Sam Presti, executive vice president and general manager of the Oklahoma City Thunder, has gone from “boy wonder” to middle-aged in his position as the Thunder’s chief basketball officer since 2007.
Here’s a look at 10 things to know about the Thunder’s GM, his life and career:
‘C’ student made good: Presti was born in Concord, Mass., an only child whose parents divorced when he was a teenager. A 2017 Sports Illustrated profile noted that he wasn’t much of a student at Concord-Carlisle Regional High, but eventually got traction when he spent time with a group of mostly African-American kids bused from neighborhoods far from his suburb and the teacher (Harriett Stevens) who supervised them. As a basketball player, Presti impressed his teammates enough to earn the nickname “Bob Sura,” after the Florida State product who played 10 NBA seasons.
Teamwork, defense came early: Presti enrolled at Virginia Wesleyan and spent two years there before transferring to Emerson College as a way to get back to Boston. He served as a team captain in his junior and senior seasons, establishing himself as a player willing to chase 50/50 balls and draw as many charges as possible. He also coaxed teammates to agree that, if one of them wasn’t working hard enough, the others could vote that guy off the team. Of Presti’s work ethic, Emerson coach Hank Smith told The New York Times in 2010: “That’s how he’s been since the day I met him. He’ll be like that today, tomorrow, the next time I talk to him … How does anyone drive themselves that hard, that long?”
A break, an internship, an NBA career: How did Presti get his big break? A teammate at Emerson got hurt and was thinking of quitting. Presti talked him into continuing. That player’s father was the superintendent of schools in Aspen, Colorado. Every summer, San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich and GM R.C. Buford ran a basketball camp there. They needed one more camp counselor. The superintendent thought of the young man who had helped his son. Presti scraped up money to make the trip, and on the final day persuaded Buford to take him back to San Antonio as an intern. His salary? $250 a month. The opportunity? Priceless.
Tony Who? Presti soon impressed Buford, Popovich and others in the Spurs organization with his energy and diligence. He tackled all the usual menial intern tasks, both basketball-related and otherwise. Buford later said, only partly in jest, that he might have learned as much from the Emerson kid as the kid learned from the Spurs exec. He was promoted quickly up the ranks in San Antonio, where his signature moment came in 2001. By then serving as assistant GM, poring over videos with Buford, Presti encountered a point guard from France who hadn’t shown well in his workout. But Presti edited together a highlight reel of the guard’s play, influencing the bosses to bring him back for a second look. Tony Parker — six-time NBA All-Star, four-time NBA champion and 2007 NBA Finals MVP — was still on the board when the Spurs made the final pick of the first round.
The boss’ choice: Lenny Wilkens, Hall of Fame player and coach, was serving as SuperSonics president in 2007 when the team needed a new GM. So he interviewed former Orlando exec John Gabriel and Atlanta assistant GM Gary Fitzsimmons. Meanwhile, team owner Clay Bennett — who had been a partner in the Spurs — interviewed Presti by himself. Guess whose opinion mattered most. Bennett even demoted Wilkens to “vice chairman” to eliminate any doubt about Presti’s newfound power.
Some in Seattle saw Presti — incidentally, the youngest GM in the league and one of nine at the time who had never played in the NBA — as the owner’s puppet or front man, hired to take flak and run interference as the franchise was prepped for its relocation to OKC. He had upset many fans soon after taking the job by trading popular guard Ray Allen to Boston and forward Rashard Lewis to Orlando.
Others, after meeting the so-called whiz kid, saw it differently. Jerry Brewer, a columnist for The Seattle Times, wrote that Bennett “didn’t just hire some GM. He hired the absolute best man to step into this situation and thrive. He just ensured his franchise will be a contender within four years, possibly sooner.”
By then, the Sonics had morphed into the Thunder.
MV3: Three weeks after Presti got his GM job in Seattle, he grabbed Kevin Durant second in the 2007 Draft, right after Portland took eventual flop Greg Oden. A year later, he zagged when others zigged, picking UCLA’s Russell Westbrook fourth overall. In 2009, Memphis’ choice of Hasheem Thabeet left James Harden on the board for Presti at No. 3. That trio not only helped OKC to the Finals in 2012, but also and perhaps even more impressively, earned the NBA’s highest individual honor — Most Valuable Player — in 2014 (Durant), 2016 (Westbrook) and 2017 (Harden). No NBA exec has ever pulled off anything comparable.
The (first) one who got away: In hindsight, Presti’s 2012 trade of Harden to Houston — a pre-emptive move in deference to a looming tax bill, the bearded guard’s contract demands and a belief that Ibaka would be more valuable — looks like a clear mistake. The Thunder haven’t reached the Finals since, and of the pieces OKC got back, only Steven Adams (as a 2013 pick) brought long-term value to the Thunder. No one anticipated the cap soon would balloon by more than 60 percent (from $58 million to $94 million) in the four years after Harden’s trade.
Fifteen first-round picks – 15! – by 2026: Presti, on behalf of the Thunder, voted against the NBA’s recent revision of the draft lottery odds, flattening the chances of landing the top pick to discourage tanking. Smaller-market teams such as his lean more heavily on the draft for talent, with free agents less interested in signing there. No surprise then, when Presti did start his rebuild, that he prioritized picks over current players.
Here is what the Thunder essentially have available over the next seven years (allow for some minor protection). And this is with Paul, Danilo Gallinari and others as trade bait before next spring:
• Two 2020 first-round picks
• Two 2021 first-round picks
• Two 2022 first-round picks
• Two 2023 first-round picks
• Three 2024 first-round picks
• One 2025 first-round pick
• Three 2026 first-round picks
Bang on the drum all day: When you get death threats in your day job, as Presti did after trading George to the Clippers this summer, it’s important to have ways to decompress. In his case, that often means throwing on a pair of headphones and attacking the drum set he has played since his youth. A longtime jazz fan, Presti and friends recorded three CDs that were sold to benefit a children’s charity in Boston. He burned mix CDs for coach Mike Brown when they both were in San Antonio, and consulted with famed musical brothers Branford and Wynton Marsalis about the parallels between jazz and basketball.
Presti also is into meditation, sticks to a diet that’s way healthier than yours and spends as much time as he can with his wife Shannon, son Nicholas and twin daughters Millie and Elise. And when he can, he’ll binge on music documentaries that, for example, show how albums such as Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” or Jay-Z’s “Reasonable Doubt” came together.
Following in his footsteps: Picture a lanky white guy, a Massachusetts native, playing hoops at Emerson College. He lands a gig as an intern with the San Antonio Spurs, rises through the ranks, then moves to the NBA team headquartered in Oklahoma City. Seen this movie, right? Except that this time, it’s not Presti. It’s Rob Hennigan, former Orlando GM who traveled an eerily similar path about five years after Presti.
Hennigan, from Worcester, Mass., played for the same basketball coach at Emerson, Hank Smith. He spent four years with the Spurs, then was brought by Presti to Oklahoma City for another four. Shaking the young-visionary tree, the Magic hired Hennigan as Otis Smith’s replacement in 2012.
Despite similarities, Hennigan’s boy-wonder term didn’t produce results on par with Presti’s. He oversaw the Magic’s basketball operation for five seasons, during which the team compiled a 132-278 record, had three head coaches and never made the playoffs. Hennigan is back with the Thunder, re-hired by Presti with the new-agey title of “Vice President of Insight & Foresight.”