Sam Presti Proves His ‘Genius’ with the James Harden Trade

One of the unexpected joys of living in Southern California is that I’m constantly surrounded by people involved in sports. Everybody is located here, from coaches, athletes, players, trainers, to, well, you name it. For a sports nerd like me, living here is total nirvana; like giving a young musician an all-access pass to Coachella or something. You know, if the all-access pass was 24 hours a day, for 365 days a year.

Well, since I’ve gotten here, there has been this one guy that I’ve particularly enjoy hanging out with. I can’t give you his name, because unlike me he has a real job, with real responsibility and could get in real trouble if I ever put his name out in public (in the industry, I believe he’s what someone might call a “source.”). What I can tell you though is that the dude works at a major sports agency, with many major clients that you’ve definitely heard of. And the guy is plugged-in. He’s already told me a handful of epic stories that seemed to be too crazy to be true… until they were in fact proven true shortly after he shared them.

Anyway, he and I were grabbing beers and talking hoops one night when the topic of the Oklahoma City Thunder came up. Eventually Oklahoma City GM Sam Presti’s name arose and when it did, I will never forget the look on my buddy’s face. He stopped what he was doing, looked me square in the eye, got super-serious and said something to the effect:

“Dude, Sam Presti is a f***ing genius.

He’s got stuff planned out so far down the road you can’t even imagine.”

Those are some damn strong words, and I couldn’t help but think of them Saturday night after Presti made the boldest move of his career Saturday night, trading one of the league’s rising young stars in James Harden. More important than the player was the timing though, as it came just days before the Thunder were set to defend their Western Conference title.

It also led to the dismay of just about every NBA fan I knew, whose reactions were all pretty much universal: Wait, the Thunder traded James Harden?  Really? Why? Especially now?

Actually, if anything, the reaction to the trade was more surprising to me than the trade itself. After all, it’s one thing to question the move, but should anyone question a man who is basically batting .1000 when it comes to decisions like this? In the same way that John Calipari can evaluate high school basketball talent and Nick Saban is pretty good at coming up with a solid defensive game-plan, it seems pretty safe to say that Presti has the whole “evaluating basketball talent” thing down pretty pat.

Now granted, you can’t write the Presti biography without mentioning that he did get a pretty major break when Kevin Durant fell into his lap with the second pick of the 2007 NBA Draft. Believe me, I get that, and I will admit that sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good. That certainly the case when it comes to the relationship between Presti and Durant.

At the same time anyone can get lucky with a draft pick, but where Presti’s true genius lies has been in his ability to build a championship contender around Durant. It’s a game-plan that has practically been flawless since Durant became part of the organization five years ago, and one from which Presti never wavered.

In order, let’s remember the following things about Presti’s time as GM of this team:

– It was Presti who traded popular superstar Ray Allen just days before that 2007 draft and used a pick he acquired in the trade to take Jeff Green at No. 6 overall (oh, you forgot about Green, huh? We’ll get back to him in a minute).

– It was also Presti who defied common logic at the time and took Russell Westbrook with the No. 4 overall pick the following year, when most had Westbrook pegged as a later round lottery pick.

– In the same 2008 draft Presti also gambled on an unknown Congolese center named Serge Ibaka toward the end of the first round. At the time, Ibaka’s name was about as familiar to casual NBA fans as the term “ballin’ on a budget” is to Mitt Romney.

– And it was Presti who took another major chance drafting Harden in 2009, when most experts believed Tyreke Evans or Stephen Curry might fit in better with the Thunder’s roster.

Of course if you’ve followed the NBA even marginally over the last few years, you know that all those moves have worked out pretty well for Presti and the Thunder. With those five picks in three drafts, Presti built a young core of superstars that could rival anyone’s in the league, and eventually surrounded them with quality veterans like Nick Collison, Nazr Mohammed and Thabo Sefolosha. By the winter of 2011, the Oklahoma City Thunder were a legitimate title contender.

But then, right as the Thunder took on that role of major title contender, what did Presti do? Oh, nothing major. You know, other than break up the core of that young team by trading Jeff Green to Boston in February 2011.

Now with a little bit of hindsight on our side, that trade might not seem like a big deal. Only at the time it was huge. Enormous. Earth-shattering. One of those, “what the hell is he thinking, why would anyone take such a big chance” kind of moves which can make or break any General Manager’s career in any sport. At the time Green was playing at nearly an All-Star level (he was averaging 15 points and just under six boards at the time) and in a year where there were no truly great teams, Oklahoma City was right there as a true championship contender. And had the trade not worked out, it would’ve been Presti’s butt that was on the line.

Of course we also now know that in the end, trading Jeff Green was the best thing that could’ve ever happened to the Thunder. It gave Oklahoma City the extra big body they needed in the paint with the addition of Kendrick Perkins and allowed more playing time to open up in the backcourt for an emerging superstar named James Harden. You know, the same James Harden people are mad at Presti for trading this weekend.

Really though, more than the X’s and O’s what that Jeff Green trade proved was that at the end of the day, Sam Presti doesn’t care what you think. He’s going to make 100 percent of his decisions based on what are in the 100 percent interests of his basketball team. And if history has proven anything, it’s that Presti will be right. In a lot of ways he reminds me of that old episode of Seinfeld where Jerry claims that no matter what he does, he always ends up “Even Stephen.” Well, isn’t that Sam Presti in a nutshell? When Sam Presti trades one All-Star, doesn’t another just emerge from thin-air?

And I can’t help but think that the same thing will happen here. Sure you might not see it yet, but Sam Presti does. Remember, it’s like my buddy told me: “Presti has stuff planned out so far ahead, you can’t even imagine.” Looking at what Presti got in this trade from Houston, it’s not hard to see that.

For starters, it looks like Kevin Martin is going to fit into the “spark scorer role off the bench” Harden mastered last year. Sure, Martin isn’t quite as dynamic as Harden and probably won’t match the 17 points a game he averaged last year in Houston. At the same time, Martin seems like more than an adequate replacement for Harden the short-term, and if he doesn’t’ work out, well, he’s a free agent at the end of the year anyway. Martin isn’t the player that James Harden is, sure. But he’s not the commitment Harden would’ve been either.

More importantly, with Martin’s impending free agency, it also allows Oklahoma City to prepare the other part of this trade- Jeremy Lamb- for the same role after Martin leaves in free agency. Frankly, I’m thinking Lamb could end up as the most important puzzle piece Oklahoma City acquired in this trade.

Of course before we go any further, I do think it’s important for me to get one major caveat out of the way: As most of you know, I am a huge UConn fan, meaning that I’m probably not the best person to give an unbiased opinion on Lamb. If anything, I’m like an overzealous soccer mom ready to scream at any coach who doesn’t play him 40 minutes a game (Then again, I’m also more than happy to provide orange slices for the team at halftime and give a ride home to any player who might need one after practice).

At the same time I can also separate myself as a fan, put on my journalist hat here for a second, and tell you that in the research for my book two summers ago I didn’t meet anyone, from scouts to opposing college coaches to whoever that didn’t think Jeremy Lamb was going to be a damn good NBA player after a few years in the league. Sure he’ll probably never be a superstar, but Oklahoma City doesn’t need him to be. If the guy can average 16 or 18 points a game off the bench in a few years and be adequate defensively, I’m pretty sure Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka can handle the rest.

In addition, Lamb and the two first round picks Oklahoma City acquired allows them the flexibility that a long-term contract to Harden could’ve never provided. If Oklahoma City wants to make a major trade for a bigger name player they now have the pieces to do that, and if they want to stand pat and develop the remainder of their team organically, they can do that too. In the process this trade allows Oklahoma City to remain young, under the salary cap and a relevant title contender. Those are three things most NBA teams can’t claim right now.

Speaking of the salary cap, the more I read, the more I see a lot of NBA writers say that the Harden trade was strictly about making salary cap numbers work. CBS’s Ken Berger wrote about it. ESPN’s Brian Windhorst wrote about it. And a hundred other guys too (Also, if you didn’t read Adrian Wojnarowski’s blow-by-blow account of how the entire trade went down, do yourself a favor and check it out here).

Still, when I personally evaluate everything I know about Presti, I do wonder if this trade goes deeper than dollars, cents and luxury tax numbers, and to Presti’s evaluation of what Harden’s true value is. Simply put, I really do think that if Presti believed Harden was a max contract player, he would’ve given Harden a max contract. After all, Presti did it for Kevin Durant. He did it for Russell Westbrook. So if he Presti really did think Harden was on the level of those two, why wouldn’t he have done it for him too?

It also leads me to a relatively important question here: Are we sure James Harden is that good?

Now look, a couple things here. The first is that this rhetoric of “Harden is overrated, he sucked in the NBA playoffs,” is a little bit of simplistic thinking for my taste. Everyone has bad games and bad series’ and I’m sure that if you took a five-game sample size of just about any player in the NBA, you could find one as bad as Harden’s was in the NBA Finals. Yes the NBA Finals are the sport’s biggest stage. But let’s stop using them as the be-all, end-all to evaluate Harden’s worth here.

And while we’re on the subject, I don’t blame Houston one bit for trading for Harden either. Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey has long discussed how he believes it to be easier to acquire an All-Star caliber player through free agency or trade than it is through the draft. We also know that Morey had his fingertips on an All-Star in Pau Gasol before the Chris Paul trade fell through, and did everything in his power to acquire Dwight Howard this off-season before coming up short. Which means that for all intents and purposes, Harden provided Houston with their best opportunity to acquire an All-Star caliber player and sign him to a long-term extension.

Now, to the bigger question: Will Harden ever evolve into an All-Star caliber player? Frankly, it’s something I’m struggling with even 36 hours after the trade.

Because the more I reflect on what I know about James Harden, the more I wonder how much his success has been a byproduct of the system he’s been in, rather than the player he actually is. Since the day he came into the league, Harden has always had the benefit of playing with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, two pretty darn good players, who just so happen to make a lot of guys look better than they actually are (Jeff Green included).

So when it comes to Harden, how many of those open three-pointers he hit last year were courtesy of teams overcompensating with Durant on the perimeter? How many of the driving lanes Harden slashed down were courtesy of defenses who were more concerned with Westbrook? Most importantly, how many of those same looks will be there in Houston, a place where Jeremy Lin could literally be Harden’s best teammate?

We will find out.

But if you’re asking me whether I’m going to bet on the player with the All-Star potential, or the General Manager with the flawless track record, well, give me the latter.

It’s like my buddy told me: “Sam Presti is a f***ing genius.”

So far, Presti has given me no reason to think otherwise.

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About Aaron Torres

Aaron Torres works for Fox Sports, and was previously a best-selling author of the book 'The Unlikeliest Champion.' He currently uses Aaron Torres Sports to occasionally weigh-in on the biggest stories from around sports. He has previously done work for such outlets as Sports Illustrated, SB Nation and Slam Magazine.