All the hours of preparation, the meetings and the phone calls ensure that a surprise circumstance is an opportunity, not a devastating obstacle.
When Paul George made his trade request in early July, the Thunder was in the midst of signing free agents that would amplify this upcoming season’s roster around George and Russell Westbrook. The table was being set for another strong run in the 2019-20 campaign. George’s request changed the calculus, but only an organization like the Thunder with strong leadership from Chairman Clay Bennett and General Manager Sam Presti was well-enough prepared and powerful enough to pull off the ensuing moves to put the franchise in position for long-term sustainability moving forward.
In a trio of transactions, Presti traded George, Westbrook and Jerami Grant for a total of eight first round draft selections over the next seven years plus four pick swap options along with 9-time NBA All-Star Chris Paul, a productive and efficient veteran forward in Danilo Gallinari and an exciting and emerging point guard in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
“The primary focus for our organization based on the circumstances that we inherited this summer is first, we need to reposition the franchise. Second to that, we need to replenish the franchise after 11 years of not ever being able to do that because we were in such a pursuit for maintaining a team that could get to the postseason and contend in the postseason year after year after year,” said Presti. “And then ultimately we will, just like every team in the NBA or in pro sports, ultimately have to rebuild the team.”
“I feel really good about the fact that we were able to make it work for everybody and figure out a solution,” Presti said. “Looking down the runway, we were probably going to be faced with that scenario probably after the following season.”
Thursday was Presti’s first opportunity to speak publicly since the trades were made and he started off by laying out not only what was in his heart, but what Oklahomans across the state and Thunder fans around the world feel: gratitude.
The Thunder General Manager began by thanking 8-time All-Star and 2017 MVP Russell Westbrook, in addition to his whole family, for the, “tremendous contributions he's made to our organization, to our community, and just the time that he put in here will be forever remembered, I think, by not only our fans but just the citizens of Oklahoma.”
WATCH: Presti talks offseason
Presti recalled picking up Jerami Grant from the airport in 2016 as the forward came in from Philadelphia where he was stuck at the end of the 76ers bench. He’s now turned himself into a complete player, which is what George provided the Thunder during his two seasons in Oklahoma City.
“(George) gave us a chance when we traded for him kind of sight unseen, and he is a tremendous guy,” said Presti. “The George family are great people. I think that he arrived at a time that was important for us, and he stayed during the period of time where he could have left, and we want to recognize him. He should be remembered fondly by our fans and organization.”
While holding reverence for the departing trio, the Thunder and its fans are thrilled by not only the new canvas off of which to work in the future but the players brought in to help fill it out. Paul will harken Thunder fans back to a day when the city was just emerging onto the national scene. The point guard began his career with the New Orleans Hornets, who were displaced to Oklahoma City from 2005-2007, and has risen to future Hall-of-Fame status as one of the best distributors and playmakers the game has ever seen. For his career, Paul has averaged 18.5 points and 9.7 assists per game with just 2.6 turnovers while shooting 37.0 percent from three.
“Having Chris Paul return to Oklahoma City is a really unique thing, and we're really excited about what he can bring to the team, not just as a player but also as a leader,” Presti said. “His ball handling skills, his ability to make shots, and just, again, to have another Hall of Fame player don the Thunder jersey in our first 12 years will be a really, really special thing for our organization, for our fans.”
Presti called the 6-foot-10, 225-pound Gallinari, “another really talented player that we are fortunate to have (with) his overall skill set, his size, his understanding of how to play the game.” Coming off of the best season of his career, when he averaged career-highs with 19.8 points, 6.1 rebounds and 46.3 percent overall shooting, Gallinari made his mark as one of the best stretch-four players in the league by knocking down an incredible 43.3 percent of his three-point attempts.
The key piece in place for the long-term future now for the Thunder is Gilgeous-Alexander, commonly referred to as “SGA”. The second-year guard from Kentucky played over 2,000 minutes in his rookie campaign, averaging 10.8 points, 3.3 assists, 2.8 rebounds and 1.2 steals per game with a 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio and 36.7 percent marksmanship from behind the arc. At 6-foot-6, Gilgeous-Alexander has the height and length to be a matchup problem at the point guard position for years to come.
“We think (Shai) has a tremendously bright future in the league, and we're really proud to have as a Thunder player, and excited about the growth potential that he has in his game,” Presti said. “We're also really excited about just who he is as a person and the makeup of him as a young man is something that we're really, really excited about having and adding to our organization going forward.”
With the massive roster turnover rate and rapid player movement in the NBA these days, every team faces a level of uncertainty heading into the season. Performance on the court gets determined during those 48 minutes of action, so the wins and losses charted on paper in August is worth about as much as the paper itself.
As constituted, the Thunder will have speed, shooting and ballhandling on the roster, along with a pair of centers in Steven Adams and Nerlens Noel who can put pressure on the rim. It will still be an intriguing and exciting group to watch, but with the added benefit of having the confidence and certainty of long-term assets as backup.
“It's going to be a different iteration of Thunder team than we've seen over the last several years,” said Presti. “The way we were able to pivot has given us the opportunity to have a much brighter future going forward and still have a team coming back this season that we feel good about.”
Presti intends to put the Thunder in the best possible position to work from a clear and fortified position to embark on the next journey of Thunder basketball. As the city experienced starting in 2008, this is a new, fresh chance for fans of all ages to get in on the ground floor of another chance to rise.
“Our decisions from this point on are going to be based on generating as much value for the organization as possible so that we at some point can recreate an elongated period of success like we've been fortunate to have,” Presti said. “We're going to take a very long view to make sure that we're putting ourselves in position to have a long run of success in Oklahoma City as we possibly can and not shortcut that process.”
“I'm excited about the challenge, quite frankly,” Presti said. “The opportunity to run our own race and use the situations that we have here to create the best path forward, I really feel passionately that the city and the team have a very special relationship, and I'm really driven to try to create the platform for another great Thunder team to take shape.”
Only time will tell when an organic rebuild might occur, but the point is this – the Thunder has the framework to do it in a manner unlike any other in NBA history. Thanks to Presti and his staff’s organization and dilligence, the Thunder was able to strike, generating all the assets necessary in a span of just two weeks.