Presti’s View From the Bubble
In the mornings, Thunder General Manager Sam Presti will crack open a book, like a tome from American journalist Robert Caro’s series on President Lyndon B. Johnson. Next he’ll jog around a very short loop what seems like hundreds of times, passing Houston Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni along the way.
After a warm reunion and greeting in the Grand Floridian lobby for Russell Westbrook, a text message to former Thunder forward Jeff Green and meetings with Brooklyn Nets General Manager Sean Marks and Philadelphia 76ers General Manager Elton Brand, it’ll be time for Sam Presti to get to practice with the Thunder as the team continues its preparation inside the NBA’s Orlando bubble. Back to the hotel for health testing, then on to the room to connect with Thunder staff back in Oklahoma City and his family.
Every day is different for Presti, and the people he meets with and challenges that arrive will vary, but he and the Thunder operation have maintained their same level of focus and cohesion through it all. The restrictions and regimented way of life in the bubble could be viewed as an obstacle, but the Thunder is approaching the re-start in Orlando as an incredible opportunity.
“It's a very unique setup. It's probably a once in a lifetime environment to play in because of the way everything is designed down here,” Presti explained. “It's really a flat competition, in a positive way. I'm looking forward to watching the team compete because they've built themselves into a really well-rounded team.”
Perhaps the main reason for Presti’s optimism with less than 10 days before the Thunder’s first seeding game is what he saw from the players when they came back from the hiatus. Older veterans like Chris Paul and Danilo Gallinari got a chance to rest and recuperate, but made the effort to stay connected emotionally to one another. Young players like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, for whom off seasons are so precious and vital, came back physically stronger and with an elevated sense of how the NBA game goes.
“The break has actually really helped us,” Presti said.
“The focus level that our group has brought down here has been a positive,” Presti continued. “Now, we have to be able to put that together day-in and day-out. But the group kept itself engaged throughout the hiatus. Everyone was expecting to play and wanting to play. That is a credit to the type of guys that we have, and the coaches have done an excellent job.”
WATCH: Presti Lends Perspective on Bubble
How all that individual growth impacts the Thunder’s play on the court remains to be seen. That’s what the past two weeks of practices have been all about – tapping back into the chemistry that existed from Thanksgiving through March 11. While the team has certainly stayed tied to one another over Zoom, text and social media, it’s a completely different thing to try and build back that innate timing and non-verbal, on-court anticipation of what your teammate is going to do next. So far, the work on the floor in Orlando is showing the desired results.
“We're going to have to have the same kind of process-based approach and take a longer view to make sure we're playing our best basketball as we get into the postseason,” Presti said. “The players have done a great job. They've got a great camaraderie amongst each other and they've been able to recapture that in a short amount of time.”
Still, not everyone has been able to actually be in Orlando to watch it happen, and that’s been another test of Presti’s leadership.
"I really want to extend our thanks to everybody in Oklahoma. The amount of well wishes that we've received from all over the state, the messages and the encouragement and the camaraderie of the state and the support that we've received, we just really, really appreciate that."— OKC THUNDER (@okcthunder) July 22, 2020
The Thunder is used to having a distributed workforce during the season, where scouts are spread out not just throughout the country but the entire globe. Half the season, the team is on the road while personnel remains back at the Thunder ION, grinding away on projects and research. In this scenario, however, with just 37 Thunder personnel that were allowed to enter the bubble, about a third of the team’s typical travelling party has remained in Oklahoma City along with all of the staff members who are based full-time in Oklahoma City or are apart from the day-to-day travel that the team undergoes.
A huge portion of Presti’s job is to make sure all of those people aren’t isolated, on a personal level, first and foremost. Families have banded together to help with errands and childcare as members of households are potentially going to spend four months in the bubble. On top of the human aspect of Presti’s leadership, the Thunder GM has also been focused on ways the organization can be even more effective moving forward than it has been in the past.
“We've put a huge focus on efficiency, and also the quality of value work and the ability to look and solve problems longer term that can kind of create downstream value for the organization,” Presti said.
“It's easy to take stock of the projects that we never got to,” Presti said. “But what are we currently doing and what can we do with that time that can produce more value for our team and our organization?”
It’s impossible to project what the end result of the Thunder’s time in the bubble will look like, or how much the processes of the organization change from the pre-COVID world into a new reality moving forward. The organization’s main goal is to embrace the situation wholeheartedly and to show gratitude for the work, collaboration and sacrifice that has gone into getting Thunder basketball back in action.
“It's going to be a tremendous thing for this group of people to look back on and say we went through this as a unit,” Presti said. “We're going to look at each other differently as a result of that. I think you see the best in people when they're in a situation like this because they have to work together. They become more tolerant. They become more generous.”