The Presti Dilemma, or the Perils of Premature Zealotry
A new NBA season dawns and it feels like a breath of fresh air. After an off-season of claustrophobic analysis done in a vaccum, we now get to actually see how it all plays out, and of course on the top of everyone’s mind right now is OKC and what will come of the trade of James Harden to the Rockets.
We are now two games in. Two otherworldly games in where James Harden took the favorable prognostications of the most analytically inclined and blew right past them. There is the urge to crow of course, although that runs plenty of risk in terms of prematurely asserting a conclusion based on poor sample size. What I’m more interested is the position and decision making of Sam Presti.
Presti has recently been the darling of the NBA’s GMs and understandably so. He sat on the knee of the Godfather of contemporary NBA team franchise building, Greg Popovich, and since moving to the Oklahoma City Thunder has had nothing but great success. He seems to have it all coming and going, and even if you foresee me quibbling with that diagnosis, I’m not going to say that’s terribly wrong.
What I note though is that Presti is currently, and will be for the foreseeable future, on the virtual hotseat for the decision to trade Harden, and I think that to the extent he made a mistake here, the mistake was made quite a while ago.
As Presti neared the time when a decision about re-signing Harden could be no longer put off, theoretically he had 3 choices:
1) Re-sign Harden to continue playing his current 6th man role.
2) Let Harden go.
3) Re-sign Harden and bump up the man’s primacy at the expense of others (ahem, Russell Westbrook).
In reality, this wasn’t much of a choice. Or rather, the difference between the first two choices is blown up out of proportion, and the risks involved with the third choice are so massive it’d be shocking if any GM would dare be so bold.
For the most part, serious observers who knock Presti right now due so because they feel he should have done what he could to keep the house together. They talk about not breaking up a core with great potential, etc. They do not spend so much time talking about the actual consequences of option #3. You might see some say they should have kept Harden instead of Westbrook, but when they do so they don’t talk in depth about what off-loading the max-contracted Westbrook would entail, which is a pretty dang huge detail to overlook.
This is important because I’d say anyone crucifying Presti based on taking option #2 instead of #1 is making a mountain out of a molehill. Seriously: Who when you only utilized a guy as a 6th man, how can you possibly argue that refusing a max contract to the guy is an unreasonable stance to take? One can certainly argue that they were already offering so much money that moving up to an actual Max Contract should have been an acceptable thing to swallow and knock Presti for inconsistency, but if we’re talking about what was truly the right approach arguments such as these are utterly irrelevant.
The reality is that most of us realize that it probably didn’t make sense to pay Harden max money to play 6th man, we just recognize that Harden was valuable in that role and could get max money elsewhere, so OKC should just DO IT! And that’s unfair. It’s understandable for a franchise to draw a fiscal line somewhere, and max-ish money for a 6th man is a pretty reasonable ‘somewhere’.
I would argue it’s also disingenuous because what really drives us armchair GMs to recoil at the notion of trading Harden is the idea that approach #3 might be the best way to go. Not that we’re sure of this, but it’s in our mind enough that we wouldn’t want to risk making a move that makes us (on our hypothetical franchise) unable to move in that direction should that prove to be the proper course of action.
I would say though that what makes our criticisms very relevant is the fact that as much as this concern colors our opinions on the subject, I don’t think Presti seriously considered entertaining option #3 at any point. Truly choosing Harden over Westbrook, how do you even do that? This would mean a complete change to the chemistry of the roster at the very least. Do we really think that Durant handles such an abrupt turn of events without concerns? Do we really think the process runs without negative effects to the actual roster chemistry if Presti were to pause long enough to try to get Durant on board?
The realities here are really ugly. So ugly in fact, that I could see Presti deciding it simply cleanest to make a move now before such messiness risked becoming inescapable.
So I have a lot of sympathy for Presti at this moment for doing a good job, but then getting painted into a corner and being faced with a dilemma for which there was no obvious way out. However, with this sympathy for the Presti of this moment should come a reflection on how this all came to be. After all: Isn’t it rather crazy that OKC was in such a difficult situation in part because they were unable to truly consider promoting the primacy of promising 23 year old?
The strategy of handing over a franchise to a rookie is not a new one. The Lakers did it with Mikan for God’s sake. Still though, I would say that with LeBron James‘ arrival in Cleveland, this process of anointing your franchise player before he was good enough to have earned such a role reached an entirely knew level. Never before had NBA teams literally let a guy straight out of high school use the ball like a prom queen when they knew full well this would cause problems.
The thing is, of course, the strategy hasn’t clearly been a flop. LeBron became amazing, so have others who have been in such a role. Others have failed, but one could argue that that too is a positive outcome: If they can’t be our franchise, better to find out quickly.
The devil, as it often is, is in the grayscale. What are the consequences for a guy who is not a flawless success but who still shows enough promise that a team continues on with him.
I would argue that the standard bearer for such a mediocrity is LeBron’s draftmate Carmelo Anthony. This was a player who never truly achieved star-level impact, but who provided a life-like enough facsimile of a rainmaker that no one involved with his franchise seriously considered pulling the plug on the project until he decided to leave town. However as a case study, this isn’t truly that interesting. It’s not as if pulling the plug would have resulted in astounding team success. Swapping him for an actual LeBron was not an option. To some degree the continued worship of Melo existed simply to keep a fanbase enthused. There isn’t anything terribly wrong with that.
Presti’s dilemma in Oklahoma City though is very, very interesting because it truly does raise the specter that a route toward true dynasty status was but one correct choice away, but that choice never really felt like an option to him due to the underlying context that had built up in a mere 3 years since Harden was drafted.
I look at this from the perspective of someone who watched Russell Westbrook at UCLA. There you had a “take nothing off the table” guy who did all the little things for his school. In the process, his aptitude and his athletic talent lifted his draft stock to the point that the Thunder took him with the #4 overall pick, but even at such a lofty draft status, there was no real reason to this meant the team had to use Westbrook in any particular way. However early on the Thunder seemed to commit to use Westbrook as a member of a 1-2 future-superstar duo with Kevin Durant. They played him huge minutes with big-time usage right from the get go, and hyped all the positives they saw.
This resulted in a situation where when Harden joined the team, they only truly ever saw him in terms of how he could fit in with the Big Two they had already decided on. To their credit, the Thunder picked Harden in the draft in no small part because of conversations they had had with him where he made clear how he would embrace such a role, which provided a marked contrast to the typical sort of player you could expect to be worthy of being the 3rd overall draft pick.
However I would say to their clear detriment: This also meant that they anointed Westbrook in a particular role which effectively precluded a true competition between Westbrook and Harden before Westbrook truly became competent enough in his job that the Thunder doubled down by throwing a max contract his way. And of course, once the Thunder had done this, changing horses midstream seems an absurdly risky choice to consider.
But how colossal a wasted an opportunity would it be, if Harden did prove to be the superior talent and the superior fit, and the Thunder lost him because of a decision that they made before they ever truly knew what his capabilities were? I think that is the lesson that everyone must take from what we’re seeing here, regardless of whether Harden continues on this blazing path down in Houston.
Well and good to say that any opportunity you give to a top prospect is an opportunity you don’t give to someone else. At some point you’ve simply got to commit to a path or you never get anywhere. Clearly though there has to be room for nuance. It’s not as if Westbrook was so successful at any point leading up to Harden’s departure that you could say it was crazy to think there might be a problem.
Referencing back to Westbrook’s UCLA days: Back then he was never a ball-dominant point guard. The Thunder ended up choosing to play him in that role despite his lack of prior experience in this realm, despite his obvious lack of natural shortcomings as a distributor, and despite the fact that they knew that their primary goal on offense would be to distribute the ball to uber-scorer Durant. Despite seeing problems along the way, the team chose not only to continue along this path, but to commit Max Contract money to Westbrook to play in this way before ever giving an even higher draft pick from the next year a chance to take this role better.
I would argue that such behavior is not something that would happen if you were solely concerned with actual basketball. The urge to put the stamp of approval on a player like Westbrook is not something that gets done simply based on an objective scouting mission but rather through a process that includes a large variety of egos and narratives. When in the end the man tasked with judging whether a Westbrook is a successful is the same man who will be judge for whether drafting Westbrook was a good move, there is going to be a natural inclination toward the rubber stamp of approval.
We see this more glaringly when talking about battles between decision makers, but it’s all the more frustrating when the same figure feeling a push to champion one of his moves ends up sacrificing another one of his moves in the process. Whether OKC had succeeded with Westbrook or with Harden, Presti would get praise, but because of a hasty urge to anoint any given decision as a correct one, there still ends up being a bias.
The moral, as it often is, is to be mindful of the telicity of any given move you make. It is not necessarily a bad thing to give a young player opportunity before he’s earned it strictly speaking, but when a decision geared toward exploration begins to narrow the range of possible routes of exploitation, this is something to push back against. Failure to do so can make adaptation to painful to honestly consider more quickly than you’d ever imagine.