By Nick Gallo | Broadcast Reporter and Digital Editor | okctunder.com
As Thunder executive vice president and general manager Sam Presti walked through Oklahoma City’s Will Rogers World Airport recently, a voice boomed behind him, then echoed across the high, sloping ceilings and glass windows.
“Thunder up!” came the voice of a “Bleed Blue” Thunder fan and a smile spread across Presti’s face.
“There’s something about that kind of energy in the city,” Presti said at his start-of-season press conference Thursday, just days before the Thunder turns 15th training camp next week. “We’re very grateful for the 14 years we’ve had, the players we’ve had past and present, all the staff we’ve had past and present, our community support, fans, civic leadership — all the things there it takes to build a basketball team from scratch.”
As Presti recounted how the Thunder “climbed the mountain” and had enduring success in their first decade and a half, Presti called a random handful of seasonees 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 this loyalty over the past 14 seasons at the Paycom Center, across town, and even at the airport, and Presti closed his opening statement by speaking directly about these fans.
“We work 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, unannounced, and undefined team. From 2009 to 2020, the Thunder had 11 season runs with 2nd place finishnd best record in the NBA and 4thth Top overall in pro sports while making the playoffs 10 times. In the two years since, The Thunder has repositioned the team, replenished its wealth base and the roster is chock-full of exciting young players with a long runway ahead of them – plenty to do, but also plenty of potential.
“We have a pretty wide range in terms of potential results for the year,” Presti said. “We expect to be the second youngest team in NBA history, after last year’s Thunder team.”
“As for this season, no one knows. Save your predictions, burn your assumptions,” Presti added. “You have to let the season go. I’ve been doing this for 20 years now. Predicting the future is not in our wheelhouse. Not only do you predict your season, you predict 29 other teams as well.”
Regardless of the nightly results of this year’s games, the Thunder go into the season with the same intent as always – to end up a better team than they started with. Last season’s examples included a move into the top 10 in defensive standings, an added level of offensive cohesion, and outstanding individual growth as the team made great strides by moving players into new positions and expanding comfort zones.
“So much of it is discovery. So much progress made in an NBA year is not intentional,” Presti said. “The only thing we can control, and that’s what we did last year, is to expand the circle of discoveries. You have to create the conditions under which something can happen.”
To create those conditions, this young Thunder squad must consciously internalize concepts that have become second nature to veteran squads. The team must be disciplined with priorities such as preparation, nightly competitions and physical play. Distractions like daily appraisal, dealing with stats, neglecting internal communication, and skipping steps are all pitfalls common to young teams. They are also the ones that Presti believes this squad can be overcome due to the character of the players and the front office and coaching staff’s emphasis on the pace of learning and maturity must match the team’s experience and age.
“To be scalable and ensure the team improves, we need to have a standard of play,” Presti said. “This year we want to try to establish those standards so that we can measure progress against our own internal scorecard.”
“Playstyle that can be adjusted and modified over time,” Presti added. “We cannot look for shortcuts that are actually setbacks when waiting. That is the challenge of any type of construction process.”
This distinction between play standard and play style is crucial, and fortunately there is a body of corporate knowledge and NBA wisdom that has built up over the last 14 seasons. Presti drew on proverbs from former Thunder players like Royal Ivey’s “It’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 team. The players and their performance on the floor will be the most obvious representation of these mantras to be lived over the course of the next six months, but the entire organization will pour into these young men to put them in the best positions to succeed as players to his team and on their individual development paths.
“We just want long-term overall improvement. That doesn’t mean every season will be the same,” noted Presti. “There will be a lag or where things go faster at times. Progress depends on where you start and where you stop.”
While The Thunder have always embodied the spirit, resilience and work ethic of their home state, this year’s team is a particularly representative group from Oklahoma. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Lu Dort, and Josh Giddey are long-term, not short-term, people whose work ethic defines their worth. Players like Kenrich Williams and Mike Muscala are the kind of underdogs that fans of any city, but especially Oklahoma City, can easily root for. The list goes on – of underrecruited and underappreciated players from each of the last few draft classes who have piled into the Thunder’s roster and shown their talent and dedication.
As the Thunder begin season 15 with the state motto “Labor Omnia Vincit” in mind, Thunder fans can enjoy being in the trenches with players aspiring to be a part of Oklahoma City’s next lasting success. The foundations have been laid, standards are being set and with time and maturity in the years to come, this group of young talented players will put a smile on the faces of all those bleeding blue.
“To be on that journey, to see that quality and to ride with that team, that’s what I wish for people,” said Presti. “There will be catalyst moments. We’ll work as hard as we can, but we won’t watch the clock. We will be pacesetters.”