On Oct. 26, 2012, Sam Presti's reputation was nearly impeccable: a boy-wonder general manager who had built a roster methodically through selective drafting and shrewd, opportunistic trades.
Then, a day later, he traded James Harden to the Rockets, opting to create flexibility for the future (and avoid the dreaded repeater tax) when Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook would become free agents.
At the time, most people were somewhat split on the deal. Harden wasn't the superstar MVP candidate that he is now, was coming off a disastrous performance in the NBA Finals and, while he had publicly said all the right things about sacrifice, was painting a much different picture behind closed doors about his desired role.
Now, anytime Harden drops 40 -- as he does often -- there are always a few people who can't help but call back to that deal. How could Presti trade that guy? If Harden wins the MVP for this season, and he very well might, Presti might want to buy a cabin in Montana with no Internet connection for the next few months.
In ESPN.com's general manager rankings, which posted today, Presti came in tied for seventh, which is a respectable place among 30 people. But he finished third in last year's rankings. And look at some of the names in front of him this year: Daryl Morey, Neil Olshey, Bob Myers, whoever is running the Hawks. Add up the number of playoff series won among that group and you get a total of three, all in the first round. Presti's Thunder have been to three conference finals and one NBA Finals in the last four seasons.
In ESPN.com's overall front-office rankings, the Thunder came in 13th, behind the Warriors, Rockets, Trail Blazers, Hawks, Bulls, Pacers and Raptors. Over the last five seasons, the Thunder have 271 wins. The next-closest team among that group has 246 (the Bulls). Those seven teams have combined to win 10 playoff series the past four seasons. The Thunder have won eight.
How can a GM who has guided a team from a 3-29 start six years ago to perennial contention slip like that? The explanation seems pretty obvious: The Harden trade has a special kind of stink that Presti just can't wash off, no matter how much continued success the Thunder actually have.
The narrative around Presti and the Thunder is that the decision to trade Harden signaled their downfall, a prioritization of money over hardware. A team with the potential to build a dynasty has failed to fulfill expectations.
All of that would be completely fair, if not for one thing: The Thunder have been damn good since trading Harden. No, they haven't won a championship, and the reasons should be obvious, though those are often conveniently ignored: Russell Westbrook's meniscus, Serge Ibaka's calf, and now Kevin Durant's foot. It's impossible to know what the Thunder might have accomplished post-Harden without those unlucky breaks. It's also impossible to know if they would've accomplished anything with Harden either.
This has left Presti's plan extremely misunderstood. It was once the talk of the league, with every new GM trying to mimic the sustainable blueprint. What's lost in the never-ending discussion around the Harden trade, behind the sweeping takes about cheap ownership or whatever else, is that the Thunder had a pretty good reason to make the move. If the Thunder had re-signed Harden to a maximum level contract, they would've been headed for repeater tax territory in 2016-17, the year they'll need to re-sign Durant, and the year after Westbrook and Ibaka will be seeking new deals. (Of course, now this is a bit different, with the rising salary cap. Too bad Presti couldn't see the future.)
So Presti essentially did this: He bet on the futures of Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant to be good enough to take what would've likely been a five-year window, to try turn it into a 10-year one (or longer). A gamble, no question, and one that hasn't paid off yet.
What the Thunder got in return for Harden clearly doesn't equal the player they gave up (though Steven Adams is a good player, and Mitch McGary has been solid as a rookie), but the overlooked piece they also landed was flexibility. And that flexibility is what enabled Presti to make two different trades this season that have rounded this Thunder roster into their deepest ever. Presti landed Dion Waiters for Lance Thomas and a heavily protected first-round pick, and then got Enes Kanter, D.J. Augustin, Kyle Singler and Steve Novak for a player who wasn't in OKC's long-term plans (Kendrick Perkins) and a player who didn't want to be in its long-term plans (Reggie Jackson).
Some have seen Presti being aggressive this deadline as a knee-jerk reaction to try to send a message to 2016 Durant. But OKC's plan has never been to staunchly avoid the luxury-tax forever. They've just withheld splurging on other pieces until Durant and Westbrook were nearing their primes (they're 26 now). Obviously, that coincides with their future free agencies, but it's also by design. The Thunder have been contending for four years now, redefining their own expectations along the way. Think about this: The Thunder's average age is 25.5 years old, giving them the sixth-youngest roster in the league. That's younger that the Timberwolves.
Is a core of Westbrook, Durant, Ibaka, Kanter, Adams and Waiters better than a top-heavy trio of Westbrook, Durant and Harden? What the Thunder have been criticized so heavily for is actually their greatest asset. They're built to sustain, built to absorb. Re-signing Harden would've given them an incredible core of four All-Star level players under the age of 25. But it also would've handcuffed them financially, as their depth eventually evaporated piece by piece. It might have resulted in a title along the way. Or it might not have.
Of course, the new plan hinges on Presti's ability to re-sign those core pieces. Kanter is first on the docket, and the Thunder have every expectation of keeping him this summer. Because they were selective the last three summers with cap space -- some labeled that as "cheap" -- the Thunder can throw a significant offer sheet at Kanter, a player who has been an offensive revelation thus far .
Then it's Durant in 2016, and if he walks, this all falls apart and those previous choices will be appropriately scrutinized.
But let's assume that Durant re-ups with the Thunder in 2016. They're looking at a decade (or more) of title contention. And that's not just being good, but legitimate, year-to-year chances at championships. Some years things might align. And some years there's a torn meniscus, or pulled calf muscle, or broken foot to derail things. So far, things haven't lined up.
And until it does, Presti will carry the reputation of the guy who traded James Harden, rather than the guy who has an incredibly impressive body of work building a sustainable contender from scratch.