For nine straight years, there’s been something to look forward to in Oklahoma City. With either a team on the rise or in contention for a title, autumn has been a signifier for Thunder fans of the excitement to come – the clicking of the roller coaster as it ascends up the track.
On today, the first official day of fall, Thunder General Manager and Executive Vice President Sam Presti reflected on the past nine seasons and previewed the upcoming campaign. The 2017-18 Thunder will be an exhilarating bunch that has the chance to contend for a championship, headed by a pair of All-Star caliber players and a cast of crucial, talented role players who fit in to provide their unique gifts. This group couldn’t exist, however, without the history of the past nine years – through the ups and the downs – and all the people who helped make that possible.
“It’s kind of remarkable to look back on the fact that it’s going to be a decade of Thunder basketball in Oklahoma City,” Presti began. “We’re really grateful for all of our players and their contributions, past and present. Obviously the players are what make it all possible, and our coaches, past and present, all the staff members, everybody that’s contributed to the identity of the franchise, and that also extends, clearly, to our fans, our supporters, our sponsors, as well as everybody here in the media and the relationships that have been built and forged.”
The Thunder will be led and sparked by its eternal torch, Russell Westbrook. Although he may miss the first couple days of practice while recovering from a minor knee procedure, Westbrook still is the standard bearer for the organization. He’s one of just two players, the other being Nick Collison, who have grinded away inside the INTEGRIS Thunder Development Center and battled on the court at Chesapeake Energy Arena for the Thunder’s entire run here in Oklahoma City.
Westbrook, coming off an outrageous and unprecedented season where he averaged 31.6 points, 10.7 rebounds and 10.4 assists while racking up 42 triple-doubles, will have another chance to do what he always does – get better in the offseason.
“We care about him a great deal. We love him,” Presti said of the Thunder NBA’s reigning MVP. “Obviously he stands for something in Oklahoma City that I can’t put into words.”
It stands to reason that while Westbrook may be more efficient and effective this season, he might not put up as gaudy of figures as he did in 2016-17. Part of the reason will be the addition of fellow All-Star Paul George by Presti and the staff over the summer. The All-Defensive performer had the most prolific scoring season of his career last season, racking up 23.7 points on 46.1 percent shooting, including a 39.3 percent rate from three-point range and 89.8 percent marksmanship from the free throwline.
“We’re really excited to see (George) in our uniform and with our players and walking the halls,” Presti grinned. “He just plays the right way, and we think he adds a dimension to the team that’s pretty rare.”
Of course the transition won’t be seamless. George has never played with a superstar of Westbrook’s caliber and the Thunder will have to integrate not only George, but fellow veteran newcomers Patrick Patterson and Raymond Felton and youngsters Terrance Ferguson, Dakari Johnson and Daniel Hamilton into the mix. That’s what training camp is for, and during the regular season the Thunder will evaluate lineups, combinations and rotations to sort out what makes the team most effective.
“Any time you have a team that undergoes the type of change that we’ve already gone, there’s going to be a period where it’s probably going to be a little messy; it’s going to take some time for us to figure some things out,” Presti noted.
“What we can’t do is shortcut the end game, the long game, which is to make sure that by Game 82 we’re playing our best basketball,” he continued.
Defensively, the Thunder will have the chance to be one of the elite units in the league thanks to its length and size, along with the prowess of Andre Roberson along the perimeter. Offensively, there will be more space than ever on the floor thanks to the gravity that George generates, in addition to the three-point abilities of Patterson, Alex Abrines, Doug McDermott and Jerami Grant.
The Thunder coaching staff will ease the team into its concepts and ensure that players are getting acclimated at the right pace. They’ll be careful with all 15 men on the roster, including Abrines and Patterson who will both be cautious in their returns to practice after minor knee injuries. Under the leadership of Head Coach Billy Donovan, the Thunder staff will be diligent, focused and invested in not only their work, but the enjoyment of playing the game at a high level.
“One thing about our coaching staff is I just — they’re as prepared as any group that I’ve ever been around,” Presti said. “They care deeply, not just about our team and our players, but they love hoops, you know, they love basketball.”
That has been the legacy that is being built in real time by the Thunder over the past nine seasons – an entertaining, thrilling group of athletes that put it all on the line for one another every single night. But they also push themselves through grueling workouts, dive on the floor for loose balls and study the ins-and-outs of opponents on long flights to make sure they’re in top form when Thunder fans across Oklahoma and the globe tune in to watch them.
“We’re just incredibly grateful for what Oklahoma City has been to us, and we’re inspired to continue to build off this foundation and continue to try to make the Thunder something that the city is proud of and honors,” Presti said.
Watch: Presti on Entering the Thunder’s 10th Season