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

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.”

Fan’s message to Thunder: Let’s play to win

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The Thunder’s season-opening tipoff in 2015.

We’re about to welcome the launch of the OKC Thunder’s ’21-’22 season, and the debate over tanking continues for a second straight year.

Do the Thunder continue to “explore the roster” and chase the league’s worst record in hopes of drafting the next unicorn?

Or do they take this young roster and try to be competitive in a very good Western Conference?

Sam Presti said recently that the team will take no shortcuts. You can read into that whatever meaning you choose.

“What we want to do is be playing meaningful basketball at the end of the year,” Presti said. “We want to try to do everything we can to put ourselves in position to optimize the group that we have, and there’s just no shortcuts to that. It comes back to the commitment to the process that’s in place and being willing to be patient with that as we go through, especially with this much change as we’ve experienced.”

Here’s the takeaway from that: “commitment to the process.”   Translation: “lose for the lottery.”

In today’s column in The Oklahoman,  Berry Tramel laid it out. “Losing is the path to winning.”

Ouch.

But put me down for trying to be competitive.

I know that puts me at odds with my fellow Thunder fans who celebrate tanking and see a championship caliber team in the future as a result.

There seems to be a couple schools of thought within NBA fandom.

One school says that if you don’t win the NBA championship, your entire season is a bust.

So tank until you can build the roster up.

The other school says that competing at a high level against the best players in the world and making a playoff run is great entertainment.  Yes, we may come up short in the end, but we’ve got something to cheer for through the long, cold winter months.

Remember the fun we had in the early 2010s when the Thunder went deep into the playoffs, even if they came up short?

We were living high as Oklahoma City Thunder fans.  Those are cherished memories of mine almost a decade later.

But you know what?  Those Thunder teams didn’t win the championship.

That doesn’t diminish the memory for me in the least.

My friend Steve Buck argues that the Thunder team of that era was a championship caliber team even if it didn’t win it all.

“Here’s the deal…for many of those years we were capable of winning the title,” he says. “That’s the goal here…get a club rebuilt that is capable to contend. Playing for a one and out is not the goal.  You want to position yourself to win it all.”

My point is that we didn’t win it all, but, gee, we had fun.

And now we’re losing for the lottery.  It makes for long, bleak seasons.  And there’s no promise of a unicorn at the end. Or even of a top three pick (see this year’s lottery fiasco).

Here’s to the new season and hoping the Thunder will be over-achievers.

Let’s not chase the luck of the lottery once again.  Let’s play to win now.

BONUS: Here is how Berry Tramel has the bottom of the West ranked going into the season:

Tramel Predict

Guest blog post from Steve Buck: Thunder up!

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Guest blogger Steve Buck, with his wife Lisa, explains why he’s enthusiastic about the Thunder’s tanking strategy and its future.

Editor’s note: My friend Steve Buck and I have gone back and forth for months over the Oklahoma City Thunder. We’ve debated their tanking strategy to maneuver for better draft lottery position, as well as Sam Presti’s flipping of players for future draft choices. Steve is all in on the Thunder’s strategy, while I’ve mourned the loss of so many fan-favorite players. So, I asked Steve to write this guest post to provide perspective on why he’s so enthusiastic about the Thunder’s strategy and their future. Thank you, Steve. Here is his take:

By Steve Buck

For a decade, I enjoyed watching the Thunder find success. It was cool to see national networks regularly featuring our city and state as the team regularly showed up in the post-season. And the players who stepped on the court wearing our Thunder uni’s … Durant, Westbrook, Harden, CP3, George, Melo and so many others … extraordinary talents calling OKC home. It was fun to watch and celebrate victories and lament losses and injuries. But, candidly, as enjoyable as those teams were, I wasn’t really a fan, just a bystander enjoying the ride.

That changed in 20-21 though. I have entered fan mode.

To the reader who has enjoyed the decade of outstanding play from the club, you likely find it odd that I’d buy into the team in a year when, in terms of on the court success, they were simply awful. But in that poor record, I truly gained insight into the massive job in front of Sam Presti to sustain a small market club for the long-haul.

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Thunder at home during 2016 playoffs

As I tried to learn from observing, I caught glimpses in his approach that I have strived for in my own professional path … steadfast pursuit of a long-term outcome, commitment to principles, patience where necessary, preparedness to seize opportunity when presented and commitment to building a culture of respect and camaraderie for club players and employees. I’ve also watched roster development and seen the focus on fit as much as flash. I find that approach appealing.

I know my friends in the Thunder Fan World have struggled saying goodbye to the historic names that have played on our roster. The host of this blog post, for example, laments roster churn every time we discuss Thunder hoops. The churn has been painful. I get it. My daughters, for example, consider wherever Westbrook plays their favorite team.

But I have taken a more pragmatic view of the roster rollover… 1) it is necessary to meet the long-term objective of sustained excellence, and 2) professionally, we accept employer changes as expected so why do we not expect Thunder players to change employers with regularity too.

Why Jim Stafford can’t embrace the Thunder changes.

And now the current players. SGA, Dort, Poku, Kenrich, Baze and the rest of the ’20 – ’21 crew. They may not have won many games, but they sure played hard. Some knew it might be their only shot…and they gave every ounce of energy they had against elite competition.

I get it that there was some roster gamesmanship and the club needed losses, but it was still fun. And encouraging. And tantalizing.

Poku, for example. Geez, there sure were some duds. But there were also moments where you could see a unique talent that might just be a fit that pays huge dividends down the road. Dort. How can you not love a guy’s work ethic who could’ve gone south after being passed over in the draft but instead throws everything at self-improvement. And finally, SGA. I believe he can win a slew of games for us in the future. Yes, I know that each is an asset and might have to be moved, but I also know that Presti wants sustained excellence, so the churn must stop soon.

In financial markets, we are encouraged to buy low and sell high. We’ve run at a peak in the Loud City for many years. Last year was a temporary market set-back in terms of our NBA club. Seems like a great time to buy because I see historic gains for the club in the future. That’s why this bystander became a fan in ’20-21. During the empty arena season that was a debacle in the win-loss column I bought a ticket package for the 21-22 campaign – my first package purchase since the club has been in OKC.

I am very bullish on this club, our players and team leadership.

THUNDER UP!!!

Steve Buck is the President and CEO of a trade association in Oklahoma City and co-owner of Mentalitea and Coffee, a new shop opening soon in Bethany, OK.

March 11 and the end to life as we knew it

The scoreboard told the story on March 11, 202

We all remember March 11, 2020, as the day that life ended as we knew it.

It was the day that the Jazz-Thunder game at Chesapeake Energy Arena was postponed because a Utah player tested positive for COVID-19.

A single NBA game postponed in Oklahoma City was the first falling domino in a cascade of millions of others around the world.

OKC was the center of the COVID universe that night.

The Oklahoman wrote a terrific oral history of that night in OKC that you don’t want to miss.

My family will always have vivid memories of March 11. I was home, parked in front of the television waiting for the game to commence.

Meanwhile, my wife met her mother, like we often do – or did – at Chesapeake Arena and waited for tipoff from their seats in Section 206.

I’m not sure who suspected something was up first. As the television broadcast went on, I recall the Thunder announcers talking about a delay, but not knowing what was causing it.

In the arena, my wife and her mother noticed the delay too.  They were expecting tipoff at any second.

But it never happened.

“The moment that stands out to me,” Paula told me, “was the two Thunder employees running out and huddling at midcourt with the game officials. We didn’t know what it was about, but we knew that something was up.”

At home in my recliner, I speculated to Paula in a text that the game might be delayed because a player had tested positive for COVID. I was repeating a rumor I saw on Twitter.

She texted back what she saw from her seat, which was that players were being herded off the court. The Thunder tried to distract the crowd for a few minutes with what would have been the halftime entertainment.

But fans in the stands were left to speculate among themselves what was happening. Some grew restless, she said.

Finally, the Thunder announced that the game had been postponed on orders from the NBA. Fans were asked to leave in an orderly fashion.

Paula and her mom slowly left the arena, but not before she took an awesome photo of the scoreboard that announced the postponement. No one panicked, although there were a few boos after the announcement.

It wasn’t until she got home that it was confirmed what we all suspected. Rudy Gobert had tested positive for COVID-19.

We both wondered if she and all the other fans in attendance were in danger. Was Gobert even there (he wasn’t)? What did it mean to the rest of the NBA season?

I remember that the TV coverage continued for some time after the game was cancelled. But I recall very little of what was said, because the implications of what had just happened were all I could think about.

Turns out that the NBA did shut down after March 11, followed by college basketball, Major League Baseball and most of life as we knew it.

Paula’s photo has served as my Twitter and Facebook background for exactly one year. I’m retiring it today, replacing it with a happier photo shot at an OKC Dodgers baseball game two years ago.

It’s time to move on with our lives.