BY JOHN ROHDE
Feb. 23, 2107
As Thursday’s 2 p.m. NBA trade deadline approached, it would have understandable if OKC Thunder general manager Sam Presti had decided to stand pat and allowed the remainder of the 2016-17 season to simply stay the course.
With the All-Star Break ending, the Thunder (32-25) held an 8-game lead for the final Western Conference playoff spot, a comfortable cushion ahead of a team that had just traded away its franchise player in DeMarcus Cousins. Just 3½ games out of the No. 4 spot with 25 regular-season games remaining, OKC also was in position to improve its first-round playoff chances considerably.
So Presti refused to stand pat.
Presti tried to stand pat five years ago, and with good reason. He simultaneously had three of today’s greatest players on the OKC roster in Kevin Durant (23 years old), Russell Westbrook (also 23) and James Harden (22), plus budding star Serge Ibaka (22). Presti also had an impatient bench warmer named Reggie Jackson (21).
Fresh off making the 2011-12 NBA Finals, a spry squad that coach Scott Brooks affectionately referred to as “Thunder U” was on the verge of becoming a powerhouse with the potential to win multiple championships.
Presti did everything within his power to stand pat and offered flattering rookie contact extensions to Harden and Ibaka.
Ibaka did what he could to keep the band together, accepting a non-escalating, three-year deal at $12.35 million per season. Meanwhile, Harden went all Yoko Ono.
After being named 2011-12 Sixth Man of the Year, Harden demanded a max contract extension. Up until that point, no sixth man in NBA history had ever been given a max deal. So Harden opted to bolt to the Houston Rockets, got his max contract and has been cashing in ever since.
Two years later, a perpetually pouty Jackson left the Thunder and got a max deal with the Detroit Pistons.
Three years later, Presti canned Brooks after he had to endure a season in which Durant missed 55 games with a foot injury.
Four years later, in an effort to appease Durant with a better supporting cast after coming within one victory of another NBA Finals, Presti this time refused to stand pat. He dealt Ibaka to the Orlando Magic for guard Victor Oladipo and promising rookie Domantas Sabonis. If Presti could sign free agent forward Al Horford, a presumably content Durant would gladly sign his third contract with the Thunder.
Instead, Durant surrendered his championship quest with the Thunder and chose to bum a ride with the 73-win Golden State Warriors, the team that had just ended OKC’s season by overcoming a 3-1 deficit in the Western Conference Finals.
Now, despite all of Presti’s efforts, only Westbrook and 36-year-old veteran Nick Collison remain enrolled at Thunder U.
The biggest reason Presti didn’t stand pat on Thursday was Westbrook.
One month to the day after Durant left OKC, Westbrook manned up and signed a three-year extension to remain with the Thunder. If Westbrook made that type of commitment under such trying circumstances, Presti owed it to Westbrook to never stand pat.
As he threatens to become the first player since Oscar Robertson in 1961-62 to average a triple-double, Westbrook deserved a better fate than to have his GM sit idly by and watch his superstar do his damnedest on his own.
And that, more than anything, is why Presti acquired forwards Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott and an unprotected 2018 second round draft pick from the Chicago Bulls in exchange for guards Cameron Payne and Anthony Morrow, plus forward Joffrey Lauvergne.
The deal undoubtedly helps the Thunder, which in turn helps Westbrook.
Good for Presti.