All in on Sam Presti & the Thunder season

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OKC Thunder general manager Sam Presti speaks to the media in the weeks leading up to the 2022-23 season.

As my friend and debate partner in all things OKC Thunder, Steve Buck has often accused me of being anti-Sam Presti.

It’s an accusation that I loudly protest even as I have questioned the Thunder’s apparent philosophy of losing games on purpose, otherwise known as tanking. Teams tank because losing positions them for better draft position as they work to build their roster.

As my friends at church would say, “love the sinner, hate the sin.”

Steve has described it to me as a “player development” philosophy rather than actual tanking, which the NBA frowns upon. In 2018, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban was fined $600,000 for admitting on the Dan Patrick Show that the Mavs lost games on purpose. 

In comments made on the Dan Patrick Show,, Cuban said that “once we were eliminated from the playoffs, we did everything possible to lose games.”

I’ve never heard Sam Presti say anything about losing on purpose. But I have heard him discuss “commitment to the process” and “not taking shortcuts.”

We saw how that played out as the Thunder went 24-58 in 2021-22, often keeping key players with minor ailments on the injury list and out of the lineup for long stretches. The team even cut a player late in the season who was playing above expectations, which threatened the team’s commitment to ‘The ProcessTM”

Frustration mounts for me when it’s apparent the Thunder are ‘exploring the roster’ with no interest in winning the game night after night. That’s what we’ve seen the last couple of years.

So, what have we heard from Presti leading up to the Oct. 19 season opener against the Timberwolves? Here are some sample comments from the Thunder GM over the past few weeks.

“What we’re looking for is overall improvement over a long period of time,” Presti said in a media appearance. “That’s not the most sexy, exciting thing that I could say to you.

“I’m not trying to mislead anybody, but it would be easier to try to find something that’s more catchy or exciting. But we just want a long-term, overall improvement. That doesn’t mean each season has to go the same way.”

As I did in a post a year ago, I’m asking the Thunder to play to win every game. I’m sure neither the franchise nor its sponsors enjoyed the nights last season when the Paycom Center was less than half full. 

It’s pretty apparent to me that people are not going to commit time or money to a team they perceive as not trying to win, even if there is a long (emphasize “long”) term goal of capturing the next unicorn in the draft.

My perception is that the fans come last in this tanking or “player development” scenario that’s played out over the past couple of years.

That’s a position that my friend Steve takes issue with.

“Strongly disagree on your last point,” he told me this week. “Presti wants to give a title to the city; isn’t that for the fans? It is fair to say he is not distracted by outside noise; he is focused on the long game.

“And he is accountable to Clay Bennett and he has likely set the goal of winning titles”

There’s a whole debate over whether fans would be more excited by a team that’s competing late in the season for the final playoff spot or if they would rather wait on an NBA title that may never come. 

That’s pie in the sky in the sweet bye and bye.

I’m definitely in the camp that wants the Thunder to play to win every night and be in the chase for a playoff spot, even if it’s the play-in game.

That would make the long, cold winter much more interesting for all of us.

But back to Steve’s original complaint. I’m a huge fan of Sam Presti. I am awed by his acumen for judging talent and finding diamonds in the rough at whatever position the Thunder are drafting. I love the way he welcomes new players to OKC and gets them involved with the community.  I love the way he represents the Thunder and OKC itself.

As Dan Patrick said last year, “Sam Presti is the best GM the NBA has seen in a long, long time.”

A last comment from Presti on the upcoming season: “Let’s wait for it to play out before we decide that’s what it’s going to be.”

I’m all in on that.

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Thunder tip off in an early 2021-22 season game

The Thunder Way sets the NBA gold standard

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Thunder GM Sam Presti introduces the team’s 2022 draft class to the OKC community as the players listen.

I‘m not sure how other NBA teams welcome new talent to their community, but the OKC Thunder way may be the gold standard.

On Saturday, the Thunder welcomed their four 2022 draftees to Oklahoma City with a special press conference at the Clara Luper Center just west of downtown.

The event was streamed on the Thunder app, so we all had a chance to watch it. And it was an intriguing hour that provided some insight into the team’s new players — Chet Holmgren, Ousmane Dieng, Jalen Williams and Jaylin Williams.

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Thunder coach Mark Daigneault and Paula Stafford at introductory press conference

But for me, it afforded an opportunity to see and hear Sam Presti describe what he saw in each player well before the draft that ultimately brought them to the team.

It’s obvious that Presti pours a huge amount energy in learning all he can about the players, their personalities and their families, in addition to assessing their level of talent.

I loved the way he described watching the players in various settings months or years before the moment their names were announced. 

And how he uses locations of historical significance to introduce new players to the community.

All of that’s probably the reason broadcaster Dan Patrick described Presti last year as “the best GM the NBA has seen in a long, long time.”

I agree with that assessment, even if I’ve complained about every inch of the Thunder’s tanking strategy over the past couple of years. I don’t think that playing to lose is fair to their fans, players or corporate sponsors.

But that’s just me.

Thunder capFolks like my friend Steve Buck are all in on losing on purpose because they say the end justifies the means. I’m just hoping the NBA will come up with a way to nullify tanking as a strategy.

Anyway, I thought the press conference was a huge success, and the players said all the right things, as did Presti.

I also had a secondary reason for watching the Thunder introductory press conference. My wife, Paula, was invited to attend as a “community draftee” by the Thunder through her role as an employee of NAMI Oklahoma.

She sat on the front row during the press conference, and had the opportunity to meet Thunder coach Mark Daigneault and the new players. And Steve Buck’s middle school-age boys went with her, so it was a win-win-win for everybody.

“It was an awesome experience,” she said. “I gained a whole new respect for Coach Daigneault and for the way the Thunder introduce their players to the community. It was a great event.”

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The NAMI Oklahoma “community draft picks” that attended the Thunder news conference on Saturday.

A proposal: let’s destroy ‘The Process’ in the NBA

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Plenty of good seats available shortly before tipoff at a Thunder game in February this season.

Editor’s note: Although I attribute the concept described in this post to radio talk show host Dan Patrick, my friend Don alerted me to the fact that it was originally floated by sports guru Bill Simmons.  So, I want to give credit where it’s due, and a salute to Simmons for a worthy idea.

On the list of things in this world that make me crazy, you can put the concept of “tanking” by professional sports teams close to the top.

If you’re not a sports fan, you should know that tanking means a team is trying to maneuver for the best possible draft position. It does that by having as bad a record as possible at the end of the season.

Sometimes it’s called ‘The Process’ (wink, wink).

Teams tank not by asking their players to not play hard, but by manipulating the roster so their least experienced get most of the playing time. I offer the Oklahoma City Thunder’s mostly G-League lineup down the stretch this season as Exhibit A.

Oklahoman columnist Berry Tramel put it best last fall when he wrote “losing is the path to winning.” The idea is that if a team is horrible for two, three, four seasons it will eventually be able to draft the next ‘unicorn’ that will turn it all around.

Meanwhile, local fans lose incentive to follow their team and actually show up at games. The thousands of unused seats on a nightly basis at Paycom Center this season is a prime example.

I wrote about my opposition to tanking and the need to take a “win now” philosophy before the season began. You can read it here.

But today, I’m here to offer an alternative to the tanking strategy that will keep fans more engaged as the season concludes. I credit this idea to radio talk show host Dan Patrick,  who proposed something similar on his show earlier in the season.

Here’s how it would work as I envision it:

The NBA would create an in-season, six-week tournament for the bottom teams in the standings. The league would set an in-season cutoff date of February 28 with the six teams with the league’s worst records qualifying for the tournament.

Then for the remaining six weeks of the season, qualifying teams would play to win as many games as possible before the season ends. The team that has the best record in the season-closing “tournament” would be awarded the No. 1 pick in the draft.

Thunder actionTeams would have every incentive to put their best roster on the court. Fans would have a reason to show up and cheer their local team down the stretch.

The league could make a big deal out of the tournament, with separate nightly standings, maybe even a trophy for the winning team. The rest of the draft order for the bottom six would follow according to their finish in the tournament.

However, it needs a name. The Race to Save Face? Bottoms Up? Sprint to the Finish? I’ll let the marketers handle that.

My friend Steve poo-poos this concept because the league’s conferences are not balanced talent-wise. But he’s a tanking enthusiast and wears unicorn-colored glasses.

So, what does happen if the team with the seventh worst record on Feb. 28 loses so many games that it has the league’s worst record by season’s end?

That team is shut out of the tournament, so it only gets the seventh pick in the draft order. But it has no incentive keep losing, and that’s the point.

Thank you, DP, for sharing this idea.

So, what’s keeping the league from adopting The Race to Save Face and creating some excitement for bottom-feeding teams?

Nothing that I can see. Let’s destroy “The Process.”