Sam Presti and the Struggle of a Small Market GM

Liam McKeone

Sam Presti does not have an easy job. NBA general managers do make a lot of money, but that doesn’t change the difficulty of their responsibilities. Trying to pair the right players together, keeping a finger on the pulse of the league and where it will go next, all while being prepared to seize opportunities that pop up one instant and disappear the next. They have to strike a delicate balancing act with the demands of the owner, the coaches, and the players themselves, attempting to win in the meantime.

These problems are generally compounded for small-market teams. In his own op-ed for The Oklahoman the morning before he spoke to the press for the first time since trading both Paul George and Russell Westbrook, Presti articulated the struggles that come with operating in a city like OKC instead of NYC:

"Despite our city’s rapid rise and growth, Oklahoma City remains the second-smallest market in the NBA. While this brings many benefits, it also poses strategic challenges. Given the way the league’s system is designed, small market teams operate with significant disadvantages. There is no reason to pretend otherwise. This in no way means we cannot be extraordinarily successful — we, and several other small to mid-market teams, are our own best examples of the ability to overcome these realities. It simply means we must be thinking differently, optimistically, finding our advantages by other means."

As Presti stated, his franchise is a prime example of how simply being smarter than other teams and consistently making the right decision will lead to success, small market be damned. But here’s the thing: they’re also the poster child for why small market teams might feel like they should abandon all hope when faced with the draw of Los Angeles or New York in an era filled with more player movement and power than ever before.

The only major mistake Presti has made in his time as the GM of the Thunder was trading James Harden. Yes, it was a gigantic mistake, and shouldn’t simply be brushed aside. But one truly bad decision in over a decade at the helm is still a great track record. He missed on late first-round picks like every team in the league does (other than San Antonio, the exception to everything in this article). He did, and still does, have a fascination for athletic wings who can’t shoot worth a damn. But the circumstances that led to the Thunder’s current state weren’t completely within his control.

Kevin Durant, as enigmatic a superstar as we’ve ever seen, became a free agent in the midst of the biggest cap spike in league history and ended up forming a super-team of unprecedented star power. Presti pivoted by trading away Serge Ibaka for two young talents who looked ready to contribute in Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis. As it turns out, they weren’t. So he flipped them to Indiana for another legitimate superstar named Paul George.

He took Durant’s departure in stride and gave Westbrook another star while rounding out the rotation with hard-nosed defenders and helped develop Steven Adams into a top-10 center. The Thunder were then eliminated in the first round two years in a row, the most recent of which came on a preposterous 35-foot step-back three. George saw an opening to join a successful team in LA with Kawhi Leonard’s free agency and asked to get traded, which led to Westbrook’s departure.

Sure, there were a good amount of minor decisions that, if he could, Presti would change. His team-building strategy wasn’t perfect. But how can any small-market team feel good about their chances of keeping a star after watching Presti do nearly everything right to keep his superstars happy, only to watch it all collapse under the bright lights of a bigger city?

Small market teams will always be at some level of disadvantage; it’s merely the nature of society, as the draw of living a wealthy life in glass metropolises will always appeal to people. It’s only magnified with how the landscape of the league looks today. But if Leonard and George’s situation is any indication, these small-market teams can no longer be both lucky and good. They have to be lucky and perfect, otherwise they’re back where they started. That’s a tall order.