"Knowing that the future is coming," the Thunder's general manager said, "we are incredibly excited about that because it is an opportunity for us to keep him in Oklahoma City, a Hall-of-Fame player, a legacy player."
Presti stopped himself.
"I should say, a legacy person, in Oklahoma," he said. "But those are conversations for another day."
That day is finally here. Presti and the Thunder will meet with Durant at an undisclosed location in Oklahoma City on Thursday, the first of six scheduled free-agency meetings for the former MVP.
Presti, though, has been preparing for this day for five years. He sees it as the Thunder's big chance to cement something truly special, to continue the march forward of a fairly remarkable run in an unlikely market.
Presti bristles at the notion that every move since Durant inked a five-year extension in 2011 has been made with this day in mind, but he certainly has been, as he likes to call it, strategically planning for it. Because the whole structure of the organization is kind of riding on it. The Thunder's plan to re-sign Durant is quite simple: build an organization so good it reflects a player of his caliber, and one so good he wouldn't want to leave. And have it peeking at the same time he hits the open market.
"We have the opportunity to sit down with him and talk about what looks like an incredibly bright future together," Presti said three weeks ago. "I think you have to embrace that. You have to really lean into that in an excited way without knowing what the outcome might be. I don't see any reason to shy away from that."
The plan to re-sign Durant kicked into action in the fall of 2012, when Presti pulled the trigger on a stunner: sending James Harden to the Houston Rockets. Yes, really. That trade had as much to do with re-signing Durant as it did anything else. The return appeared underwhelming: a year of Kevin Martin, rookie Jeremy Lamb and a couple of picks, one of which was likely to land in the lottery. But in the 2012 NBA landscape, financial realities were going to hit the Thunder at a very bad time. They'd be luxury-tax repeaters in the summer of 2016 -- and operating in one of the smallest markets in professional sports. That wasn't reasonable. Rather than being positioned to add to their core, they'd be subtracting from it and trying to find veteran replacements on the cheap. Instead, they finished this past season with the third-highest payroll in the league. And, according to team sources, they have plenty of cash stashed away to keep on paying.
The Harden trade has been widely panned, but the Thunder lean on the facts: Since making the move, they've won more games than any team in the NBA other than the Spurs. They've won as many playoff series than anyone other than the Heat. They appeared in two conference finals, with the two seasons they missed being derailed by Russell Westbrook's knee injury and Durant's foot injury. They lost a star in Harden, the Thunder say, but they didn't lose a step as an organization.
Four years later, Durant is only now entering his prime. He's 27, and he will turn 28 in September. Eleven of the past 13 MVPs didn't win a championship before turning 27. Karl Malone was 33 when he made his first Finals appearance. Michael Jordan won his first title at 28 and his last at 35. There's a narrative that Durant hasn't been able to get it done in OKC, so he needs to move somewhere that he can. The reality is, he has done more at the age of 27 than a wide swath of NBA legends. He's only now about to enter the sweet spot of his career.
That's the Thunder's plan in a nutshell. That's what they'll hammer home Thursday when they meet with him. They see their best days ahead of them. They have a roster stocked with former lottery picks and a core rotation all under age 28. They've replenished the roster that featured Kendrick Perkins, Thabo Sefolosha, Derek Fisher and Hasheem Thabeet to now have Steven Adams, Andre Roberson, Victor Oladipo and Enes Kanter -- all of whom are under age 25.
The idea was to let a young core develop and grow and then resupply that core with more developing youth on the back end. Presti calls this "sustainable success," an often-mocked catchphrase that is as often misunderstood. To the Thunder, sustainable success doesn't mean being simply competitive every season. It means trying to win a championship every season.
It's why Presti shuffled off core member Serge Ibaka to acquire Oladipo and No. 11 pick Domantas Sabonis. Presti is fearless, and he was firm in believing that making a trade that supported the organization's core values would be well received by Durant. And it was. Durant called it a "good move" publicly, but behind the scenes has raved to friends about Oladipo. Plus they're still exploring other ways to tweak the team as, according to ESPN's Brian Windhorst, they're after Al Horford.
The other big move: Presti fired coach Scott Brooks last summer, opting for Billy Donovan to usher in a new era. Presti wanted to give Durant a year to learn Donovan and adjust to his coaching style. Durant built a strong connection with Donovan through the season, with those close to him saying he was impressed not only with his management of the team during the Thunder's postseason run but also his leadership during a 4-8 stretch following the All-Star break in which the organization was hit with different tragedies. Durant strongly believes coaching matters and has long wanted his own Pop, envying the Gregg Popovich/Tim Duncan type of relationship with a coach. Donovan is just 51, and according to multiple sources, the Spurs had tabbed Donovan as a possible successor in 2014 when Pop was reportedly considering retirement. So if Durant wants his Pop, he might already have him.
Then there's Westbrook, the Thunder's best recruiting tool. Durant's relationship with his All-Star teammate is one of depth and friendship, but it's also practical. There aren't many better players in the league Durant could team up with. If he were a free agent from, say, the Bucks, the Thunder would be an attractive team with which to sign. Mainly because of Westbrook. A 27-year-old superstar who is just now hitting the peak of his powers. Of course, Westbrook is a free agent next summer, and should Durant take a one-year deal, he could align with Westbrook and go somewhere together, or at least make a combo decision. But there's a strong belief within the organization that Westbrook isn't going anywhere in 2017. Oklahoma City just needs No. 35 back to keep it rolling forward.
The Thunder get to talk to Durant before anyone else, and Presti will lay out the vision. How the Thunder have a roster with upside, not one with aging veterans. How more time with Donovan will equal more evolution. How there's a pipeline of talent sustaining the roster. How almost everyone else angling to sign him will have to subtract while OKC is adding. Because in Presti's mind, the past isn't only going to re-sign Durant.
The promise of a bright future will.