Capability and Inconsistency – Presti Recaps 2018-19 Season, Previews Offseason Approach
The players and coaches are in the thick of it – on the court in the heat of competition, in the film room, in the weight room and on the practice floor. They’re devising ways to out-scheme, out-work and out-execute the upcoming opponent. It’s a season-long cycle that provides great depth of experience but often a lack of perspective that is the purview of the front office.
Management, led by Thunder Chairman Clay Bennett and General Manager Sam Presti, is able to take the long view. Digesting the season from above, as Presti explained in his end of season press conference on Monday, can often take some time. The emotion has to wash away. The human beings have to try to shed themselves of biases and as the offseason rolls along, Presti will check in with key stakeholders to get their opinion on potential alterations and fixes for the 2019-20 campaign.
At this early hour, less than a week removed from the end of the season, Presti has as many questions as he does answers, as one would expect. However, he did have a clear vantage point on what he saw from the Thunder this past year.
“If I had to define the year in a couple words, I would say capability and inconsistency,” said Presti.
Presti broke the season down into two clear segments: the first 70 percent of the year from October through February, then the final 30 percent of the year, particularly March when the Thunder went 6-13. Up to the All-Star Break though, the Thunder was rolling. After winning 11 out of 12 games, Head Coach Billy Donovan had his squad at a season-high 18 games over .500. For most of the year, the Thunder was a top 5 team in net rating, a top 3 team in the Western Conference and a squad that was winning at a 54-win pace with Paul George soaring to a spot in the MVP discussion.
Presi Reflects on Season:
After the defense slipped in the spring of 2018 after the loss of Andre Roberson, the Thunder responded with answers, a renewed tempo to the offense that included more speed and much more ball movement. The defense was at the top of the league and the Thunder got contributions from up and down the roster, including new starters like Jerami Grant and Terrance Ferguson.
“We were playing at an extremely high level, and I felt like we were playing some of the better basketball that we've seen in Oklahoma City, just with respect to the style of play goals we laid out, the defensive improvement that we tried to establish from last year to this year, pace of play, athleticism,” Presti said.
“The players and the coaches were doing an excellent job of that, and they created an extremely high standard,” he continued. “We were on our way to having the third best record in the league against the top 10 teams in the league. We were playing a really balanced game.”
After a double-overtime win over the Utah Jazz on the second night of a home-home back-to-back, things changed for the Thunder. There was no catalyst. As Presti said himelf, there was no “inflection point” like there was with Roberson’s injury in January of 2018. For some reason, and what that is will be investigated thoroughly by Presti and his staff this summer, the Thunder slipped significantly in the month of March.
The team lost Alex Abrines for the year, never got Roberson back and George suffered injuries to both shoulders. None of those were trivial issues, but with Russell Westbrook, Steven Adams and Dennis Schröder rounding out the core of the rotation and a body of work of nearly 60 games behind them, Presti believes the Thunder could have finished out the season much stronger.
“We struggled to meet our own standard,” Presti noted. “I would use the word frustrating to define really the month of March because when you know that you're capable and you come into the year with a vision or a plan for how you want to try to be better from one year to the next and you're executing and you come back and you're not able to meet that, I mean, that's something we have to own. That's also frustrating because you know what you're capable of, and you're not able to reconnect with that.”
“What the team stands for is something that people in OKC and Oklahoma can really come together over. It's been a real driver for so many things, economically and socially. Everyone comes together to make it something special."
-Thunder GM Sam Presti
The result was a slip to the sixth spot in the Western Conference playoff picture, a seeding only clinched due to a five-game win streak to end the season. The Thunder lost in five games to the Portland Trail Blazers, falling in the opening round for the third consecutive season. All of that context matters, but Presti will rely on the empirical route that has placed Oklahoma City onto the map internationally due to the success it has sustained over the past 11 seasons and the camaraderie that has been cultivated in the city.
“What the Thunder stands for is something that people in Oklahoma City and Oklahoma can really come together over,” said Presti. “Everyone comes together to make it something special. We're really grateful to be a part of that and privileged to be part of that.”
The pragmatic approach might not be the one to light up message boards or radio phone lines, but it’s the one that has helped the Thunder navigate all sorts of stormy seas in the past and is the most sure-fire way to deal with the obstacles ahead.
“We'll create a plan, try to find a path forward, and we'll get to work,” Presti said. “We're not looking to be fast, we're not looking to be quick, we're looking to be rigorous. We're looking to be the same problem-solving group that we have been over the years, which is pretty methodical. We just don't have the liberty to be momentary problem solvers. We have to look at it a little deeper.”
“We're going to look for literally every single way to improve the team, both externally and internally, but that's no different,” Presti added. “I love the puzzle. I love the challenge. I love this time of year. I love the opportunity to be with the people that I work with to try to solve these things. “There's a price to the longevity that we've established, and we've got to keep grinding and figure out ways to make it last longer.”
Over the past ten years, the Thunder has averaged 52.5 wins per season with the second-best net rating in the league over that time span. In the immediate aftermath of a playoff exit, it can be a challenge to step back and take stock of the full truth, with all those mini-truths and half-truths from an emotional past two weeks ebbing about.
The 10,000-foot view is a better one to ensure that just like any high-performing entity, the Thunder is altering and updating itself without casting aside the core principles and values that set it on a productive path in the first place. Oklahomans and Thunder fans all over the world are invested in that identity and the work hard, play fast style the team has embodied since arriving. Maintaining that culture and adapting it to the modern NBA in the most competitive league in the world is the challenge, and one that Presti, the Thunder and its fans are ready to take on.
“We've established a certain standard here over 10 years,” said Presti. “We're disappointed that we're not still playing. At the same time, we have to take ownership over that, and we've got to take a hard look at where we are as a team, what the options are, and look at those and see how we can make it better. That’s part of competition.”