OKC had a Big Three before anyone else. They let it slip away. They gave another team in their conference leverage. James Harden didn’t want to leave OKC in the fall of 2012. It was a money hang up but there was some room for negotiation. Other teams find a way to keep their stars happy. But Sam Presti and ownership panicked big time and Harden was let go. Coincidentally, he was let go after appearing in the NBA Finals. For years, it was all that was discussed, the lack of vision on Presti’s part. He didn’t know what he had in James Harden.
It’s been a long time since James Harden changed uniforms. He hasn’t come back to haunt the Thunder, meaning he has never gotten to the NBA Finals. The way he plays defense he may never get there. Adding Mike D’Antoni as the Houston Rockets coach may only continue to add to Harden’s misery, always on the outside looking in, never getting to the Finals. Harden suffered an even greater diss last year when he was left off the All-NBA first, second or third teams even though he averaged 29 points a game. The writers dug their knees deep into the wound. The narrative: Harden didn’t defend. He was lazy. He wasn’t accountable nor was he a particularly good leader. He could score in his sleep, so what? Others were better. It shook Harden. It wasn’t fair. And it was. Suddenly Sam Presti looked really, really smart. Harden is a one dimensional talent, all offense, no defense. Presti did the right thing.
And then July rolled around and Kevin Durant had a meeting with OKC . It was leaked out that it would take a special presentation to beat out the Thunder. Was that a lie? Recently, Durant said he was thinking about the Warriors the moment they lost in the NBA Finals, probably thinking about how he could help them. If that is true, then Durant had already checked out even before he started his whirlwind of meetings. He wanted to go. He had his reasons. Everyone has turned the page.
But here is the cold reality of being a NBA general manager. You are applauded by the players you are able to bring in as rookies and the free agents that take you to places no one imagined. There is an award called Executive of the Year. It was established in 1972-73. It used to be an award bestowed on a General Manager by the Sporting News. But since 2009, the NBA is in charge of the award. It is voted on by the 30 General Managers. In essence, your peers vote to say you have done a good job.
Last season R.C. Buford won the award. He brought in LaMarcus Aldridge and David West to manage the Spurs culture. Buford has won the award twice in three years. Bob Myers of the Warriors won it two years ago. Larry Bird has won it. Pat Riley brought the Big Three together and won it. Danny Ainge won it when he traded for his version of the Big Three.
Sam Presti has never won it.
Sam Presti traded James Harden. He lost Kevin Durant. If you are your record, as Chuck Daly used to say, then you are your record. This year Sam Presti has a shot to win it. Yes, he lost Kevin Durant and it is a black mark.
If Victor Oladipo has good chemistry with Russell Westbrook. If Ersan Ilysaova can be efficient and play moderate defense. If the returning Thunder players, Steven Adams, Enes Kanter, Andre Robeson can create a sense of cohesiveness around Westbrook and they win 46-50 games after losing Kevin Durant, if…if….if….
There is another great if. Jackie MacMullan of ESPN reported that the Spurs are unhappy with LaMarcus Aldridge. There may be a change somewhere in the season. Things are going on. It may not happen. This may just be talk. But you rarely hear these kinds of stories out of San Antonio. They manage their culture well. But if it is true, if Aldridge is available, a superstar is ready for the taking Sam Presti. Trade Enes Kanter if you have to. Trade Andre Robeson. Aldrige is an All-Star who can do things with the ball.
Sam Presti may win Executive of the Year after all. If he is lucky. So far he has not been and his peers feel sympathy for him in this way. They know how hard it is to keep a superstar. Most don’t stay. There is Tim Duncan and Kobe Bryant. And there is the league of men. LeBron left and Shaq left and even Dwyane Wade left. Kevin Garnett left. Allen Iverson left. It is hard to keep talent, particularly if that talent wants to go. Teams are hamstrung. Lose the second best player in the NBA and you are going to fall back. You just are.
Not too many GM’s lose two All-Stars in their prime. They may lose one because he has his reasons but they don’t lose two. The Portland Trailblazers lost three starters, two of which were not All-Stars. One was a top-5 power forward. The Blazers made the playoffs in 2016 and Neil Olshey was not Executive of the Year. But Neil Olshey wasn’t blamed for the LaMarcus Aldridge defection either.
Sam Presti traded James Harden. He fired Scott Brooks. He couldn’t keep Kevin Durant happy. By all appearances, Russell Westbrook likes OKC and seems to want to be a Kobe/Duncan lifer. That goes in the Sam Presti is great column. Coming out of UCLA, Westbrook was never pegged as a superstar. Presti saw his speed and just knew he had to have him.
But in the NBA, just like in marriage, it is keeping who you love. That is a hard thing to do. It follows you just like losses follow you even if it is back to the drawing board time and lets start all over again.
LaMarcus Aldridge would be a new beginning.
photo via llananba