GM takes long view building Sonics
The elusive unpredictability of Thursday's NBA draft is being driven in no small part by Sam Presti, the 31-year-old GM of the SuperSonics and holder of the No. 4 pick. While the teams ahead of him are focusing on the consensus top three talents in the pool -- Derrick Rose, Michael Beasley and O.J. Mayo -- Presti has pursued an agenda unique to the Sonics.
Seattle is the only team in the top five believed to be strongly considering Russell Westbrook, a UCLA guard with pedestrian offensive numbers (12.7 points and 4.3 assists while shooting 46.5 percent as a sophomore). The Sonics' other finalists are known to include Stanford center Brook Lopez and Arizona guard Jerryd Bayless, either of whom may slide to No. 10 if Presti doesn't take him with the fourth pick. Seattle is also considering Mayo, in case the Timberwolves decide to go with Kevin Love or Lopez at No. 3.
There will be a lot of second-guessing of Presti should he select Westbrook, who is viewed as a potential point guard even though he started only seven games at the position for UCLA during an early-season injury to Darren Collison. While Presti won't confirm his interest in Westbrook or other players, he will lay out his parameters for this draft -- and they help explain his approach to rebuilding the Sonics.
"We're always looking for players who play both ends of the floor,'' he said. "Guys who defend have value to us. We're also looking for guys who can play for the team, play for one another. We're attracted to guys who have a strong work ethic because those are the guys who will give themselves an opportunity to improve.''
While some NBA scouts doubt Westbrook's offensive potential -- "He'll be a backup, nothing more,'' one predicted -- others see value in his future as a lockdown on-the-ball defender, which, as Rajon Rondo proved during the Celtics' run to the championship, can be a highly valuable asset. Westbrook's optimists believe his limitations as a shooter and ball handler may be negated by his high threshold for hard work.
The ironic theme of Presti's short tenure with the Sonics has been his patience. Despite his age, he is committed to a long-term plan built around Rookie of the Year Kevin Durant, the Sonics' franchise star who will be 20 next season. Presti's interest in a prospect like Westbrook is based on an evaluation of the player he may become in two or three years.
It hasn't been easy to maintain a long-term view during this rough year in Seattle. The Sonics have been brought to court this month by the city of Seattle, which is seeking to hold the team to its KeyArena lease for two more seasons. The ongoing arena fight between local government and Sonics owner Clay Bennett, who wants to move the team to Oklahoma City as soon as possible, cast a pall over the franchise as Presti launched his unpopular mission to rebuild the roster.
The young Sonics lost 62 games this past season -- only Miami was worse -- yet they won only 11 fewer games than the previous year despite the controversial departures of stars Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis. Those and other moves helped Presti acquire two first-round picks in each of the next three years, including the No. 24 pick in this year's draft. (They also have four second-round picks this year, creating more opportunities for trades Thursday.) He also accrued cap space to be used in 2009 ($21.5 million) and/or 2010 (as much as $40 million). While no one expects the Sonics to lure LeBron James to Oklahoma, they should add experienced talent at the same time as Durant, fellow All-Rookie team selection Jeff Green and this week's draft picks are turning the corner.
Presti often hears that he is trying to remodel the Sonics as a next-generation version of San Antonio, where he worked his way up from summer intern in 2000 to assistant GM by 2005.
"That's a convenient assumption,'' he said. "Every situation is different, and our circumstances are different. I don't think that there's a set way to approach each situation. Certainly some of the core principles that we want to establish and abide by may have some similarities [with the Spurs', but those same things would have similarities to other successful organizations in the NBA, Major League Baseball or other businesses.''
The nascent talent in this draft is forcing him and other GMs to make hard decisions this week.
"It's strong at the very top, that's well-documented,'' Presti said of Rose and Beasley. "What you find is a natural break for the next eight to 10 players where there's not a lot of separation. What you're going to see is teams identifying and defining what they think is the best fit for their organization. But there is a lot of parity on the different draft boards with those picks.''
The Sonics could go for Lopez as a sound interior scorer with the size and potential to be a defender and rebounder. They could choose Westbrook or Bayless, a Ben Gordon-like scorer. Or they could also land Mayo, which would surprise some league rivals who anticipate the Sonics may avoid him because of his history of being in troublesome situations.
Whatever Presti decides, it will be based on the promise of two or three years from now, when Durant will have filled out and the cap space will have been spent.
"We aren't taking a short-term perspective to building our basketball team,'' he said. "Ideally, you'd like your team to be growing together, but that's not always possible. But you do have to let the core of the team develop and expose them to opportunities to develop together.''
In other words, whomever he drafts Thursday will be playing heavy minutes for the Sonics next season alongside Durant and Green.
Love for Minnesota
Kevin Love has heard that the Timberwolves are considering him with the No. 3 pick. He hopes they act on that interest Thursday.
"I would love to work with [Minnesota vice president] Kevin McHale,'' the UCLA freshman power forward said. "When I was working out with them, I told him: 'You don't understand. I'm starstruck. You were my guy growing up.' He said, 'Oh, you're bulling me.'
"But it's the truth. I used to watch those Boston Celtics tapes all the time. I would see him do a move, or see [Larry] Bird do a move, and then I would go out and work on it with my dad. Kevin McHale had every post move in the world, and I see -- I hope I see -- a little bit of him in me.''
One question is whether the 6-9 Love could share the frontcourt with the 6-10 Al Jefferson, a natural power forward like Love who played out of position at center for the Timberwolves in 2007-08.
"I think it would be a great situation,'' Love said. "Al Jefferson is going to manage a double-double every night, and with my shooting and the way I can handle the ball, I think we would play great together.''
Love said he would appreciate joining with McHale and Jefferson regardless of where they are picking in the draft. The Knicks, who are picking sixth, would be another good team for him, according to Love.
"I would fit in well with Mike D'Antoni's system,'' he said. "I feel like I'm going to be able to stretch the defense. To play in that system I would just have to keep getting in better shape, that's all.''