“More future draft picks than victories” isn’t much of a rallying cry in this league, but in recent years that was the best the Oklahoma City Thunder could offer. Sam Presti, OKC’s executive vice president and general manager, was adding young talent to the roster, sure, but not as fast as he accrued draft capital. And, of course, losses.
The math was indisputable: The Thunder won 22 games in 2020-21 and just 24 the following season. Meanwhile, even after using three picks in June, Presti is sitting on 35 more, including 15 first-rounders, over the next seven years.
Things changed last season. OKC shot to 40 victories and a Western Conference Play-In Tournament berth. That 16-game improvement earned coach Mark Daigneault a second-place finish in Coach of the Year balloting and raised expectations for this season. During the recent National Basketball Coaches Association meetings in Chicago, Daigneault spoke with NBA.com about the Thunder and managing the young team’s timeline.
Editor’s Note: The following 1-on-1 conversation has been condensed and edited.
NBA.com: How are you feeling about this offseason, with training camp about to start?
Daigneault: The offseason for us, especially as young as the team is, is important because these guys are developing very quickly. Especially physically. The five to six months they get of just pure weight-room work and skill work, their growth rate is pretty high. That’s what’s most exciting. And then there’s always moves we made.
Going from baby steps to a big leap may have accelerated some expectations for this team. How do you balance those with staying patient?
[More attention is] a natural thing, with the exposure the NBA has. And our players deserve it – they’ve worked hard to put themselves in this position. Now our challenge is to continue to take a long view on a young team. We have a lot of runway with this team, and the worst thing we could do is skip steps in the short term, in pursuit of short-term results, if it’s going to harm our long-term prospects. We believe, if we keep an eye on the future, we’ll start to check the boxes along the way.
When will you know the time is right to go all in, push up in the standings, even add a piece from outside to complete the puzzle?
That’s a Sam [Presti] question. But we’re very excited about our existing young core. And last year was the first example of the power of continuity. Not only for us, but you look at Denver, who won a championship. Obviously, they’ve made roster changes over the years, but they’ve also got a lot of cumulative years together. That’s very important to us. That doesn’t mean we’ll never pursue external things. You’ve got to keep your eye on that, and Sam does. But we also value this group and the continuity they’re building together.
Could be that Shai Gilgeous-Alexander says “I’m already here” about that notion of adding a star from elsewhere. What did last season and this summer’s FIBA World Cup tournament mean for him?
We always look at our guys through the lens of development. As good as he is and as mature as he is, he’s still a young player and he’s still growing. One of the things that is powerful in development is changing context, changing environment, and this was a completely different environment than he’s been a part of. And it’s a different type of pressure you face when you’re representing your country. It’s a different game, it’s called differently, the styles are different. We had a lot of guys playing – [Davis] Bertans, Lu [Dort], Shai, Jack White and [Josh] Giddey played. That was really valuable experience for those guys.
Jalen Williams, a steal out of Santa Clara with the 12th pick a year ago, finished second for Kia Rookie of the Year and seemed to improve by the day. What is his next step?
Well, he’s worked really hard. Physically and skill-wise, he’s had a really productive summer. He was with the Team USA Select team. … It’s hard to place specific expectations on what will change, but I know he’s improved. I give him a lot of credit for the way he’s gone about it. He understands the importance of the little things in the game. He understands cutting, he understands spacing, he understands running, he understands simple ball movement. He’s a great defender because he really competes at his size.
So he’s someone who has built a really strong foundation for his game. In the games where he doesn’t have his best output or get the most usage, he’s still highly effective because he’s doing all those other things.
There’s a little history of rookies whose first seasons get wiped out by injuries – Blake Griffin, Ben Simmons – roaring back to win the Rookie award the next year. Can we expect Chet Holmgren* to follow that trend?
We’ll see. He’s excited as a competitor and he’s ambitious. He has really high expectations for himself and matches those with his work ethic. He’s not just a guy with his head in the clouds – he’s willing to put the work in, And he did so, impressively, in his rehab. That’s a long, dark rehab, and he was consistent and impressive through that.
*The 7-footer from Gonzaga missed all of 2022-23 with a Lisfranc injury to his right foot.
How did you keep him part of the group through that?
Everything he did was in our building. He was around the team in all team settings. He was in our film sessions. There’s a natural detachment when you’re injured, but we did the best we could to keep him engaged. And the guys did a great job with him. It will give everybody a jolt when he walks into the gym. Not just because of the player he is but everybody has seen what he’s endured and how he’s handled that. I think everybody is going to be happy for him when he steps in a game for the first time.
How about yourself? How have you grown in this job?
Working with this particular core of guys, everyone’s different. But with players like Shai and Lu, I was an assistant their first year in Oklahoma City. So this is our fifth year. And Giddey and that draft class – [Aaron] Wiggins, [Jeremiah] Robinson-Earl, Tre Mann – they’re going into their third year. [Aleksej] Pokusevski is going into his fourth. So it’s been very organic. And that’s intentional.
That’s been the biggest evolution, just learning this group. I try not to focus so much on myself or our staff that we’re aiming at the wrong target. We’ve got to help these guys on this team, and that’s what we focus on.
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