OKC in Six, by Sam Butler

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When you hear the word “faith,” what is it that you think of? Faith in God? Faith in love? Faith in Disney to not over-commercialize the beloved Star Wars franchise?

A small, but dedicated subsection of our society thinks of their faith in Sam Presti. Over the past nine years, Oklahoma City Thunder fans have watched Presti turn their young team, fresh off a relocation from Seattle, into a perennial contender.

In 2008, the Thunder came to Oklahoma City with two valuable assets: Kevin Durant, and Russell Westbrook. That’s it. Their roster also boasted household names such as Jeff Green, Shaun Livingston, and Nick Collison. Oh—but don’t forget coach P.J. Carlesimo, such a mastermind of the sport that he would play rookie Kevin Durant at shooting guard and then bench him for playing poorly.

The Thunder were lucky to win the 23 games they did that year, and despite the two shining stars on the roster, the future didn’t seem so bright. But then—something happened.

The team added rookies James Harden and Serge Ibaka. Kevin Durant blossomed under a coach who knew what position he played. Westbrook took a step forward in learning the point guard position, upping his assists per game by three. What happened was: the team’s record shot up by 27 wins. In just three years (two in Oklahoma), Sam Presti had created a 50-win team from nothing.

The following season, Presti’s core began to take shape. Durant’s numbers remained impressive, while Westbrook and Harden’s both improved drastically. Ibaka’s 2.4 blocks per game earned him a top-ten all-time NBA nickname, “I-block-a.” To inject some veteran experience into the team, Presti traded away young forward Jeff Green for Kendrick Perkins. After just three years in Oklahoma, and the team posted a 55-27 record and made it to the Western Conference Finals. Things in Oklahoma City were looking up.

And up they went.

After the following season was shortened due to the NBA lockout, the 2011-12 Thunder finished second in the West and went on to make the NBA Finals. Though they lost to the Miami Heat, their core was comprised of four elite players, all under 24. The way things looked, Sam Presti had built them something that would last.

But alas, with the structure of the salary cap in the NBA, keeping three players who had best-player-in-the-league potential just wasn’t a possibility. And after negotiations with Harden over a contract extension stalled, the Thunder had to rid themselves of one star, or risk losing all three. In a controversial offseason move, Sam Presti agreed to trade James Harden to the Houston Rockets for guards Kevin Martin and Jeremy Lamb, two first-round picks, and a second-rounder.

Despite the loss of a core piece of their team, the Thunder didn’t skip a beat. In fact, from 2012 to 2016, barring influence of injury, you can find the Thunder near the top of the standings every year. The only other teams for whom that can be said are the San Antonio Spurs, and the teams LeBron was on during that stretch. Sam Presti had built something special, an NBA powerhouse that just kept chugging.

Until July 4th.

July 4th, 2016. “My Next Chapter.” Kevin Durant, upset with the perennial deep-playoff contender that Sam Presti had built around him, decided to leave.

He didn’t go just anywhere, no. He went to the team to whom he had just lost in the Western Conference Finals. After the Golden State Warriors finished off an impressive comeback against his Thunder, Durant curled his tail between his legs, put his head down, and joined them.

At this point, you might have thought the Thunder were done for. The team was down to just one member of the young quartet that led them to the Finals. At best, it was a re-tooling year. The Thunder had their one star, and it was time to build a new system around him, find players to fill it out, and take a year with low expectations to see how it goes. But, as seems to be a recurring theme here—something happened.

42 triple doubles. MVP. Russell Westbrook pulled off the most statistically impressive single season in NBA history. What was a re-tooling year became a recruiting year; Westbrook showed what he could do, and stars saw what playing with him could do for them.

During the 2017 offseason, Sam Presti traded (read: fleeced) the Indiana Pacers for Paul George, and turned around and did the same to the Knicks for Carmelo Anthony. As good as that looks on paper, though, it hasn’t yet panned out.

The Thunder are sitting at a 7-9 record, and concerns are beginning to arise over whether Paul George will re-sign, or whether he will follow through on his widely speculated desire to join the Lakers. Here’s the thing about the Thunder, though. When things look bleakest, something happens.

Just moved to OKC, team goes 23-59. But then—50-win season.

The team is forced to trade Harden. But then—Durant and Westbrook lead the team deep into the playoffs almost every year for nearly half a decade.

Durant leaves. But then—MVP season from Russell Westbrook.

Slow start to the big three era, with Paul George’s free agency looming. But then—we’ll see.

It’s impossible to say what Sam Presti could do next to dig the Thunder out of this hole. Thunder fans are probably worried. All they can do, at this point, is put their trust in Sam Presti.

Presti has proven time and again that he is among the league’s best GMs. And now, with the Thunder boasting one of the league’s best rosters to go along with him, there’s no reason for Thunder fans’ faith to waver.

The Thunder are in a good spot. They have work do to—learn how to hold onto a lead, learn how to play in crunch-time situations, learn how to share the ball—but there’s no reason to think they won’t accomplish that work.

Paul George is one of the league's best defenders, currently leading the league in steals per game with 2.56. He's also an elite three-point shooter, his percentage so far sitting at 42.5%.

Carmelo Anthony is still one of the best scorers in the league. Currently averaging 20 points per game due to lower usage, he's still able to pour on the points when necessary.

Russell Westbrook is—I mean, he's Russell Westbrook.

Sam Presti has built a team ready to contend. Billy Donovan will soon figure out how to translate the roster’s overflowing talent into on-court performance. And come playoff time, don’t be surprised to see the Thunder re-matching the Warriors for the Western Conference title. Don’t be surprised to see a new result.

OKC in six.