Setting the Pace

Building on ‘catalyst moments,’ Thunder diligently sticks to its vision

– Sam Presti, May 20, 2021

When Presti said this, the Thunder were coming off their first losing season since the inaugural one in 2008-09. The year before, the Thunder defied external expectations, on a 50-win pace for the seventh time in 12 years, before the NBA, and the world for that matter, shut down in Oklahoma City on March 11, 2020. 

At the root of that quote was a core tenant of the Thunder since the very beginning: sustained success. It was a phrase Presti used in his first press conference as general manager of the team, a phrase he used day one in Oklahoma City. It was a driving force behind the first 12 seasons in OKC, where the Thunder won 50-plus games seven times, went to the playoffs 10 times, won the division five times, went to four conference finals and the Finals. 

But as Presti said, the Thunder weren’t competing against their past either. “You can’t be wise with another man’s experience,” he said. The Thunder had learned a lot and the past was a priceless trove of information, but this new build of the Thunder was going to be a blank canvas, one with an unwritten story and open-ended conclusion. 

And on March 31, with a road win over the New York Knicks, the Thunder are officially back in the postseason. Back as the second-youngest team in the league, back after only two seasons winning less than 40 games, back with a sprawling runway of opportunity. 

It’s an unprecedented return, the kind of thing that just isn’t supposed to happen. But Presti has talked about how the Thunder think in terms of highways, and if you were paying attention, the last few years of press conferences – both at the end of the season and before -- have provided the mile markers of the journey, stamping the checkpoints, telling you a vision and then doing the hardest thing: Following through on it. 

– Sam Presti, September 24, 2021

The plan had been made clear: The Thunder were going to reposition, replenish, and rebuild, as Presti explained before. Following the bubble season, where OKC lost a Game 7 by two points in the opening round, Chris Paul, Steven Adams, Danilo Gallinari and Dennis Schröder were all traded. 


With the keys handed to Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, the Thunder played the 2020-21 season under difficult circumstances – health and safety protocols, no fans at home games. The Thunder landed the sixth overall pick and selected Josh Giddey, Tre Mann with the 18th, then added Aaron Wiggins with the 55th pick. 

And now here we are in September 2021, the Thunder a season into downshifting toward a young roster, and coming off a campaign of 22 wins, the fewest in OKC history. With a bedrock of incremental progress, Presti laid out a core philosophy of what was ahead: the importance of impactful hard-to-see glimpses of progress, calling them “catalyst moments.” Lu Dort digging in for hard-nosed, hustle-heavy defense despite an 18-point deficit. Giddey launching one-handed sideline out-of-bounds passes for crosscourt 3s.

“Before training camp, Sam talked to us and he used this word that really hit home – catalyst,” SGA said in 2021. “I think that is the perfect word to describe the opportunity I have. I have the opportunity to really build something and be at the forefront of it.”

All those plays and moments were going to be the sparks flickering underneath ripe kindling, ready to eventually catch fire. You were going to have to look hard to see them, but those kind of building blocks were the foundation for a breakthrough. But the breakthrough, as Presti said, was the easy thing for others to celebrate, but for the Thunder, they were intent on honoring the people and players along the path to getting there – the catalysts. 

– Sam Presti, April 18, 2022

After the 2021-22 season, where the Thunder won 24 games, Presti explained there were two types of people: clock watchers and pace setters. With a bold plan, one that would require patience, resiliency and endurance, there was naturally going to be some exterior angst. The vision was well understood and widely accepted … but how long will it take? Is there any way to make it go faster? When is too long going to be too long? 

But those were questions for the clock watchers. The Thunder were going to set their own pace, one dictated by their own interior goals and benchmarks. As Presti has said, when you’re on a treadmill, staring at the time you have left doesn’t make the workout go any faster, and it certainly doesn’t make it feel any faster either. 

The Thunder were headed for their second lottery pick since making the playoffs in 2020, and on the day of the lottery, where the bounce of the ping-pong balls would determine futures, quoting Hemingway, Presti said “no horse named Morbid ever won a race.” 

The Thunder landed the second overall pick, selecting Chet Holmgren. With another lottery pick acquired in the trade that sent Paul George to Los Angeles, the Thunder selected Jalen Williams 12th overall, while also moving up to grab another pick at No. 11, selecting Ousmane Dieng. And then on top of all of that, selected Jaylin Williams 34th overall. 


– Sam Presti, April 18, 2022

Since day one, player development has been the lifeblood of the Thunder. Through sweat equity, the Thunder have seen players blossom into All-Stars and All-NBA selections and MVPs. And despite new faces and an ever-changing ecosystem in the NBA, hard work was going to remain at the top of the core values. 

So much of it is invisible, in muggy low-ceiling gyms in the summer time when no one is watching. But it’s one thing to assemble talent; it’s another to maximize it. The Thunder kept front of mind a beginner’s mindset, where learning and unlearning is essential to progress. And the players were the tangible examples of it, taking incremental steps in their own careers. With a warning that progress is not always linear, the Thunder detached from outcomes and focused on the process of improvement. 

And what you saw, was improvement. Sometimes it can be hard to spot, but it’s like watching grass grow. It can be hard to see in real time, but zoom out and over time, the growth gets more obvious. SGA, Jalen Williams, Chet Holmgren, Josh Giddey, Lu Dort, Isaiah Joe, Kenrich Williams, Jaylin Williams, Aaron Wiggins – down the line, every player is their own developmental success story. Some have been more linear than others, and none of them are a finished product either. The growth is ongoing, because the hard work isn’t about to stop. 

It's been behind closed doors, forging an identity of ball movement, spacing, cutting, passing, moving, shooting. It’s fun to watch them play, but it didn’t happen overnight. 

- Sam Presti, April 18, 2022

It definitely didn’t have to go this way. It’s extremely easy to forget the Thunder were in the playoffs only three years ago, because, pandemic, but when the Thunder really dug into this plan, the unknowns were many. Specifically, in the amount of time it might take. Time created anxiety, because it’s not secret information to look around at other small markets that have gone through these kinds of phases to get stuck on their climb back. 

But while the uncertainty of time may have hung over other’s thoughts in every direction, it was never a guiding light for the Thunder. And Presti’s point is clear: Even after two seasons of wins in the 20s, there would be restraint against the temptations of accelerators. Everyone knows the kind of draft capital the Thunder possess and the number of levers at their disposal. But that would be trying to fix something quickly. That would be a cutting a long run short. 

As he had said before, if you attach to time as the priority in your process, then your outcomes are just a byproduct of your commitment to time. If your goals are the driving force, then time becomes the byproduct. 

“But that doesn't necessarily mean it takes a long time. It might take a short time,” he said in 2021. “That's kind of not in your control. But as soon as you start making time the number one priority, you're taking opportunity to reach higher-end goals off the table because you're making concessions to meet an arbitrary time period.”

– Sam Presti, September 2023

Coming off a season of burned assumptions and saved predictions, the Thunder won 40 games and earned a spot in the play-in tournament, winning in New Orleans before falling in Minnesota with a playoff berth on the line. 

That season felt like a breakthrough, but what it was, was the accumulation of small breakthroughs building up. It was, as Presti said, a series of seasons that added up.

  • In 2021: 30th in offensive rating (102.8), 24th in defensive rating (113.4), 30th in net rating (-10.6)
  • In 2022: 30th in offensive rating (103.8), 17th in defensive rating (111.7), 27th in net rating (-8.0)
  • In 2023: 16th in offensive rating (114.2), 13th in defensive rating (113.2), 15th in net rating (+1.0)
  • In 2024: 3rd in offensive rating (118.8), 4th in defensive rating (111.4), 2nd in net rating (+7.3)


– Sam Presti, May 20, 2021

Rewind again to May 2021. At that moment, the idea of the postseason felt very, very far away for the Thunder. It wasn’t hard to look around at the historical evidence of how long these kinds of things normally take. An organic, through-the-draft rebuild in the NBA is not an overnight thing. 

But what Presti was saying then carried on as the team built, season over season. One thing after another, the Thunder said they were going to do – celebrate the moments, honor the path, value process over outcome, stack days, set the pace and not watch the clock, resist temptation to accelerate – they have done. Which led to here.

This is only the beginning for the Thunder. The work is far from finished. In the same way they got to here, they will carry on, two eyes on the path. They stacked experiences then, and they’ll stack new ones now. They set the philosophy and then walked in it day after day, week after week, month after month. They started with a plan to reposition, to replenish, to rebuild. And with that steadfast approach, they’ve added one more word to it: