When the Oklahoma City Thunder face off against the Houston Rockets in the first round of the NBA Playoffs most of the focus will be on each team’s MVP candidate. Most media outlets will boil the series down to what they perceive as its most basic, most fundamental, “Westbrook vs. Harden”. However, the Beard and the Brodie would not be ensconced in this fight for the league’s highest individual honor were it not for the vision possessed by Oklahoma City’s general manager, Sam Presti.
On the court, Harden and Westbrook will serve as the embodiment of the struggle. This series is just as much a game of chess between Sam Presti, and his opposite number in Houston, Daryl Morey.
Both Presti and Morey are nearing the 10-year mark in their respective tenures. They were hired less than a month apart in the late Spring of 2007. Yet despite success on both sides of the Red River, Oklahoma City and Houston have only squared off in the playoffs once before.
In the 2012–2013 NBA Playoffs the Thunder faced off against former teammate James Harden and his new team, the Rockets. OKC had a commanding lead, when Patrick Beverly and Russell Westbrook collided, tearing Russell’s meniscus, and ultimately ending OKC’s championship aspirations that season. The Thunder still put away the Rockets in 6 games, but were dispatched themselves by the Memphis Grizzlies in the next round.
There are only two players on OKC’s roster that were with the team during that playoff series against the Rockets, Russell Westbrook, and veteran big-man Nick Collison. Scott Brooks, the Thunder’s coach at the time is now drawing up plays for The Washington Wizards. A lot has changed in OKC, but Presti and his Hall of Fame point guard Westbrook have provided a sense of stability in the wake of seismic roster shake-ups.
Lee Jenkins, NBA writer extraordinaire, recently wrote what is perhaps the definitive piece on Presti. In which he detailed not only Presti’s rise to prominence in NBA circles, but also his holistic approach to creating a world-class organization and a winning culture. Jenkins’ piece also chronicled the disappointment and adversity faced by the organization after Kevin Durant defected to Golden State last July.
Jenkins quotes Presti talking about the mood after Durant’s departure. “We knew from our history that the only way forward was to advance, to use our values as a launching point, to continue to create our future.”
On paper the Thunder and the Rockets look similar, except for the disparate 3-point-shooting numbers. Both teams rely on guards with previously unfathomable statistics/usage rates/workloads as the fulcrum of their offense. Both MVP candidates are flanked by a cadre of young players with upside, veterans on discounts, and savvy trade acquisitions. Morey and Presti have produced fairly similar teams, despite having drastically different ways of approaching the task.
Morey is a legend in stat-loving circles in the sports world. Morey has a degree in computer science with an emphasis in statistics from Northwestern, and a MBA degree from the MIT Sloan School of Management. Before getting his first front office gig, Morey worked as a statistician for STATS, Inc. and The Parthenon Group. His page long Wikipedia article mentions Moneyball and Michael Lewis no less than three times.
“Moreyball” as it has come to be known in Houston and throughout the basketball community has produced results. The Rockets have not had a losing season in the decade since Morey began calling the shots.
Presti’s path was a little different. While not a stat hating luddite by any means, (in fact, Presti has OKC on the cutting edge of many technological advances in data capturing). Presti graduated from Emerson College in Boston where he played D-III basketball and studied communications, politics, and law.
Presti’s path was paved not with probabilities but with people. From the kids he fell in with in high school, to his college journey. From the time he was an underpaid intern sleeping in the Spurs training facility to his current standing as one of the most respected executives in sports, Sam Presti makes meaningful impacts on the people he interacts with, and they too seem to make a meaningful impact on Sam.
“You know how long my interview was for this job?” Billy Donovan, the Thunder’s head coach asked in Lee Jenkins piece. “Ten hours. Sam is going to turn over every rock, flip it around and study it from every angle. You take comfort in that level of preparation.”
Jenkins goes on to write. “In the NCAA tournament last month, Presti drove with scouts to the subregional site in Tulsa, playing deejay in the car and queuing up everything from Bob Dylan to Sly & the Family Stone.”
This season, more than ever before, Presti and the Thunder’s ‘farm system’ has been on display. With Durant gone, the team had to refocus and that meant re-tooling with young players who could grow into their roles.
Rookie big-man and NBA legacy Domantas Sabonis was taken in the first round and showed promise, starting in over 60 games this year. Fellow rookie Alex Abrines, in his first year since coming over from Spain, set a franchise record for 3’s made in a season by a rookie (breaking a record previously held by James Harden.)
Even Josh Huestis, who has been developing for the last few seasons in the Thunder’s D-League squad showed some flashes. Huestis who had been the butt of a lot of jokes around the league (many doubting what Presti saw in the Stanford product who was projected to go undrafted before Presti and the Thunder drafted him in the first round) impressed in OKC’s regular season finale tallying 7 points, 5 rebounds, 2 assists and 3 blocks.
Presti doesn’t just show love to his star players, or even the guys on the NBA roster. Jenkins writes, “He [Presti] spent a mid-winter weekend on the Road in South Dakota with the Thunder’s D-League affiliate, the Blue, at their Best Western in Sioux Falls. ‘Ask me anything’, Presti told the players over dinner, his treat.”
The follow passage from the Jenkins article is particularly telling of Presti’s character:
When Durant left, Presti did not seek sympathy from peers. His first instinct was to call students he met in the group with real problems, like former John Marshall football players Keyshawn Shells and Marco Grier, who were in a car accident that killed a friend. “When I run into difficult situations,” Presti says, “those are the guys I find myself communicating with.” Another is Tyler Zander, a basketball player from Chisholm High, whose leg had to be amputated six years ago after it was caught in a grain auger.
“Sam walked into my hospital room and I was like, ‘Man, this is really cool, the GM of the Thunder came to see me,’” Zander remembers. “I thought that would be it. But then he kept texting every couple weeks, and he still hasn’t stopped. What I’ve come to realize about Sam is that he truly believes he can learn from everybody in some way.”
Sam Presti isn’t just the GM of the Oklahoma City Thunder, in many ways he IS the Thunder, well… he and Russell Westbrook. But there wouldn’t be a Russell Westbrook, getting triple-doubles at will and leave a trail of devastation throughout the entire league, if Sam Presti hadn’t taken a chance on a defensive minded, enigmatic combo guard from UCLA. “I like this kid’s story.” Presti is rumored to have said of Westbrook on draft-night, and the rest as they say is history.
Other than the stylish glasses, it’s hard to imagine what Presti and Westbrook might have in common. They are different ages, different ethnicities, and from opposite sides of the country. But the more you look at the two, the more you see the similarities.
Presti is notoriously meticulous, between the marathon interview sessions with coaches, conducting exit interviews with every member of the organization.
As Jenkins says, “He [Presti] constructed a buttoned-down franchise that embodied the order he lacked as a kid, lawn at the facility meticulously mowed, labels on organic juice bottles forever facing out.”
Jenkins also wrote an extensive piece in October that detailed the person behind the persona that is Russell Westbrook.
Weaver, in another cross-sport comparison, likens the Thunder to the St. Louis Cardinals. Players are protected and eccentricities embraced. Take Westbrook, for instance, who has his own shower, his own parking spot and his own massage table (marked by a pair of sandals) at the training facility. He is not an isolationist. He is a neat freak, shunning tattoos and piercings, chiding rookie Josh Huestis for a messy locker (“We keep it clean here”) and Adams for untied shoes. When posing for a picture with his coach, Billy Donovan, he ensures that Donovan is holding the basketball so the logo points toward the camera
Some of the ways that members of the OKC staff talk about Westbrook could just as easily be about Presti, and it’s not just the meticulous nature that they share. Both show a sentimentality and a focus on people that seems almost archaic in the modern professional sports landscape where over and over we are told that ‘It’s just a business.’
Jenkins relates the story of Westbrook and Thunder sideline reporter, Leslie McCaslin.
During nationally televised games Westbrook can come across as chilly in his sideline interviews. But on local broadcasts his demeanor is much warmer, which is no coincidence. In 2012, Thunder sideline reporter Lesley McCaslin challenged Westbrook on his clipped answers. “I have to ask you these questions,” McCaslin said, “and you’ve got to help me out.”
Westbrook will never be a garrulous speaker, but he respected McCaslin’s candor. During the playoffs last spring McCaslin was pregnant, and Westbrook pestered her about when she was starting maternity leave. She didn’t understand why he was so interested. Finally, after a flight from San Antonio to Oklahoma City, Westbrook led McCaslin through the airport parking lot and popped the trunk of his car. Inside was a Maclaren stroller. “He’s more human than people would ever think,” McCaslin says.
Westbrook’s “humanity’ isn’t by accident. With him and Sam Presti nothing ever happens on accident.
For the past several years Westbrook has been studying film, not just of the the game, but of himself. Learning how to alter his body language and become a better leader both on and off the floor.
“He blasts me all the time because I’m fine with it.” Steven Adams, Thunder center said. But Westbrooks style of communication differs from person to person and situation to situation.
In a recent article for the Player’s Tribune, OKC’s sixth-man of the year candidate Enes Kanter wrote at length about Westbrook’s leadership, and his sensitivity.
Kanter, broke his arm punching a chair in frustration in a game in late January against the lowly Dallas Mavericks.
Rather than get upset or berate the Turkish center, Westbrook was, as Kanter himself put it, “…just very calm, and very warm. I can tell he is sad for me but not so much mad.”
A few paragraphs later, Kanter talks more about Westbrook’s reaction to the injury news when he writes, “I think that Russell is just trying to let our guys know, you know, very clearly: Enes is sorry, and he’s an important part of our team. So let’s support him, and get him back as soon as possible — and that’s it. End of discussion. And that was huge for me. But that’s just Russ.”
But it’s not just Russ. It’s Sam too.
Donnie Strack, OKC’s director of medical services remembers a meeting he had with Presti shortly after Kanter’s injury in which the Thunder’s GM let Strack know with no uncertain terms that Kanter wasn’t to be given a hard time about the unfortunate chair punching incident.
Strack recounts, “The day Enes started basketball workouts, Sam was out on the court, clapping him along.” Citing the culture in the Thunder organization as a huge help to Kanter’s recover, Strack went on to say “Enes came back four weeks after surgery for a fractured ulna. That doesn’t happen.”
Morey isn’t Presti’s antithesis, but his statistically driven approach to management varies greatly from the humanistic approach that Presti practices on the plains of Oklahoma.
Wikipedia is largely inconsistent and the caliber of the content is drastically different from article to article, but the following tidbit while perhaps more entertaining than informative serves largely to illustrate the differences in the styles of leadership found in Houston vs. OKC.
On Daryl Morey’s Wikipedia page, 5 other individuals are mentioned. Including Michael Lewis, the author of Moneyball. On Presti’s page, which is slightly shorter than Morey’s, no fewer than 20 individuals are named.
Morey lead his team to this point by focusing on the numbers, Presti got here by focusing on people.
“The secret of basketball is that it’s not about basketball.” Isiah Thomas told Bill Simmons in Simmons’ classic, The Book of Basketball
Right now, Sam Presti, Russell Westbrook, and the Oklahoma City Thunder seem like despite all the ups-and-downs of the last 12 months, they have that secret figured out.