By Nick Gallo | Broadcast Reporter and Digital Editor | okcthunder.com
As Thunder Executive Vice President and General Manager Sam Presti recently walked through Oklahoma City’s Will Rogers World Airport, a voice boomed from behind him, then echoed across the high angled ceilings and glass windows.
“Thunder Up!” rang out from the voice of a “bleed blue” Thunder fan, and a smile spread across Presti’s face.
“There’s something about that type of energy in the city,” said Presti on Thursday at his beginning of season press conference, just days before the Thunder opens up its 15th training camp next week. “We’re extremely grateful for the 14 years that we’ve had, the players that we’ve had past and present, all the staff we’ve had past and present, our community support, fans, civic leadership – all the things it takes to create a basketball team from scratch.”
In recounting the Thunder “climbing the mountain” to sustained success over the first decade and a half, Presti called out a random handful of season ticket members who have been with the organization every year since 2008 – the Adlers, Bridges, Fraleys, Moores, Riders and Zorns. There are countless other Thunder fans who have demonstrated that loyalty over the last 14 seasons inside Paycom Center, throughout the city and even at the airport, and Presti concluded his opening remarks by speaking directly about those fans.
“We’re working for them,” Presti said. “The journey continues in year 15.”
The organization arrived in Oklahoma City in the summer of 2008 with no team name, no logo, no uniforms and a young, unheralded and undefined team. From 2009 to 2020 the Thunder had 11-season run with the 2nd best record in the NBA and the 4th best overall in professional sports while making the playoffs 10 times. In the two years since, the Thunder has repositioned the team, replenished its asset base and the roster is chock full of exciting young players with a long runway ahead of them – plenty to work on but plenty of upside as well.
“We have a pretty wide bandwidth in terms of the potential outcomes of the year,” Presti said. “We project to be the second youngest team in the history of the NBA, second only to last year’s Thunder team.”
“As far as this season goes, nobody knows. Save your predictions, burn your assumptions,” Presti added. “You have to let the season play out. I’ve done this for 20-something years now. Predicting the future is not in our wheelhouse. It’s not just your season that you’re predicting, but 29 other teams too.”
Regardless of the nightly outcomes of the games this year, the Thunder is entering the season with the same intentional approach it always has – to be a better team by the end than at the beginning. Last season, examples included a surge into the top 10 in defensive rating, an extra level of offensive cohesion and stand out individual growth as the team made big strides by putting players in new positions and expanding comfort zones.
“So much of it is discovery. So much of the progress that gets achieved in an NBA year is not intentional,” said Presti. “The only thing we can control and we did that last year, is you have to widen the circle of discovery. You have to create the conditions where things can happen.”
In order to create those conditions, this young Thunder squad will have to be intentional about internalizing concepts that are second nature to veteran squads. The team will have to be disciplined with priorities like preparation, competing every night and playing with physicality. Distractions like judging day to day, getting concerned with statistics, letting internal communication slip and skipping steps are all pitfalls that are normal for young teams. They’re also ones that Presti believes this squad can overcome because of the character of the players and the front office and coaching staff’s emphasis that the pace of learning and maturity has to outpace the team’s experience and age.
“In order to be scalable and in order to make sure the team improves, we have to have a standard of play,” Presti said. “This year, we want to try to establish what those standards would be so we can measure progress on our own internal scorecard.”
“Style of play that can be adapted and modified as time goes on,” Presti added. “We can’t seek shortcuts that are actually setbacks in waiting. That’s the challenge of any type of building process.”
That delineation between standard of play and style of play is pivotal, and fortunately there is an accumulation of corporate knowledge and NBA wisdom that has built up over these last 14 seasons. Presti harkened back to adages delivered by former Thunder players like Royal Ivey’s “Easy to say is hard to do” and Kendrick Perkins’ “You can’t get bored with the process” as guiding principles for this year’s squad. The players and their performance on the floor will be the most obvious representation of those mantras lived out over the course of the next six months, but the entire organization will be pouring into these young men to put them in the best positions to thrive as a team and on their own individual development paths.
“We just want long-term overall improvement. That doesn’t mean every season is going to be the same way,” Presti noted. “There’s going to be a lag or where sometimes things go faster. Progress is dictated by where you start and where you finish.”
While the Thunder has always embodied the spirit, the resilience and the work ethic of its home state, this year’s team is a particularly representative Oklahoma group. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Lu Dort and Josh Giddey, are long-term, not short-term thinking people whose work ethic defines their worth. Players like Kenrich Williams and Mike Muscala are the type of underdogs that fans of any city, but especially Oklahoma City find easy to root for. The list goes on – from under-recruited and under-scouted players from each of the last few draft classes that have layered onto the Thunder’s roster and shown their talent and dedication.
So as the Thunder begins season 15 with the state motto “labor omnia vincit” in mind, Thunder fans can enjoy being in the trenches with the players who are striving to be a part of the next run of sustained success in Oklahoma City. Foundations have been laid, standards are being set and with time and seasoning in the years to come, this group of young, talented players will be spreading smiles across the faces of all of those who bleed blue.
“Being on that journey, seeing those characteristics and riding with that team, that’s what I want for people,” Presti said. “There are going to be catalyst moments. We’re going to work as hard as we can, but we’re not going to watch the clock. We’re going to be pace setters.”