By Michael Kinney
OKLAHOMA CITY– Every year when the Oklahoma City Thunder season comes to an end, General Manager Sam Presti holds a State of The Franchise press conference for his exit interview. It is one of only two times he meets with the media during the season.
Each year (excluding the pandemic years) I normally ask Presti what books he plans to jump into during the offseason. Because he is an avid reader, his literary selections are usually interesting and eclectic.
So, after more than two hours into his press conference on April 18, I finally got around to asking the question. He rattled off “The White Album” by Joan Didion and “The Sweet Spot” by Paul Bloom.
But it was Presti’s third selection, “Shackleton” that really stood out to me. It’s a biography of the explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton who led three British expeditions to the Antarctic. On one of those, his The Endurance became trapped in ice and was slowly crushed, stranding the crew.
It took Shackleton two years to lead the survivors through incredible hardships back to safety.
“I’m reading currently ‘Shackleton,’ about the explorer for the endurance who said, “men wanted for hazardous journey, unlikely to return alive,” and he got 13 to go and then saved their lives when they got stuck in the ice,” Presti said. “I’ve always been interested in that story.”
The reason I bring all of that up is that that seems to be the mindset Presti finds himself in as he attempts to guide the Thunder franchise back to the safety of relevancy after back-to-back losing seasons. So when Presti addressed the media, his target audience was Thunder fans to let them know it will all be worth it at the end of the journey.
“It’s going to be an amazing experience for people because they’re going to have walked the path and earned it, and people’s a lot of hard work is going to have gone into that,” Presti said. “Some of our players may not be here for that. Staff members may not be here. But they’re going to be the catalysts for that. And I want that really, really bad. I want to see those families walk through the doors on a day like this, very much like this, when playoff basketball is back here and people are going to be like, I’m willing to let it rip because he earned it.”
Despite Presti’s optimism, Oklahoma City looks to be far away from being considered a title contender as they had been for a decade. They finished this season with a 24-58 record, which was the fourth-worst mark in the NBA.
Injuries and youth (average of 23.5 is youngest in NBA) were big factors in the team’s record this season. Each of their core players missed significant time which left Oklahoma City to rely on rookies and G-League players.
However, Presti said they had decided to “burn the boats,” as he felt the team could have won 40 games. That would have given them a better record than the New Orleans Pelicans who are currently playing in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs against No. 1 seed Phoenix.
Presti seemed to be saying being an early-round playoff casualty would not be beneficial to the long-term plans for the franchise. But he also took offense to the term tanking being used to describe the philosophy surrounding the team.
“Rebuilding in the West, go look at history,” Presti said. “Go study how many drafts it takes. Find your team, find the one that you think is successful and then work back from there. How many years does it take to get to one playoff appearance in the West? How many years does it take to get to two, back to back? That’s a lot different. If you’re watching the clock all the time, you’re going to make it — you’re actually going to end up making it longer. Like I said, to try to fix things quickly takes a very long time. We’re entering our second draft.”
With an anxious fanbase in the background, Presti has the task of getting the Thunder from where they are now to back into the playoffs and competing for an NBA title. Since free agency hasn’t worked as of yet, that leaves continuing to build through the draft.
“The whole league is shaped in my opinion on a couple of nights: Draft lottery night, the fortunes of a lot of teams change. Memphis goes from 8 to 2. That’s a massive change. That’s a seismic change,” Presti said. “Then July 1 or July 4 when the bigger name free agents then have the freedom to go to the places they want to go. That really changes the balance. One changes the short-term balance and one changes the long-term balance. But we don’t really have a lot of control over that.”
Presti didn’t give out any top-secret information on who they were targeting in this year’s NBA draft. But with potentially two lottery picks, it does open up the options for them for getting a player that fits the Thunder culture.
“I like the idea of adding to the group that we have, for continuity reasons,” Presti said. “For me, the most important thing is we’ve got to find somebody that fits our program and like really can connect with what we’re trying to do and that we also can connect with them.”
No matter who the Thunder end up taking in the draft, there is no guarantee it will put them back on a path to ultimate success in the NBA. But Presti insists they are close and the fans and organization will appreciate it more because of all they have been through.
“We’re underdogs at the moment,” Presti said. “Our players are underdogs at the moment. They know that. But to me, that’s the beauty of Oklahoma. People here don’t expect to be handed things. They don’t expect to have the yellow brick road laid out for them. I think people here expect to work for what they get. I think they expect to do it together, unified. I think that “Labor Omnia Vincit,” I think that matters here, and I think specifically to here. Maybe not all 29 teams, but here I think it does matter. I think the guys in our locker room believe that.”
Michael Kinney Media