Sam Presti’s plan to build the Oklahoma City Thunder into the NBA’s best team nearly came to fruition earlier than expected. The Thunder were the favorites to win the title before bowing out to the Heat in five games, but they are expected to make several more runs at the championship because of Presti’s astute management.
Presti is a Concord-Carlisle High School and Emerson College product whose primary goal after college was returning to Concord-Carlisle to become basketball coach. He received a higher calling, though, when he met Spurs general manager R.C. Buford at a basketball camp in Aspen, Colo., in 2000. Buford hired him as an intern and Presti quickly rose through the ranks with San Antonio.
In June 2007, at age 31, Presti was named general manager of the Seattle SuperSonics, a year before the franchise relocated to Oklahoma City. With the drafting of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden, the re-signing of Nick Collison, and the acquisition of Thabo Sefolosha, the Thunder were able to compete for the title with just one rotation player (Derek Fisher) older than 30.
Presti is modest nearly to a fault, reluctant to discuss his ascent to an NBA front office from a Division 3 backcourt at Emerson. But his success has been no accident. The Orlando Magic plucked Presti’s assistant, Rob Hennigan, 30, for their general manager position, hoping he can duplicate Presti in rebuilding a franchise.
Presti smiles shyly when asked about his humble beginnings, when Hank Smith, his coach at Emerson, used to tap him to enter games for the express purpose of taking charges.
“Coach Hank Smith had a deep impact on me,” said Presti. “In a basketball sense but also in a life-experience sense. That was a tremendous influence.
“It never occurred to me to consider working in the NBA. It just wasn’t something that was on my radar because I didn’t feel like that would even be possible. I was never really focused on that. The opportunity presented itself, and when it did, even when I was at San Antonio, I figured that I would be there for a year, learn as much as I could, and maybe go back and one day have a chance to coach Concord-Carlisle High School.
“I was thinking that would be something great, to learn something in San Antonio and go back to New England.”
Presti never made it back to New England. He has used the draft and moderate contracts to build the Thunder into a progressive winner. The success of Durant and Westbrook turned Oklahoma City into a legitimate contender, and Presti has followed the San Antonio model of having three superstars (Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker) and adding interchanging parts around them to maintain success.
Of course, the parts around Durant, Westbrook, and Harden remain young themselves, and a decision will have to be made on restricted free agent forward Serge Ibaka. But the Thunder reached the Finals with the league’s 19th-highest payroll, spending less money than lottery residents Detroit, Golden State, New Orleans, and Cleveland.
“Obviously the Spurs, what they’ve been able to do over an extended period of time is a really special thing in pro sports,” Presti said. “It’s definitely unique in the NBA and I’m very fortunate to have been a small part of that organization, but in Oklahoma City, in addition to look to try to pull some core values from the Spurs and other successful sports franchises, we are also focused on developing our own identity.
“It’s an ongoing process for us. We’re evolving as a team, and the focus for our organization is to build a sustainable model and an organization that can endure.”
Presti not only talks like a stockbroker, he has turned basketball into a business model. He wants players who fit the Thunder’s organizational mold — modest, hard-working, and embracing the team’s smaller-town culture. Durant is the face of the franchise, a wunderkind who passed on opportunities for early free agency and signed a five-year extension after the 2010 season.
Presti is visibly uncomfortable when he or his team discuss anything to do with individualism. He spreads the credit for the organization’s success to his staff and the players, preferring to manage the franchise behind the scenes. One-on-one interviews with Presti are a challenge to procure because of his modesty.
“I’ve been the beneficiary of a lot of good fortune in my career,” he said. “Also the beneficiary of people’s support and belief. These opportunities are rare. Everyone in our program has a genuine respect for how difficult it is to win in the NBA because we’ve been through some adverse situations over the years. Additionally, it’s understood that there’s nothing promised in the NBA.”
The Thunder will begin their quest for a championship all over again in October. They got off to a rousing start by taking Baylor forward Perry Jones III with their first-round pick in Thursday’s draft.
There remains work to do. Coach Scott Brooks does not have a contract for next season and after a difficult Finals, Harden has to agree on an extension.
The tireless Presti will continue toward his goal, but he constantly looks back to his past for motivation.
“I think we’re all products of our experiences, and not all of our experiences are positive,” he said. “Some of them are learning moments and teaching moments. But I feel very fortunate to have some very good people to support me and I don’t take it for granted.”
Additions may help Charlotte
Michael Jordan hasn’t had much to shout about on draft nights, often trading down for some over-the-hill veteran or drafting a project destined to fail. He did neither last week.
Jordan, Bobcats president of basketball operations Rod Higgins, and general manager Rich Cho used the second overall pick on Kentucky forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who immediately becomes their most identifiable player without ever having donned one of the team’s new navy blue uniforms.
“It took a while for us to get to that decision,” Higgins said. “We had an opportunity to interview and work out quite a few lottery picks, but once we got our arms around Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and saw some of the things he can do, we knew he was the player we wanted. He will fit in with the style of play coach [Mike] Dunlap wants offensively and defensively, so he was a natural fit for us.”
Before that, the Bobcats acquired high-scoring guard Ben Gordon, a bust in Detroit, along with a protected first-round pick for Corey Maggette in a salary swap. Gordon becomes an immediate rotation player and gives the Bobcats some respectability if he can replicate those days with Chicago when he drained 3-pointers at will.
Gordon is only 29 and shot nearly 43 percent from the 3-point line last season. He and Kidd-Gilchrist add legitimacy to a team that finished an NBA-worst 7-59 last season. Dunlap, the former St. John’s assistant, wasn’t a popular hire but is considered a solid choice in basketball circles.
Kidd-Gilchrist lost only four games in his high school and college career, a total he figures to match pretty quickly in Charlotte. But he is determined to help change the losing culture there. He is a hard-working combo forward who will immediately start and team with raw but skilled Bismack Biyombo, who averaged 5.8 rebounds in 23.1 minutes last season as a 19-year-old rookie.
Kidd-Gilchrist does most of his talking between the lines. He has dealt with a speech impediment for years and tends to pause between questions or give brief answers. He said it is something he will work on to improve.
“It’s just all mental,” he said. “I’m a hard worker. It’s my job now, so I am going to have to do it.”
For the first time since the team returned to Charlotte and became the Bobcats, there is a sense of excitement about the club. Higgins has been a frequent target of the fans’ ire. The club fired coach Larry Brown, who seemingly lost his will for coaching, and former Celtic Paul Silas’s hard-nosed approach worked for a while, but he was unable to work miracles with such a weak roster.
“It’s a special time for us and our franchise,” Higgins said. “It’s a different time for us. We as a franchise are looking forward to what’s in the future and not what has been in the past. Free agency is right around the corner so therefore we have another avenue we have to attack.’’
Said Kidd-Gilchrist: “I just want to win basketball games. The past is the past.”
SAY IT AIN’T SO?
Drexler denies Magic quotes
Excerpts from Sports Illustrated writer Jack McCallum’s book on the original Dream Team are being released, and there is already controversy. McCallum attributed quotes to former Dream Teamer Clyde Drexler to the effect that the reason Magic Johnson was selected to the Olympic team and named All-Star Game MVP in 1992 was sympathy over his HIV diagnosis, which was revealed in 1991.
McCallum quotes Drexler as saying, “If we all knew Magic was going to live this long, I would’ve gotten the MVP of that game, and Magic probably wouldn’t have made the Olympic team.
“But you have to understand what was going on then. Everybody kept waiting for Magic to die. Every time he’d run up the court, everybody would feel sorry for the guy, and he’d get all that benefit of the doubt.
“Magic came across like, ‘All this is my stuff.’ Really? Get outta here, dude. He was on the declining end of his career.”
McCallum has said the quotes are accurate. Drexler released a long statement through the Rockets, whom he works for as a color analyst.
“I have nothing but love and respect for Magic Johnson and all that he has accomplished in basketball and in life,” the statement said. “I always took pride in being a great teammate throughout my career and I would never have made the statements that were reported in Jack McCallum’s book.
“I was one of Magic’s biggest supporters during that difficult period in his life and I take great exception to having such comments attributed to me. Magic and I have a friendship that goes back more than 28 years and I would never say such hurtful things.
“I have reached out to Magic to assure him that I did not say those things and to apologize to him and his family for even having to respond to something as baseless as this.”
McCallum is a renowned journalist, so it’s difficult to believe that he fabricated Drexler’s quotes.
Small college, big potential
The ascent of Damian Lillard to the sixth pick in Thursday’s draft is rather stunning, and another example of how expansive NBA scouting has become.
His Weber State team did not advance to the NCAA Tournament but scouts were on to the high-scoring Lillard a year ago, when he was projected as a second-round pick. Lillard averaged 24.5 points in his redshirt junior season for the Wildcats and now is projected as the point guard of the future for the Trail Blazers.
It appears that the NBA success of Rodney Stuckey, another Big Sky product out of Eastern Washington, may have had something to do with Lillard’s recognition.
Lillard was asked at the draft about his college choice.
“Well, I come from a loyal family, hard-working family,” he said. “Weber State was one of the first schools that recruited me. I built a relationship with them from day one. They never tried to blow smoke.
“They were honest with me from the jump. They told me, ‘If you don’t go to class, you’re going home; if you don’t work hard, you’re going home.’ And I felt comfortable with the things that they valued, because that’s what I was raised in and that’s how my family was.”
He also talked about making the transition from scoring guard to point guard, although high-scoring point guards are becoming the norm.
“I think the type of point guard that I am is becoming the way the point guards are in the NBA. When you look at Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook, Tony Parker, you see guys that score the ball really well but they get their teammates involved, and they win games, most importantly.
“I think that’s one of the reasons why teams value me, because I can score the ball, I make the right plays, and I’m a high-character guy. So I think I can eventually work my way into that category.”
One of the first significant moves in the tenure of new Magic GM Rob Hennigan, a native of Worcester, was hiring former Detroit and Seattle assistant GM Scott Perry as his assistant. The Magic cleaned house in their front office . . . The Suns made a qualifying offer to point guard Aaron Brooks, who bolted before the lockout and played last year in the Chinese Basketball Association. Brooks, a former first-round pick of the Rockets, averaged 19.6 points in 2009-10 and was named the league’s Most Improved Player. Brooks will draw interest around the league, but the Suns now have the right to match any offer, which might not be likely since they drafted guard Kendall Marshall with their first-round pick. Brooks may draw interest from the Celtics as a backup point guard. They used the combination of Avery Bradley and Keyon Dooling last season . . . With the Bulls drafting Marquis Teague to be the primary backup to Derrick Rose, the future of C.J. Watson is in question. Watson took over at point guard when Rose tore his left ACL during Game 1 of the Eastern Conference first-round series against the 76ers. Watson’s contract is not guaranteed until July 10 and the Bulls did have success with lower-salaried John Lucas in the same position . . . The Celtics are expected to meet with Brandon Bass’s representatives this weekend to begin discussions on a potential extension.
Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.