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Playoffs? You kidding me? Playoffs? Finally, Sam Presti and the Thunder, are not
Where the players went following last season, OKC's general manager, in his own measured way, has gone just in time for training camp, which begins today
Monday was media day for the Oklahoma City Thunder. If you know where to look, you can read the transcript of each player’s press conference.
You can find, too, general manager Sam Presti’s press conference transcript from four days prior. Reading it, though, is a whole other chore, his opening statement running about half an hour.
Still, it’s good to have somebody read it on your behalf, or listen to it and tell you about it, for there are meaningful gems within. In fact, it’s been years since Presti’s sounded as he sounded last Thursday, even as its significance hardly made a media dent.
For that, thank Brent Venables, the regrettable decline of daily newspapers and the inability of sports radio in this state to think deeply about the NBA in the middle of a college football season.
It’s a funny thing.
Though it may be the only time Presti speaks until the All-Star break, or the trade deadline has passed or even until the season’s over, he remains the only source capable of addressing OKC’s expectations, of offering any clue what they might be.
You’d think head coach Mark Daigneault might be a good source for where OKC might find itself: tanking or in the postseason, trying to win or trying to develop while happy to lose, trying to win tonight or trying to win a thousand days into the future?
But you’d be wrong.
Daigneault was asked no such questions during his Monday presser because nobody takes him seriously as the man in charge of shepherding OKC wherever it’s supposed to go.
That man is Presti, for whom Daigneault’s an extension, but not remotely independent.
For a moment, pretend “Moneyball” was a movie about basketball in Oklahoma City rather than baseball in Oakland. Presti’s Brad Pitt and Daigneault’s Philip Seymour-Hoffman. Or, perhaps, a more willing Philip Seymour-Hoffman.
So, in an interesting switch from the Thunder’s 2021-22 exit interviews, when the players were offering confidence, when Lu Dort talked about “definitely” reaching the playoffs, Josh Giddey said “Everyone wants to win and the sooner that can start the better” and Kenrich Williams declared “Things will be different next year,” yet Presti remained decidedly more cautious … entering 2022-23 training camp, which begins today, those two sides have very nearly traded places.
Monday, Dort said, “I can’t wait to see what’s next,” but did not mention the playoffs. And while Shai Gilgeous-Alexander sounded confident and eager, he made no predictions. And while Josh Giddey hailed the acquisition of shooting coach Chip Engelland, who could make a big difference for the Thunder just by making a big difference for Giddey, he wasn’t talking about wins and losses either.
Nor was Presti last week.
Officially, he’s where he’s always been.
“It’s going to reveal itself,” he said.
It’s the Presti party line.
The team will become whatever it’s meant to become and the front office will respond accordingly.
Still, ever since OKC emerged a first-round postseason loser after going seven games with the Rockets inside the Orlando bubble, saying goodbye to Chris Paul, Danilo Gallinari and Dennis Schroder soon thereafter, Presti’s spent vast more time telling us what the Thunder are unlikely to be rather than anything they might become.
But now, even against the backdrop of No. 2 overall pick Chet Holmgren’s announced season-long absence following a surgery-required foot injury suffered in an August charity game in Seattle, Presti has nonetheless proved open to exciting possibilities previously unvoiced since exiting the bubble.
How he did it was very nearly art.
For instance, last Thursday, he took it upon himself to thank a sextet of Thunder season-ticket holding families before making a dramatically unexpected segue with his next uttered sentence.
Check it out:
“We we want to thank the Adler family, the Bridges family, the Fraley family, the Moore family, the Ryder family and the Zorn family as representatives of the fact that these people have been season ticket holders for 14 years, going on 15 nears now. Like I said before, it really takes everybody to be able to do that type of thing.
“The challenge we have in front of us now, as I said before, the second climb, so to speak, is unique because it’s a totally different era. It’s a totally different era of basketball. It’s a totally different era in terms of the industry.”
That’s a lot of words but did he say climb?
Yeah, yeah, different era. Got it. I’m sure it’s interesting. I’ll watch the doc. But did he say climb? What happened to “reposition and replenish.”
Did he really say climb?
“It’s easy to forget that just two years ago we were still on the mountain, you know, before we had descended to start the second climb and we’re obviously in that, but two years ago, Shai, Lu, [Darius Bazley], those guys were playing meaningful minutes in the bubble.”
Did he say “descended” as though it’s already happened? Did he say second climb and we’re obviously in that?
I believe he did.
Presti spend a great deal of time, too, on “bandwidth.” Probably more than anybody’s ever spent on “bandwidth” as sports vernacular. He used it to arrive somewhere.
“As far as this season goes, I think we have a pretty wide bandwidth in terms of the potential outcomes of the team. We project to be probably about the second youngest team in the history of the NBA. Second only to last year's Thunder team.
“When you have an older team or maybe a team that has more [of a] track record, whether it’s good or bad, your bandwidth is shorter. You can predict those types of outcomes easier because there’s more known. There also is probably a little bit more of a cap on the potential of the team because of those things being more known, and the floor might be a little bit different as well.
“But our age and relative inexperience is absolutely going to be a positive for the team over a long period of time because inexperience will turn to experience, and our guys will get older and better as time goes on.
“But that’s the beauty of watching any team, any young team in pro sports, is you’re actually watching it kind of evolve in front of you. I don't think anybody would say that we’re not a work in progress.
“At the same time, I think we’re a better team than we were at this startup time last year and we’re going to be a better team at the end of this season, absolutely, because of the fact we have some very young players that are going to continually improve.”
A better team at the end of this season? That would mean no more jockeying for draft picks; not entering the tank; achieving success by winning rather than losing.
Sounds like it.
“When we get back to the postseason, it’s not going to happen because of one season. It’s not going to be a this is the year that did it. If it happens this season, it won’t be because of what happens between now and the postseason. It will happen because of a series of seasons. That’s the way things always occur.”
It looks, sounds and feels off the top of his head. It must be because who can purposely bury thunderclaps between other same-old, same-old pre-season phrasing? Who, with the possible exception of the late great Vin Scully, could contemporaneously speak with the same precision Aaron Sorkin or David Mamet writes? Nobody can, that’s who. So Presti must authentically, almost absentmindedly, bury diamonds in the haystacks of his own verbiage, leaving the rest of us to go find them.
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Still, once found, he couldn’t be more clear.
He’s open to the Thunder’s return to the playoffs.
He’s flatly put it on the table.
“We’re not in the business of predictions … the goal is continuous improvement,” he said.
That’s every season.
But we know, too, he’s the authority.
Not his coach.
Not the players.
So you can write it down.
Entering training camp, the Oklahoma City Thunder, having won only 46 of its previous 154 games, despite losing the most anticipated draft pick in OKC franchise history for the season, general manager Sam Presti’s still talking about returning to the postseason this season.
Finally and clearly, it’s a new day.