All in on Sam Presti & the Thunder season

Presti screen
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.

thunder tip2021
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.

Paula Daigneault
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.”

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

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.

Thunder playoff
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.

Unwelcome Ch-ch-changes

The Thunder tipoff in an early November 2015 game at Chesapeake Arena.

The 2020-21 Oklahoma City roster proves a point that I’ve heard many times over the years.

We’re only cheering for laundry.

Like many Oklahomans, I’ve been a Thunder fan since the team relocated here in 2008. I’ve been to many games over the years.

Along the way, I adopted many Thunder players as my own. Russell Westbrook. Nick Collison. Serge Ibaka. Steven Adams. Andre Roberson. Jerami Grant. Enes Kanter. James Harden. Even Kevin Durant. Especially KD.

The list goes on.

For several years, we had a core of players that we knew and could count on leading the Thunder lineup every season. We got to the NBA Finals with that lineup one year and should have made it to another if Patrick Beverly had not assaulted Westbrook.

But that’s another story. My point is that I became comfortable with our players and our team, although the roster was slowly turning over as we lost Harden, Ibaka, Kanter, et al over time.

Then KD left abruptly. But Russell stayed, and while we added and subtracted new players, our core stayed relatively stable.

Then 2019-2020 happened and the Thunder as I’ve known them disappeared. Westbrook long gone. Grant gone. Adams gone. Dennis Schroder gone. Chris Paul came and went from OKC a second time.

By the time the 2020-21 season started, we had four — four! — players from our previous roster, none of them long-time beloved stars.

So, I’m still watching the Thunder nightly, but with much less passion. I know Sam Presti’s plan is to lose now to chase potential later. But I don’t have to like it.

A friend I’ll call “Steve” accused me of being a fan of mediocrity.

“Winning by losing,” he said. “What a great concept.”

But we weren’t mediocre. The Thunder that I knew were great and went where small market teams almost never go, to the NBA Finals. And with players we knew and loved.

Now, we’ve turned the roster over and acquired dozens of first round draft choices, because the grass is always greener in the future.

I’m not sure if mass roster changes will ever end as Presti chases the elusive future player who will bring us championship glory.

It’s a bittersweet relationship, but now I know. We’re only cheering for laundry.