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.

thunder tip2021
Thunder tip off in an early 2021-22 season game

Oklahoma legends and a spelling disaster

Mike Turpen before leading an educational session at a convention last week in Norman.

Life can take a surreal turn at times. Like this: One day almost two decades ago, I was standing outside a wireless telephone store across from Penn Square Mall when a big black limousine pulled up.

A door opened and I hopped in, where I was greeted by former OU football coach Barry Switzer. The King himself.

I am not making this up.

Turns out, I was the technology reporter at The Oklahoman at the time.  My editor asked me to accompany Switzer as he surprised the lucky winner of a prize offered as a promotional special by the wireless telephone company.

As I sat in the seat next to Coach Switzer, he began to ask me what I did at the paper, about my family and where I grew up. When I said “Arkansas,” he reacted as though he had just found a long-lost relative.

You probably know that Switzer is an Arkansas native, the son of a bootlegger. He’s also friendly, conversational and full of stories.

We had a great time as we rode to Midwest City to pick up the winner. Switzer told me stories from his life in Arkansas and people he knew from Fort Smith, which is my hometown.

By the time the assignment was over, I felt I had known Barry Switzer for years. It was like saying goodbye to a favorite uncle as I got out of the limo.

I’ve written all of that because I met another Oklahoma legend with a big personality this past week, and it felt like deja vu all over again. 

My friend Steve Buck asked me to serve as a room monitor in Norman at the spring convention of the organization he leads.

As I was stationed outside the door to my assigned room before the workshop began, I turned and found myself face to face to Mike Turpen.

If you’ve lived in Oklahoma any time at all, you know Turpen is long-time co-host of the Flashpoint issue/debate show on KFOR in OKC. He is also a former Oklahoma Attorney General and chairman of the Oklahoma Democratic Party.

“I’m the last Democrat in Oklahoma,” Turpen joked after we introduced ourselves.

As Switzer had done years ago, Turpen wanted to know about where I worked and what I had done for a career, where I was from, who my wife was and what she did. Her name is Paula, I said, and she was a school principal before retiring and now works for a non-profit organization.

“Oh, she’s famous,” he said.

I laughed. My wife later told me she’s certain she has never met Turpen.

As we stood talking in the hallway of the convention center, Turpen opened his briefcase and handed me a little booklet he has written. It is entitled “10 Qualities for Survival and Success in the New Millennium.”

I admitted to him that I had misspelled his name in the paper years ago. He brushed it off as no problem.

Turpen was a presenter at one of the workshops at the convention, so he headed to his assigned room, which was just down the hall from mine.

“May I come in and take your picture,” I asked?

“Sure,” he replied. “Just email me a copy.”

So, I took the photo that is at the top of this page and later sent him a copy from my iPhone.

“Hello Mr. Turpen” I wrote with my thumb as a greeting before spell-correct on my phone got ahold of it.

It came out “Hello Mr. Turpentine.”  I failed to self-edit and hit “send.”

Turpen later sent me a “thank you” for the photo. He didn’t mention that I had misspelled his name AGAIN.

However, I quickly sent him an apology.

I got it right the third time.

Fun at the ol’ ballyard with game on the clock

Altuve
That’s Houston Astros star Jose´ Altuve batting for Sugar Land against the OKC Dodgers on Friday night.

I saw something Friday evening at an Oklahoma City Dodgers game at Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark that I’ve never witnessed before: A 9-inning professional baseball game played in 2 hours and 14 minutes.

And it was a fun, action-filled game between the Dodgers and the Sugar Land Space Cowboys that was won by OKC 3-2.

Thanks to new rules that mandate no more than 14 seconds between pitches — 18 if runners are on base — the game moved incredibly fast.

There seemed to be no complaints by players or managers over the mandated fast pace. However, there appeared to be a Sugar Land player called out at one point because he wasn’t ready for the pitch in time.

I was able to witness the Dodgers game thanks for my friend Steve Buck and two of his children. Steve had an extra ticket and invited me at the last minute.

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Steve Buck, along with Kenzy and Isaiah Buck at the Dodgers game Friday.

We had a blast and got to see the most exciting play in baseball — a triple — hit by Dodgers outfielder Drew Avans. The next time up Avans surprised the Space Cowboys by laying down a bunt and getting an easy single out of it.

We saw OKC’s Jake Lamb hit a 2-run home run in the third inning. We saw future baseball hall of famer José Altuve bat for Sugar Land on a rehab assignment. Altuve got a couple of singles, but also was called out on strikes.

Steve and I began to notice the incredible pace of the game after about three innings, which had taken maybe 40 minutes of playing time. We were headed into the fifth when the game reached an hour of playing time.

We saw three OKC pitchers hold Sugar Land to only single runs in the fifth and sixth innings, and nothing more. Then we watched Sugar Land’s Zac Rosscup shut down the Dodgers over the last 1.2 inning and noted that Rosscup has not given up a single run this season over 9 innings. Nothing but zeros.

We celebrated the seventh inning stretch by singing badly, then Googling the history of the seventh inning stretch because we wanted to know how it started. If you must know, it was started by President William Howard Taft at a game in Pittsburgh in 1910.

You can look it up yourself.

Even though we were tracking the swift pace of the game, the final three outs came so quickly in the 9th it caught us by surprise. We headed to our cars at 9:19 pm on a game that started at 7:05.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat through games that started at 7:05 and by 10 pm were only in the 7th or 8th innings.

It was a refreshing change, and appears to be more than a short-term trend.

FreedmanFor reference, here’s an article I found that shows just how much the pitch clock has impacted the length of games throughout the minor leagues.

Dodgers radio announcer and communications director Alex Freedman later tweeted that the Dodgers and Sugar Land games averaged — AVERAGED — 3 hours and 34 minutes last year. So far this year, the first five games have gone 2:51, 2:23, 2:58, 2:14 and 2:32.

Big difference.

I’m hoping that Major League Baseball will embrace the pitch clock ASAP.

Average time of MLB games this year so far: 3:07.

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

A Vintage coffee shop idea for the 2020s

Ed Coffee
Ed Godfrey enjoying his newspaper at a local coffee shop this past Spring

My friend Ed Godfrey may look like he hit his prime as a Stigler High School football star back in the 1970s, but he’s really a guy full of ideas for the 2020s

Ed and I like to meet in coffee shops across the OKC metro and solve the world’s problems over a cup of Joe.

Ed takes his coffee black, thank you very much.

Anyway, we were sitting in a local bagel place last week talking about a new family-owned coffee shop some friends of mine recently launched in Bethany. It’s called MentaliTEA and Coffee. The owners are Steve and Lisa Buck and their daughter Avery.

I had already sampled the Bucks’ new shop, and Ed wanted to know what it offered.

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MentaliTEA and Coffee

I responded that it offered a relaxing setting with great spots for conversation, along with the usual coffee shop menu of drip coffees, various espresso drinks, teas and pastries. It even offers hot biscuits.

Ed thought about that for a few seconds.

“I think we ought to open up our own coffee shop,” he finally said. “We’ll call it Vintage Coffee. No espresso machine. No fancy pastries. Donuts only.”

I laughed at the thought of a straight coffee-only coffee shop run by a couple of old school geezers.

“We’re going to offer only Folgers, Maxwell House and Sanka, which was my father’s favorite coffee,” Ed continued. “It’s like a step back in time.”

SankaHe was rolling now. It would be located not in the heart of the metro, but in a rural community where they might still appreciate coffee out of a can the way their fathers and grandfathers drank it

“We don’t need any baristas, either,” he said. “Pour it into a cup and stir it up.”

I was already seeing Formica countertops.

Ed also is the guy who had the excellent idea to connect community events across Oklahoma like the Rush Springs Watermelon Festival with the Oklahoma City Dodgers baseball team.

We haven’t seen any watermelon seed-spitting contests yet as between-inning entertainment, but it could happen.

Ed’s already working on outreach for his coffee shop concept.

He knows that I’ve worked for years with the Love’s Entrepreneur’s Cup collegiate business plan competition. It’s an event in which teams of students from college campuses across Oklahoma pitch innovative ideas to panels of judges with thousands of dollars of cash prizes on the line.

“Maybe one of those college teams could take this idea and win the Love’s Cup,” Ed said.

It could happen.

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.