I Hate Sam Presti (aka Death of a Dynasty II)
I’m a basketball vagabond. Been that way my whole life.
I was born immediately after the demise of the Bad Boy Detroit Pistons, and my first memories of hoop were Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls, who were both hammer and nail in those Pistons’ coffin. This has nothing to do with much, but I’ve recently been triggered way too often by the amount of folks my age who say they don’t remember any Mike. All I ever wanted to be growing up was a basketball player, and that’s directly correlated to seeing Michael Jordan and recognizing his greatness at some point in 1996. My stepmom bought the Jordan big rim, I begged my dad for Michael's black pinstripe jersey (which he found; R.I.P. to a real one), I’d find my way to WGN to watch the locally televised Bulls games during weekends with my dad. I guess that was precocious? I just loved watching Jordan play. I saw Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals live at my grandma’s kitchen table — that layup, that steal, that pushoff, that pose. I’m almost certain LeBron’s the greatest player I’ve ever seen, but there’ll never be anyone as magical as Michael. YouTube and Hardwood Classics don’t do it justice.
I obsessed over Michael’s Bulls with the hometown Pistons somewhere in my periphery, a team I knew to be in the Bulls’ division but not nearly as entertaining. Grant Hill was exciting (?) and Joe Dumars could shoot 3’s and Lindsey Hunter’s defense was cool, but I’d be lying if I said that life in the lower-middle class of the Eastern Conference was even a fraction as compelling as following the team that literally never lost. The ‘98 lockout and Michael’s second retirement from the sport left me a 6-year-old basketball junkie with nobody to cheer for; Allen Iverson was too far away to fully appreciate, Vince Carter hadn’t reached peak freak levels yet, and I was too loyal to Michael to ever take the Pistons seriously. And I could never, under any circumstances, cheer for Kobe Bryant.
Still looking for any reason to support the Pistons, hiring Dumars as President of Basketball Operations in 2000 did wonders for the franchise's legitimacy around the league. (Continue to ignore the fact I was barely in elementary school. I’ve always loved this game, I swear.) And things did change around that franchise, both aesthetically and spiritually. Career journeymen Chauncey Billups and Ben Wallace anchored what has to be one of the more improbable runs in professional sports — from 2002 until 2008, the Detroit Pistons won 334 of a possible 492 regular-season games, making six consecutive conference finals appearances and winning what is still the unlikeliest NBA Championship in league history. By those NBA Finals in 2004, I was all-in on that iteration of the Pistons, their run to that title crystallizing what I adored about my city. On the Pistons’ championship DVD, NBA Entertainment included some of the NBATV coverage leading up to the Finals, and their analysts were laughing at the possibility of the Pistons winning even one game. It felt like the basketball team became a proxy for the national joke everyone saw Detroit as, and making those arrogant jerks fly into our city and watch us win that title on our home court felt like justice. I got to experience a championship parade! You know how many folks have never gotten that opportunity?! I doubt I’ll love another player like I loved Mike, and I doubt I’ll love another team like I loved those Pistons.
Looking to inject life into a stale nucleus (or something, I don’t know), Joe Dumars traded Chauncey for Allen Iverson in November 2008. I’ll never forget that day: Rhyanna texted the news to my silver Motorola Razr while in my Health class, and I used whatever online browser was on my phone to conduct my own research. (I forget how much data was in those caveman days, but I know it was enough for my dad to ask about the extra charge on the bill.) Ignoring the fact Chauncey kept our team competitive every year, I couldn’t see the upside of that trade for the Pistons, saddling a demure rookie head coach already battling outsized expectations with a malcontent who definitely wouldn’t be in Detroit longer than that season. That, and you don’t trade Finals MVPs. The team got immediately worse, and personally disinterested in watching this once-peaceful team suddenly sulk all over the place, I checked out. Everything they touch will fail until they do right by Chauncey. (And a jersey retirement ain’t enough.)
That same season, the Seattle SuperSonics moved to Oklahoma City, renaming themselves the Thunder and betting their future on two young, curious talents. I’d seen Kevin Durant plenty his year at Texas, and his superstardom seemed imminent. His new runningmate Russell Westbrook, on the other hand, I couldn’t really tell. A 6’3” shooting guard who couldn’t shoot, his career seemed to hinge on his capacity to both learn how to run a team and be an effective sidekick to Durant. Their first year together, the Thunder lost 59 games, but the trio of Durant, Westbrook, and athletic forward Jeff Green (then also considered a key piece to the Thunder's future) started to look like the core of something special by the time spring 2009 rolled around. In June, the franchise drafted James Harden, a cunning lefty out of Arizona State who’d likely become their starting shooting guard in no time, and thoughts of a potential dynasty began to surface, given everything breaking their way. In the team’s second year in OKC, the Thunder won 50 games and could’ve beaten the Los Angeles Lakers in their first-round playoff series; by then, I’d completely hitched my wagon to theirs, a team whose best players were barely older than me, guys I’d be able to cheer for at least a decade. I knew the optics of my team-jumping, how unseemly it looked to desert the Pistons once the ship began to sink. (I’d just like to argue that the Pistons deserted me, giving away our best player and 10+ years of competitive basketball in the process.) I don’t enjoy drifting from team-to-team, believe me, and I just knew the Thunder’s youth and talent would provide the sort of stability that’s eluded the other teams I’ve cheered for.
#THUNDERUP was the gang: my guys played their way into the NBA Finals in 2012, giving LeBron and the Heatles a (semi-) competitive series before bowing out in five games. In the series' closing seconds, ABC’s cameras cut over to Russy, Kevin, and James — arms draped around each other, clearly disappointed but still youthfully exuberant, aware their trio would absolutely positively return to the championship round. James was due a contract extension, but *clutches pearls* we’d never play with the future of the franchise! I’ve never been more certain of a basketball fiefdom — at least not since Jordan’s Bulls.
On October 27, 2012, around 6PM London time, I learned the Thunder traded James Harden to the Houston Rockets. The Thunder vaguely claimed they were unable to reach an agreement on a contract extension; James was seeking a maximum contract of $60 million over 4 years, which the Thunder countered by asking him to take a $4.5 million discount. The Thunder traded away their third head over a mid-level exception.
In return from Houston, the Thunder received journeyman Kevin Martin, an elite college scorer in Jeremy Lamb, two-first round draft picks and a second-rounder. Per Thunder general manager Sam Presti, “We were unable to reach a mutual agreement, and therefore executed a trade that capitalized on the opportunity to bring in a player of Kevin’s caliber, a young talent like Jeremy and draft picks, which will be important to our organizational goal of a sustainable team.”
Kevin Martin approximated James’s production for a year, but Jeremy Lamb could never earn his way into the playing rotation, the team's supporting cast fell perennially short, and fluke injuries to their two remaining superstars submarined their annual high hopes. Up 3 games to 1 against the defending NBA champion Golden State Warriors in the 2016 Western Conference Finals, the OG Thunder Buddies failed their final test together, losing the best-of-7 and cracking the door for Kevin Durant to leave. Which he did.
Three generational talents, all drafted by an organization that needs every ounce of luck it can generate, and they blew their opportunity at something special. I think I just might hate Sam Presti.
Okay, "hate" is probably too strong. Words mean things, I get it.
Maybe I should have more patience? I suppose I understand running a basketball team is a difficult endeavor, further complicated for GM Sam Presti by cheap owners in a small market who’d already decided which players they were willing to pay: Durant, Westbrook, and then-super-defender Serge Ibaka. From their perspective (yes, I’m trying to empathize with billionaires), I’m sure they’d allotted a certain amount of money for their basketball team, paying James what he was asking would have dire long-term consequences they weren’t willing to accept, and James’s skillset was the easiest to find a resemblance of, if not a duplicate altogether.
But just like you don’t trade Finals MVPs, you don’t trade a guy with the potential to be (at worst) your second-best player before his age-23 season after he won Sixth Man of the Year and PLAYED QUALITY DEFENSE ON KOBE BRYANT DURING CRUCIAL PLAYOFF POSSESSIONS. (Yes, watch the footage. It’s true.) He also still had one year remaining on his rookie contract, which allowed for more negotiation if not for this self-imposed deadline of the Thunder to get James signed. In a vacuum, the only plausible explanation is rooted within the arrogance of a franchise’s administration too arrogant to recognize their remarkably good fortune. Bill Simmons wrote a few Fridays ago on the demise of Jordan’s Bulls: how the general manager of a decade-long dynasty resented his perceived lack of recognition so much that he went about setting the entire thing on fire. Sam Presti’s no Jerry Krause, and his — and the franchise’s, broadly defined — handling of Harden’s contract situation lacked the spite of Krause openly antagonizing one of the greatest coaches and two of the greatest players of all-time.
But imagine thinking — and firmly believing — that trading James Harden was a plausible solution. The arrogance it takes to believe that your system created James Harden, and that same system would create a cheaper duplicate with no issue at all. Sure, "organizations win championships," but every organization would love to have the best available talent possible. You, general manager, for all your brilliance and quantitative projections, aren’t making any jumpers nor any defensive stops. You want to wax poetic about your numerical prowess, but none of those fancy statistics tipped off the idea that the reigning Sixth Man of the Year might be worth that additional $5 million down the line? YOU THOUGHT KEVIN MARTIN COULD REPLACE JAMES HARDEN?!
(I’m angry. Y'all should’ve seen this coming 500 words ago.)
Seriously though, during that 2012 NBA Finals, James Harden was 22-years-old. (Both Russy and Durant were 23.) To make the Finals, those three (plus Serge) upset the veteran San Antonio Spurs, a team that both jumped out to a quick lead in their series while supposedly serving as that vaunted “obstacle” good young teams must learn from in defeat. The baby Thunder made their first Finals ahead of our perceived timeframe; breaking up a winning core that young seemed like a backwards hustle even at the time. This is a direct quote from Chris Bosh, third-best player on the Miami Heat team that defeated the Thunder in those Finals, from a podcast recorded days ago:
“[James Harden] was the key to the series for us. We looked at him. We had to stop him because we were like, “Okay, their top two guys, they’re probably gonna get theirs. ... Harden, if you look at all their games, especially when they beat the Spurs that year, he was the point guard. He was handling the ball, and that allowed KD and Russ to play off the ball. He was the guy making the plays.”
Hearing Bosh acknowledge the Heat’s gameplan of attacking James relentlessly — a tough situation for anyone, and certainly for a third-year sixth man — makes his less-than-stellar play during those Finals even more understandable. (Over those five games, Harden averaged 12 points and 4 assists in 33 minutes a night; he shot 38 percent overall from the field and 30 percent from the three-point line.) His contractual situation quickly became a huge storyline because of his Finals performances, leading to a ton of speculation that he might not be worth his asking price. (As a reminder, he was defending Kobe Bryant one month prior and might’ve been their second-best player during their comeback against the Spurs.)
I’ve spent so much of my basketball life since that trade hating James Harden for reasons largely unrelated to his basketball prowess. (Read: I’m salty.) All those cheap fouls I now call pathetic were once brilliant ways to get easy points. The eurosteps, the lazy crossovers, those flops, that dumbass mohawk-beard combination, still. I actively rooted against him in last year’s Most Valuable Player race, joyful that the first Thunder buddy to break up my dynasty would seemingly never find the peak of basketball happiness outside of Oklahoma City. Blind loyalty and stubbornness have been the downfall of many a sports fan, and I tried my hardest to go down with the ship, clinging to diminishing hope that Thunder management would actually find a suitable replacement for a guy rapidly becoming one of the league’s most irreplaceable.
Most distinctly, I couldn’t wrap my head around the idea a team whose top players were that good would never play in another Finals together. I think I got in on the ground-room floor before the mansion reached completion; I might’ve been a bandwagoner, but believe I’d earned my first-row seat. I remember those early years, Kevin’s constancy a necessity to offset Russy’s (more than) occasional recklessness, a recklessness that way too frequently worked out in their favor. In Game 4 of the 2012 Finals, Russell Westbrook scored 43 points in a heroic-yet-losing effort. He shot the ball 32 times, but my memories of that game revolve around just how clearly talented he’d become in such a short timespan. And he was only 23! In hindsight, Harden likely served as the buffer to Westbrook and Durant — the guy equipped to bottle Russy’s worst tendencies and maximize Kevin’s best. You read what Bosh said: those grizzled Spurs’ fatal flaw was James Harden, point guard.
Harden’s unceremonious removal from the team has seemed to always rankle Durant, who last summer used burner social media accounts to challenge the notion his Thunder teams ever held the requisite talent to compete in an always-loaded Western Conference. Burner account nonsense aside, I can’t say he’s wrong. Life After Harden found Presti and his staff expecting the likes of Thabo Sefolosha and Derek Fisher to play integral roles on a championship contender. Serge Ibaka magically started becoming worse at basketball. The Great Perry Jones Experiment unfortunately did not work. Scott Brooks refused to bench Kendrick Perkins! Durant and Westbrook themselves got hurt, and at the absolute worst possible times. Can’t lie, they seemed snakebitten. And until they do right by James, everything they touch just might fail.
I write this essay for two particular reasons.
First — and foremost — it’s due time I acknowledge that James Harden, professional basketball player, deserves this year’s Most Valuable Player award.
(And that he probably deserved last year’s, too. And Steph’s first one, maybe.)
Whatever. He’s elite. Seeing what he did to Wesley Johnson last week — that crossover, that stare, the fact his shot went straight through the rim — was like evil poetry. Sure it might've been soulless, but it still had soul.
This season has been the James Harden Revenge Tour, and while I’m still slightly skeptical he’ll remain the Human Torch throughout the playoffs, I’ll no longer front like watching him score 40 at minimum once per week has zero entertainment or aesthetic value. Even as he and his Rockets maintain a half-game lead for the top seed in the Western Conference playoffs, I’m still hesitant to pronounce they can actually win the conference, let alone the whole tournament. But I do believe they can threaten my Warriors. And in spite of constantly dismissing any and all critiques of the Dubs as overreactions, I’ve definitely been harboring a few of my own. For instance:
*whispers* I think this is the shakiest iteration of the Dubs since their first championship run…
*whispers even lower* …and it’s partially Kevin Durant’s fault.
Am I crazy? Hear me out: a generational talent — one of the greatest offensive weapons ever — joins a 73-win team aiming to fit into a system whose gravity requires the specific shooting talents of one Stephen Curry. Except, Kevin Durant, one of the greatest offensive weapons ever, is too damn good at scoring the basketball to be subsumed by anybody’s gravitational pull. I don’t have the right analogy, but I do know he doesn’t quite belong. I’m aware Kevin left Oklahoma City in part because of the Thunder’s offensive schemes; far too often, he was either left to create something out of nothing via isolation-heavy sets or at the mercy of Russell’s (frequently questionable) impulses. But — and I’m sure other Thunder observers from that era would agree — there was a certain comfort in Kevin Durant having the basketball. We’d grown to learn that if our coaches weren’t going to innovate their offenses any, at least Kevin Durant would bail us out.
Now? He’s the most talented player on a team that’ll never belong to him — sort-of forced to quell his own selfish tendencies, tendencies that don’t necessarily jibe with the Warriors’ "everybody eats" ethos. Nearly two years in, it’s still strange seeing him not in those hideous Thunder jerseys. I never begrudged the decision as either a life or professional choice, but this Dubs’ season specifically has too often felt disjointed, and Durant — the most qualified to serve as that steadying force on both ends of the floor — has seemed to reluctant to accept that responsibility, likely still searching for the balance of joining an already-established pecking order while wrestling with the fact that he’s Kevin Durant and can score essentially whenever he feels. Just the other night, Steph led Golden State on a 25-0 run in the first quarter against the Brooklyn Nets. Charged with simply maintaining that lead, the Durant-led group that started the second quarter lost that cushion almost immediately. To you, dear reader, that’s probably a small sample size of one. I, on the other hand, have seen an inordinate amount of Golden State's games this year, and I’m here to witness that Durant-led Dubs groups have been extremely uninspired and uninspiring. Steph undeniably raises the offensive ceiling of that team; on nights he’s unavailable, the Warriors are liable to score 84 against Memphis. Don’t get me wrong: I’d much rather have Kevin Durant playing for my favorite team, and that’s a privilege I’ve enjoyed for nearly a decade. But Durant’s NBA origin story is far more compelling than his current narrative, because Kevin Durant is too talented to be anyone's bit player.
This, I suppose, is a perfect segue to my second point.
I wish Kevin Durant hadn’t left Oklahoma City. Or, maybe I wish he hadn’t chosen Golden State as his destination. Again, totally understand the decision, and I’ll never question a grown-up on the decisions he or she makes. But in trying to fit-in — in trying to unlock other parts of his game — there’s certainly been diminishing returns at times on his scoring impact. Kevin used to exist on a team where he was the only offensive option plenty of nights; now, he’s the third-best shooter on his team. The peripheral talent might’ve been inferior, but you never saw hesitation in Durant’s game while he played for the Thunder. He understood that team’s offensive output often began and ended with him, and he made an inefficient offense potent simply by being on the court. Now, he’s frequently overpassing, punting on his own open looks to set-up folks like Draymond Green for three-pointers. Come on, Kev. Let’s be smarter about this. Feel free to blame fatigue or disinterest. I myself am seeing a pure scorer trying very hard to be something he’s never been before, and it’s frequently awkward to watch.
I know I’m being a bitter old fan, and part of me wonders whether their breakup was inevitable anyhow: three type-A personalities who are best when controlling the basketball themselves. As we’re learning about Kevin specifically, he might be much more type-B, just with type-A talent: skills too great to not feature, but without the personality of someone craving the attention. Now the undisputed franchise players of their respective teams, James and Russell have proven up to the task, but neither has experienced much postseason success on their own, and with both teams restocking their rosters since last July in hopes of threatening Golden State, it’s easy — and a little painful — to imagine Oklahoma City’s original Big Three enjoying the fledgling dynasty Durant (rightly) believed he could help build in Oakland.
Signing James Harden to that max contract extension way back in 2012 doesn’t guarantee anything for the Thunder, no. Perhaps teams begin constructing their rosters with an eye on beating the Thunder each year, and maybe Harden accepts his role as the third-wheel a bit too much, never developing the killer instinct and overall offensive game that’s made him a monster for Houston. But there’s no doubt that Harden gets better. The Thunder’s management threw in the towel far too soon.
And so, I have to hate Sam Presti, right? I feel jilted by the Thunder the exact same way I felt once the Pistons traded Chauncey, betrayed by front offices too smart for their own good. At this point, Presti needs to win a championship for his own legacy, lest he be remembered as the guy who drafted 3 MVPs who weren’t able to win a title for his team.
Organizations do win championships, after all. Word to Jerry Krause.
(And at least Krause won 6 (!) titles before he blew it all up.)
I’m right back to where I started. I’ll never get over this trade. I dislike Sam Presti, very much. At least I didn't say the h-word.