have played in the Western Conference Finals four times and the NBA Finals once since Presti took the job in 2007, and both Durant and Westbrook have won MVP awards.Not everything has been rosy. Presti couldn’t work out a contract extension with Harden in 2012. And last year, Durant left Oklahoma City for Golden State. Durant recently criticized Thunder management for failing to put the right players around him to compete for a title.

In a perfectly timed move, Presti shook the NBA by trading for 10-time All-Star Carmelo Anthony. The Thunder already had traded for four-time All-Star Paul George in the offseason. With the addition of the kind of talent Durant so desperately wanted in Oklahoma City, it appears Presti has turned over a new leaf. The man who always has focused on the process has shifted gears and built a super team in a matter of months.

Last Friday, a day before reports of the Anthony deal got out, Presti talked about how the league had changed.

“The league is in transition, but that’s what happens all the time,” Presti said. “The league is always changing. The rules are always changing. There’s so many different dynamics and forces at work that drive a lot of these different things. All I can tell you is the way we’ve always looked at it is, our job is to take the circumstances, try to understand them the best we can, and try to work as hard as we can to put the team in position to have a chance to contend and a chance to continue to grow.”

None of the Thunder stars responded to Durant’s criticism directly, but George made a point to thank Oklahoma City’s front office for putting the stars together. Whatever commitment Durant felt the Thunder lacked in the past, it has shown it in the present.

“The front office is that active in the summer and free agency, and not only acquiring players, but acquiring superstar players – it says a lot about the front office, it says a lot to Russ they’re committed to bringing guys and putting guys around him that is going to give them the best chance to win,” George said. “That’s what you want to see out of the front office.”

George said it’s necessary in today’s NBA to have multiple superstars to win at the highest level. Westbrook won the league MVP award last season, but had just one playoff win.

“We get criticized a lot for being friendly and not being able to do it alone,” George said. “Honestly, in this league, it’s hard to do it alone. You know, Russ averages a triple-double, and, you know, he couldn’t get out of the first round. That’s a special talent and a guy that did everything he could to win.”

Anthony said he has respected the Thunder organization for years, so when he had to make a quick decision, Oklahoma City was on the short list.

“Believe it or not, Oklahoma City was a team that me and my team talked about,” Anthony said. “We discussed it. And if the opportunity presented itself, whereas though we can kind of bring a deal to the Knicks organization is something that both parties feel comfortable with. This is a team, this is an organization, this is a city that I had no problem coming and being a part of.”

George felt good about heading to Oklahoma City before. He said Presti’s latest move is a game changer.

“Adding someone like Carmelo takes this team to another level,” he said. “In my eyes, he’s one of the best players that this league has ever seen, and it’s a luxury to play alongside him instead of having to deal with a cold tub right after the game and playing him.”

Westbrook said he has respected Presti since the Thunder made him the fourth overall pick in 2008.

“He’s finding ways to constantly keep making us a better team,” Westbrook said. “You definitely are very, very thankful to have somebody like that in charge of making those decisions. He’s done an amazing job with that.”
 

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