Sam Presti And The Dangers Of Diminishing Returns

Ever since taking the decision to blow up the Paul George-led incarnation of his team in the summer of 2019, Oklahoma City Thunder general manager Sam Presti has been focused on a hardcore strategy of asset accumulation. And boy, has he accumulated a lot of assets.

Deals of George, Jerami Grant and Russell Westbrook that summer jump-started a huge stockpile of future draft picks from other teams, one that continued the following summer when Chris Paul – whom they had been paid with draft picks to take on – redeem his value enough to return a valuable yield of his own. These big deals combined with working the margins on smaller ones and using their substantial salary cap space to take on ‘bad’ contracts from other teams with draft assets attached as payment was so successful that at one point, the Thunder owned as many as 22 draft picks from other teams, plus almost all of their own.

That, simply, is an unprecedented amount. Not even the Sam Hinkie-era “Process” in Philadelphia got to that level.

However, no matter how many draft picks a team has, their roster does not get any bigger. A regular season roster is still limited to 15 players, plus up to two two-way deals, and it has been that way for years.

22 into 17 does not fit, let alone 22 plus their own picks plus their incumbent talents plus any free agency signings plus future trade possibilities plus the coveted Vasilije Micic. The Thunder, then, will at some point need to get into the business of buying and selling.

The threat of a looming roster crunch for the Thunder is nothing new, yet it may have gone from being a potential problem down the road to something that is already taking effect. Consider for example the two trades they have made this week; the first involving the acquisition of yet another draft pick in a financially-motivated deal with the Atlanta Hawks, the second being the hugely-intricate eight-player deal with the Houston Rockets.

In those deals, the Thunder receive an aggregate player total of Mo Harkless, David Nwaba, Sterling Brown, Trey Burke and Marquese Chriss. The five each have their uses, but also may never see a minute of game action with the Thunder between them. They were acquired so that they can be cut to create roster space.

Conversely, the aggregate player total sent out was Derrick Favors, Theo Maledon, Ty Jerome and Vit Krejci. And the latter three of those were supposed to be three of the young players that this rebuild was all about.

It is of course true that not all young players are created equal. Maledon in particular had had two years of fairly regular playing time with the team, yet had not done enough to show himself to be a regular NBA contributor, and while Krejci (as a playmaking forward and busy defender) and Jerome (as an extra passer and occasional shooter) both had some moments, neither was cracking a playoff rotation anywhere in the league any time soon, or perhaps ever. These were expendable young players, as was Isaiah Roby, a surprise waiving earlier in the offseason later claimed off waivers by the San Antonio Spurs.

However, be that as it may, the expendables were nevertheless expended with. They were once all parts of the asset accumulation strategy; Roby was a free salary-dumped gift from the Dallas Mavericks, Maledon’s rights had come along with Micic in the Al Horford trade, an as-yet-unconveyed 2024 second-round pick was traded for Krejci, and Jerome was the supposed redraft prospect gained in the Paul trade. None of the three have worked out, and because of the need to have the cuttable Rockets veterans instead, they have now all gone.

The major benefit – and, arguably, the purpose – of having so many draft picks is that they do not all have to hit, because in no way will they all do so. That has never happened and never will. The draft, by its very nature, is far too subjective. If Oklahoma City did not hit with these draft picks and redraft acquisitions, they can always get some more. They certainly have the assets to do so.

Nonetheless, players that the team would not have wanted or needed to part with were it not for the pressing need for roster space have now departed the team for nothing tangible on the court. Already, the diminishing returns from the plethora of picks is being realised. It has only been at a very minor level thus far, but it is nonetheless a foreshadowing of the dangers of quantity over quality. With Chet Holmgren’s injury, the Thunder’s timeline for Being Acceptably Near The Bottom just gained another season, yet if this means more trimming of what would not otherwise be considered fat just to meet the maximum roster size, it will at some point start to bite.

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