“Serving the Game” with Humility and Work Ethic

It’s one thing to be able to attack the basket with a slick crossover dribble and finish a layup. It’s another to even get open and catch the ball against some of the most physical, tenacious basketball players in the entire world. All summer long, the Thunder has been preparing first to do the latter, so then it can do the former. Those fundamentals of the game will be the steady drumbeat of the season, and the team will do its best to stay on beat. 

At the outset of the Thunder’s 2023-24 campaign, Executive Vice President and General Manager Sam Presti noted that the young roster has “been in the lab” across the world this summer, from hometowns ranging from Canada to Australia, in the FIBA world cup in Asia and right here in Oklahoma City at the Thunder ION. As the Thunder roster comes back to town and begins training camp next week, the goal is to work on the attention to detail and focus on the minute “values of the game” as Presti put it.

Presti's Opening Statement

“Really good players know how to activate themselves,” Presti explained. “It's no secret, the people that are elite at what they do are also the ones that do the most monotonous parts of their craft with excellence.”

The work ethic is the same brand that has catalyzed the Thunder from its repositioning in the 2020-21 season up through a rare jump in outcomes in 2023-23 – a 16-win year-over-year improvement to 40-42 and a spot in the play-in tournament. But that type of rise from last year, an outcome that only happens 7 percent of the time among teams with under 30 wins the season before, is not promised as the slate begins again in October. Maintaining not only the same diligence, but the same commitment to “serving the game” that Head Coach Mark Daigneault helped the team hone back in 2020-21 will be critical.

“Play the play that's in front of you. What's the most natural play to take place, and what's the play that should happen?” Presti posed as the defining question of each Thunder possession. “That gets the team playing at its capability.”

“We saw more signs of that progress [in 2023], but I think the most accelerated progress we made was [in 2021] in terms of installing a lot of those stylistic things that Mark put in place, and most importantly, those are scalable,” Presti added. “Those were scalable things that we could build on each season, and we've done that.”

At the end of last year, Thunder players demonstrated remarkable maturity for being the youngest team in the league. Many mentioned that none of those 40 wins carry over to the next year, and that only through humility and hard work would they be able to achieve similar or better results.

As the team has continued improving, so has the competition on the roster, which is something the organization embraces. The ultimate goal is for the Thunder to generate another period of sustained success and repeated postseason berths for an extended stretch in the future. Every practice rep will be clawed after over the next few weeks as players compete to make the team and help the organization scale towards the summit in the years to come.  

“There's a lot of people that want to be a part of that team that gets to a postseason in Oklahoma City and is getting to a point where we're really making progress on the second mountain that we've set our sights on,” said Presti. “Most of the games are played in the cold, but when it starts to warm up and you have your windows down, that's when we want to be playing.”

Just like at the start of every new Thunder season, there are many more questions than there are answers – and Presti and the team are just fine with that. Each player is a constantly evolving piece of the band, and the Thunder’s environment adjusts slightly as players enter and exit the program.

While rookie Chet Holmgren experienced an NBA season from the sidelines, this will be the first chance the team has had to play with him. Vasilije Micic is a veteran of the Euro Leagues but a newcomer to the NBA. Emotional and physical leader Kenrich Williams is back after missing the final two months of last season. Rookies Cason Wallace and Keyontae Johnson are in the fold, and every returning player – even last year’s All-NBA performer Shai Gilgeous-Alexander – has come back better individually, with the hopes of integrating those skills into a production that allows every instrument to flourish.

The Thunder doesn’t know exactly how the season is going to play out – who is going to start, get rotation minutes or even be in the rotation on a night-to-night basis. All of that is a part of its competitive advantage – depth, fresh legs and unpredictability can home in handy over the course of an 82-game season. This year’s slate even includes an unprecedented new challenge, the In-Season Tournament. Over the first 15 years of Thunder basketball in Oklahoma City, the team has learned not to make predictions, but rather to observe, be willing to take risks in the pursuit of something greater and have an open mind on the winding path of the season.

“The through-line is trying to put together an elite basketball organization that could support elite basketball teams,” said Presti. “That's been the constant throughout the entire time we've been here.”

As the team embarks on its next 7-month challenge, it will replace the futile task of trying to prognosticate with the tried-and-true method of hard work, humility and a commitment to walking with each of the players – to help them develop as professionals, incorporate their talents and explore their potential – and in turn discover the upper bounds of the group as a whole.