By Nick Gallo | Broadcast and Digital Reporter | okcthunder.com
A week ago, inside the press conference room at the Thunder ION, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander burst through the door from the practice floor bubbling with energy, shouting “Good Morning, Good Morning, Good Morning!”
Kenrich Williams cradled a basketball while he expounded upon his love for playing in Oklahoma City. Tre Mann wouldn’t let any of his locker room buddies leave the building until they played him in a quick game of one on one.
A day after landing at Will Rogers Airport at 4 a.m. to conclude the 2021-22 season, a would-be bleary-eyed Thunder came into their end of season interviews as chipper as can be. This Monday, during his own end of season media availability, Thunder General Manager and Executive Vice President Sam Presti was asked why he thought the players brimmed with such optimism.
“If you look at the transcripts from the last 14 years, I always felt like we’ve had a good room like that,” said Presti. “(The players) are very emblematic of what we all say we want in sports. I love being around them. Optimism, to me, is saying we can get this done.
“There were examples this season of the way guys supported each other, especially guys who were competing for more minutes,” Presti added. “To me, that’s very impressive. There’s a maturity among this group of guys that is refreshing in that way.”
There are plenty of reasons for that optimism based on what happened between the lines throughout the season. Gilgeous-Alexander was poised in crunch time, stepped it up on defense and refined his craft as a game conductor. Rookie Josh Giddey unfurled some elite talents as a playmaker and distributor, as well as some eye-popping inbounds passes. Aaron Wiggins ascended from a two-way contract to a full-time roster spot thanks to a commitment to defensive fundamentals. Mann learned to scrap and to get his shot whenever he wanted. All of that individual growth, however, came within the Thunder’s team concept and overarching goals as a unit.
“I feel just about every single guy improved, but the important thing was the development of the team itself,” said Presti. “Halfway through the year, we started playing more efficiently. We started finding a style of play that enhanced the guys that we had.”
On offense, the Thunder began playing in what Presti called, “less patterns, more rhythm”, highlighted by a 7-minute stretch in a January game at Dallas, where the team was in a flow state – rolling like a wave from one end of the floor to the other in complete sync with one another. The progress was demonstrated not necessarily in the results on the scoreboard, but how the Thunder was playing on offense. Over 90 percent of its field goal attempts came from behind the 3-point line or in the paint, as the Thunder ranked in the top five in 3-point rate, paint attempt rate and layups made per game.
“We’re closer to being the team we want to be this season than we were last season, but we’re still really far away from ultimately getting to the level we want to be at,” Presti said.
Efficiency can come on the defensive end of the floor as well, and the Thunder showed it has the chance to be strong in that department when whole and more seasoned. Even with the youngest roster in the league, the Thunder hovered in the top 10 to 15 in defensive rating for nearly the whole year, especially when defensive ace Lu Dort was in the lineup. Darius Bazley emerged as a defensive Swiss army knife and the Thunder’s second-year 7-footer Aleksej Pokuševski found a role as a rebounder and disruptor in the lane.
For the season, the Thunder ranked 2nd in fast-break points allowed, in the top 3 in contested shots and top 5 in free throw attempts allowed per game. By getting back on defense quickly and protecting the paint as top priorities, the Thunder was able to get out, get a hand up and force missed jumpers, as OKC held opponents to under 40 percent shooting from three in 60 out of its 82 games this year.
“We have the bones of a very good defense. We were in the top 10 defensive rating prior to Lu (Dort) going down and then losing guys left and right,” said Presti. “That doesn't mean we'll be a good defensive team next year. We have to go back to the drawing board and rebuild the defense the same way we did.”
As Presti noted, just because the Thunder took strides forward this season, it doesn’t mean anything will be guaranteed next year. In fact, he invoked the Oklahoma state motto, “Labor omnia vincit”, which means “hard work conquers all” in Latin, as the approach the organization, staff, coaches and players took this past year and will carry on into the future. The goal in 2021-22 was to lay a foundation, and that was accomplished. With continuity, a culture where winning can happen and that Oklahoma hard hat approach, Presti believes that this year’s team started the organization down a promising path.
“That's the mentality of the team. We have a lot of hard work in front of us. We have to grind in and do it,” said Presti. “That's what the state is about. That's what the history of the community is about. That's what the basketball team here is about.”
“Our mindset creates our reality,” Presti added, “and the mindset is we have to show up and we have to put the work in, we have to rep it out, we have to learn from our experiences.”