Sacrifice, Discipline, Conviction – Presti Reflects on 2020-21 and Looks Ahead
On a road trip to Detroit in mid-April, in the midst of a difficult stretch of the schedule, the Thunder coaching staff gave the players the opportunity to go up to the locker room white board and write down why they play the game of basketball.
The answers that came back revealed the character within the team, varying from “a dedication to family”, “the tradition and pride of the organization”, “the fans” and “their teammates”. The most poignant answer was a reflection of the attitude of gratitude that existed all season long within the Thunder’s walls.
“My worst day at work is somebody else’s dream.”
As Thunder General Manager Sam Presti evaluated the most challenging season in NBA history for all 30 teams, he looked back on the 2020-21 campaign with the word “grateful” often springing from his lips. Before the season even began, back in November when Presti addressed the media, he said the number one priority for the season was the health and safety of the team’s players and staff. After 14,325 COVID tests administered throughout the course of the season by hard-working, diligent testers who accompanied the team throughout the past six months, the Thunder finished the year with zero positive tests for players or coaches.
“For those scoring at home, that's close to 29,000 Q-Tips, and a lot of people coming together to make that happen,” said Presti.
We did not have a single COVID positive case for our players or our coaches during the season.— OKC THUNDER (@okcthunder) May 20, 2021
In addition, the Thunder managed to navigate an incredibly condensed NBA schedule – 72 games in 141 days – without suffering any career-threatening injuries. That breaks down to playing more than every other day, the typical NBA cadence, and in the second half of the season, the Thunder averaged 4 games each week. Though impossible to avoid any injuries at all, a forward-thinking approach to try to be conscious of playing time and the physical toll placed on players’ bodies allowed the Thunder to minimize any long-term threats to player health.
Point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander missed the final two months of the season with plantar fasciitis, an over-use injury but not one that is viewed as deeply serious. That changed the trajectory of what had been a highly competitive season. Gilgeous-Alexander had a stellar third NBA season and with more responsibility heaped on his plate, averaged 23.7 points and 5.9 assists per game while shooting 50.8 percent from the field and 41.8 percent from three. After a win against Minnesota on March 22, Gilgeous-Alexander’s last game of the year, the Thunder’s record was 19-24, with a .441 winning percentage.
“We came into the year with the exact same mentality that we exhibited the year before,” Presti said. “We wanted to see what we had, see what the team did as the season unfolded. We didn't want to place any limitations on the group and I thought the early part of the season we were pretty competitive. Most importantly, I thought we were really developing a style of play.”
After Gilgeous-Alexander’s injury, the Thunder’s ability to be equally efficient on offense waned and the team transitioned to investing even more in developing players and exploring the roster. Despite the relative youth on the roster and the brand-new opportunities that many players were being given, the Thunder continued to leave it all out on the floor each game – a sign of that culture of gratitude that emanates throughout the organization. No minute and no game could be tossed aside as unimportant. Each possession presented an opportunity for growth and improvement.
“It was a great indication of the effort and how hard our guys played on a night-to-night basis,” Presti continued. “We were a young team, clearly. We were inexperienced on most nights that we played, but our effort and our stick-to-it-iveness was exceptional.”
Second-year players like Lu Dort, Darius Bazley and Isaiah Roby were afforded more chances to play with the ball in their hands and they delivered powerful results. Newcomers like Kenrich Williams, Moses Brown, Ty Jerome and Gabriel Deck who joined the team from far and wide, through trades and free agency, all took positive steps towards becoming impactful NBA players.
Individually everyone was getting better and everyone got closer... the ways the guys took care of each other and the camaraderie of the group, I'm really impressed with it.— OKC THUNDER (@okcthunder) May 20, 2021
Nineteen-year-old rookie Théo Maledon led the team in minutes played. His counterpart Aleksej Pokuševski leaped into Thunder record books with breakout performances. Both players set a crucial baseline from which to build on in their first full offseason, one that will contain a Summer League and a ramp-up to training camp.
"I couldn't be more pleased with the way our players stepped up during the season irrespective of their age and their experience level,” Presti said. “The combination of guys we had and the maturity level they showed was exemplary and I'm really proud of that."
Before Summer League begins there will be other avenues for the team to improve, in a manner that follows Presti and the Thunder’s carefully plotted and well-reasoned plan. First comes the desperate need for rest. After a grinding season filled with testing and games and lockdown inside hotels, players are in need of both physical and mental decompression.
After that comes the offseason skill and workout regimen that the Thunder staff have outlined, and players will carry out throughout the summer. In August, some Thunder players may participate in the Olympics as representatives of their home countries. Others will be in Las Vegas for Summer League. Before then, the Thunder will anticipate and prepare for the NBA Draft with the same rigor and philosophy it always has in order to make the best possible decisions for the future. On the road to another period of prolonged NBA success, the Thunder will take no shortcuts.
“We have to work very, very hard. But we have to be equally as smart,” said Presti. “We can't be reactionary or emotional about it, we just have to keep chipping away every single day, knowing that over time, we will achieve our goals if we have the poise, the patience, and the willingness to adjust to the setbacks that we will inevitably encounter."
The philosophy of maintaining the focus and stamina to follow through on the goal of sustained NBA contention is not a foreign one to loyal Oklahomans. Fans spent all season wearing Thunder jerseys and cheering the team and the players on while watching the Bally Sports Oklahoma broadcasts from home, though their energy coursed through the team all year.
That steadfast connection and unwavering support is the platform from whence the Thunder derives its fortitude to take the more challenging yet more rewarding road. The Thunder’s approach to this next phase of Thunder basketball comes directly from the values that the Oklahoma community reflects back onto the team.
"The people from Oklahoma are actually our biggest inspiration for our methodology,” Presti explained. “Sacrifice, discipline, conviction – these are all things that our city has built itself on. We have grown over the years as a result of willing to sacrifice for the greater good over the course of time.”
"I feel extremely confident and optimistic about the future that we have here,” Presti added. “We just have to continue to stick with it and understand that our city has given us our own best example. We have to continue to subscribe to all those values."
Development is a process, not an event.— OKC THUNDER (@okcthunder) May 20, 2021