Doing Our Part – Thunder in Step with NBA
Being one step ahead of the competition is typically the name of the game in the NBA - finding an inch of advantage on the court, spotting a diamond in the rough on a scouting trip or picking out a crucial detail in film study.
Over the past month and a half since the NBA season screeched to a dramatic halt, the Thunder has shed itself of that competitive impulse and focused instead on staying in the moment –doing its part as one spoke on the wheel that is comprised of 30 NBA teams and the league office. Under the direction of NBA Commissioner Adam Silver during the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Thunder has been focused most heavily on complying with the guidance the league has set forth at every stage.
“Everyone talks about leading through this time and being leaders, and I think that's great, but sometimes there can only be one leader, and so one of the great traits of a leader in my opinion is knowing when to lead and also being willing to follow,” said Thunder General Manager and Executive Vice President Sam Presti.
“It's incumbent on the teams to really follow the lead of the league leadership in this situation because there's not going to be a perfect solution,” Presti added. “In the event we are in a position to play again, obviously the health and wellness of staff, players, fans, everybody involved, that's a decision that needs to be made way above anyone at a team level.”
That attitude started at the very beginning of the NBA’s connection to COVID, with the Thunder and Chesapeake Energy Arena serving as the canary in the coal mine of the eventual severity of this pandemic. The Thunder consulted with the NBA league office on March 11 in the build-up to the home game against the Utah Jazz and when the NBA declared that the game be postponed, the Thunder did everything in its power to get fans, players, coaches and staff out of the building in a safe and timely manner. Since then, the team has continued to listen, gather as much information as possible and attempt to set an example locally by assisting Oklahoma City’s medical community.
“As an organization, we're following,” Presti said. “We're going to follow the direction that we're provided, and we're going to do it as long as it is safe and putting everyone that wears the Thunder logo or comes in contact with it and our fans in a safe environment above everything.”
“One thing that you can't do is pretend that you have the facts that you don't have,” Presti said. “Sometimes if you're patient and you can stand in the batter's box long enough and take some pitches, things will become a little more clear.”
Videos have emerged of Thunder players working out and keeping themselves in shape, with the guidance of the team’s strength and conditioning staff. However, those at the highest levels of the organization like Presti are focused on who they want the group to be when the social distancing measures are removed and basketball resumes.
When the team looks back at this time, it wants to be able to feel good about the fact that it put basketball aside and navigated its way through the pandemic with an emphasis on the human being underneath the Thunder jersey or polo shirt.
“Number one, we want to be even closer,” said Presti. “We also will, I think, not take for granted the value of the random conversation in the hallway or the ability to have a debate over something meaningless at a lunch table. So I think you're going to get some gratitude out of this, as well.”
One way the team has shown that is through a weekly online Zoom conference call, led by Chris Paul but often attended by Presti for brief stretches. He joins to answer questions and be a resource while getting to witness the wit and humor bandied about in the chat, then logs off and gives the players time to hold those light, free-flowing conversations that zip around the digital screen.
“It's actually been one of the fun things for me during this is to see just that banter back and forth between the guys,” said Presti.
That innate connection has been a defining feature of the Thunder’s 2019-20 season, both on and off the floor. Only time will tell if this group will get to re-assemble on the court again, and how and where that would even take place. Still, regardless of how the season officially comes to a close, the Thunder organization will feel good about what happened this year and what came from it.
Paul, the wily veteran point guard, ascended up the ladder in the NBA’s record books while earning his 10th All-Star appearance and leading the Thunder to a fight for home court advantage in the first round. Other veterans like Danilo Gallinari, Dennis Schröder, Steven Adams and Nerlens Noel added to their resumes and their impact on winning. And then youngsters like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Darius Bazley and even two-way rookie Lu Dort earned pivotal playing time that will pay dividends for years to come.
“I look at every situation that we encounter as kind of a building block for the organization in some way, shape or form,” said Presti. “Every minute that we play is a minute toward building a legacy for the franchise, and we really believe that.”
The next step for the organization is priming itself for what comes next. Not necessarily the details of what a next game on the court looks like, but more in how the team will confront new challenges each day. No matter how NBA basketball comes back, everyone will be approaching it from a completely different vantage point in a possibly unrecognizable paradigm. Being a resilient organization, one that can withstand the type of relentless change that already characterized the era even before COVID struck, will be fundamental to success once the ball starts bouncing again.
“You can't prepare for who we're playing, when we're playing, if we're playing, but you can be prepared for when it's not going according to how you've normally done it, how are you going to respond to that?” Presti noted. “That's the question. It's not what's going to happen, it's knowing that it will be imperfect no matter when it is, whether it's this season or next season. You're going to have to learn to adapt to the imperfections that are coming, and to me that's what makes a professional.”