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The Process is still alive in Oklahoma City, where the Thunder have all but opted out of NBA competition

·6 min read
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  • Russell Westbrook
    Russell Westbrook
    American basketball player
  • Sam Presti
    American basketball executive
  • James Harden
    James Harden
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On May 22, 2007, the Seattle SuperSonics hit the NBA draft lottery, lucking into their 9.7% chances of landing the No. 2 overall pick. Two weeks later, they hired 29-year-old Sam Presti as general manager, and three weeks after that, he made the most obvious of selections, drafting Kevin Durant behind Greg Oden.

Presti used his team's next two top-five picks on less obvious choices, Russell Westbrook and James Harden. In between, the beloved franchise moved to Oklahoma City, where their unprecedented collection of future league MVPs formed the foundation of a 55-win Western Conference finalist inside of two years.

They yielded a 2012 NBA Finals appearance before Presti dealt Harden for spare parts in a cost-cutting move to benefit Thunder ownership. Durant left at the end of his rookie contract extension, convinced the team no longer had the talent around him to contend for championships. Westbrook signed his supermax extension, only to be traded two years later, when the reality of OKC's middling future struck both sides.

Having stripped his roster to the studs, Presti is trying again at age 43 to bottle lightning, waiting for another generational superstar to fall into Oklahoma City's lap. In the meantime, the Thunder have all but opted out of the NBA, serving as a dumping ground for bad contracts in exchange for more bites at the draft apple.

When Sam Hinkie tried this as GM of the Philadelphia 76ers from 2013-16, the NBA's front office reportedly lobbied the Sixers to exorcize Hinkie from the organization. He was making a mockery of NBA competition, fielding intentionally terrible teams in pursuit of better odds at the next draft superstar. Now, Presti — the league's longest-tenured executive — is doing the same. The NBA may have relegated Hinkie to history, but his teardown "Process" has permeated the league as an accepted alternative to traditional remodeling. 

None of this is to say what Presti is doing is wrong. It is within the rules, and it may be his fastest route back to contention in small-market Oklahoma City, even if his last multiyear tour of the high lottery never brought a championship. It just comes with the cost of sacrificing an NBA city for several years running.

From the rubble of trade requests by Westbrook and Paul George, the Thunder did salvage Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Nobody has felt the brunt of Presti's process more. When Chris Paul and Danilo Gallinari — the veterans respectively acquired in the Westbrook and George deals, along with seven first-round picks and four potential pick swaps — proved too helpful to Gilgeous-Alexander's development, forming the basis of a surprising sixth seed, Presti dumped all four other members of the NBA's most productive clutch lineup.

The Thunder turned known commodities Paul, Gallinari, Dennis Schroder and Steven Adams — the core of a team that won 60% of its games around a 21-year-old rising star — into Aleksej Pokusevski, Ty Jerome, Théo Maledon, Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, Aaron Wiggins, five protected first-round picks and nine second-round picks. None of them will be better than the first-round pick Oklahoma City is currently tanking to get.

When Gilgeous-Alexander alone proved too detrimental to the Thunder's tanking efforts last season, submitting an All-Star-worthy campaign (24-5-6 averages on 51/42/81 shooting splits) and helping them to an overachieving 19-24 start, they shut him down at the first sign of a tear in the plantar fascia of his right foot. They also began "resting" five-time All-Star Al Horford for months of "maintenance" at the same time.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is a borderline All-Star on an NBA island in Oklahoma City. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is a borderline All-Star on an NBA island in Oklahoma City. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Oklahoma City proceeded to lose 26 of its last 29 games to finish tied for the NBA's fourth-worst record. If only the Thunder had sat their two most productive players sooner. The basketball gods did not reward the effort, as OKC dropped to sixth in the draft. The top-four protected pick the Thunder owned from Houston did not convey, either, as the tanking Rockets (owners of the league's worst record) secured the No. 2 pick.

So, Presti instead reportedly shopped Gilgeous-Alexander and the sixth pick to the Detroit Pistons for the right to draft Cade Cunningham first overall. The Detroit Pistons declined the reported offer. If indeed this was the case, Presti showed his hand twice: 1) he must believe in Cunningham as the sort of transcendent superstar with whom the Thunder could replicate their success with Durant; and 2) he must doubt that his team can contend before Gilgeous-Alexander's new maximum rookie contract extension ends in 2027.

Presti traded Horford and 21-year-old center Moses Brown to the Boston Celtics for four-time All-Star Kemba Walker and a first-round pick they have since turned into conditional selections in 2022 and 2023. The Thunder then bought out the $74 million remaining on Walker's contract and could be paying him as much as $58 million to contribute to the New York Knicks' playoff aspirations for the next two seasons.

Keep in mind, OKC traded Harden less than a decade ago because it did not want to pay him $60 million over a four-year deal that could have made the Thunder championship favorites for the contract's entirety. 

In service of tanking, the Thunder have shed five multi-time All-Stars (Westbrook, George, Paul, Horford and Walker), a Sixth Man of the Year runner-up (Schroder) and veterans Kelly Oubre Jr., Ricky Rubio, Danny Green and Austin Rivers for 11 first-round picks (plus three swaps) and 10 second-rounders. Only the four picks from the Los Angeles Clippers — either first-rounders or swaps from 2022-25 — are unprotected.

The chance any of their incoming picks lands as high as second, third or fourth — where they respectively took Durant, Harden and Westbrook — depends on the health of George and Kawhi Leonard in LA for the next four years. For all the draft capital they acquired, the Thunder's own picks are most valuable, and they are ensuring the lottery-protected 2022 first-round pick they owe the Atlanta Hawks does not convey.

It cannot be easy to be an NBA player or fan in Oklahoma City, where everyone is in a holding pattern, waiting on a superstar who might be in middle school now — or who may never come. Durant, Harden and Westbrook are a best-case scenario. Joel Embiid, Jahlil Okafor and Ben Simmons were Hinkie's haul.

If Presti is not convinced he can contend with Gilgeous-Alexander, Josh Giddey (their No. 6 overall pick this year) and whoever he drafts first in 2022, there is no telling how long his process could take. He can always spin first-round picks forward for eternity. Meanwhile, the Thunder will be an NBA team only in theory.

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Ben Rohrbach is a staff writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at rohrbach_ben@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @brohrbach

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