Sam Presti talked for almost 30 minutes on Thursday, and said a lot of things. Some of which made some of you happy, some of which made some of you unhappy.
But one thing was pretty clear: The Thunder know their plan, they know their identity, and they know they’re not wavering.
Scott Brooks will be back next season. So will Kendrick Perkins. And they’re not trading Reggie Jackson.
“Looking at the age of our team and the returning nature of the team coming back for next season is reason to continue to be optimistic about our ability to sustain a high performance organization and a high performance team,” Presti said.
The season didn’t end as the Thunder had hoped, with them raising that banner and capping off the master plan with a supreme payoff. Doesn’t mean it was a disaster, though.
You may think Brooks did an awful job and holds the sole responsibility of the Thunder losing at his feet, but if you do as Presti said and see the whole picture rather than just the four losses to the Spurs, he did do well this season. The Thunder won 59 games despite Russell Westbrook missing 36 of them. They didn’t have their regular starting five in almost 70 percent of their games. They were integrating young players into the rotation with rookie Steven Adams, second-year players Perry Jones and Jeremy Lamb, and third-year player Reggie Jackson all becoming solid staples. Kevin Durant had his best season yet. Serge Ibaka did too. They finished second in the West, both in the regular season and postseason, to only the Spurs, the titans of the conference. The Western Conference is ridiculous with nine legitimately good teams, and the Thunder were in the very top tier of it. Better than the Warriors. Better than the Clippers. Better than the Rockets. Better than the Blazers. Just not quite as good as the Spurs.
Is that a horrible dumpster fire season? It always depends on your own personnel perspective and definition of success. For Presti and the Thunder, there’s not much to be ashamed of. Think about it: You’re mad because the Thunder didn’t win a championship. Forget the fact they’ve been in three of the last four Western Finals (the one absence being Westbrook’s injury), or the fact they were in the Finals with a bunch of 23-year-olds in 2012. They didn’t win it all so everything is terrible.
Here’s something you need to hear, especially if you’ve been slamming your head into the drywall the past four days: The Thunder are going to be OK. They’re really, really good. They’re in the enviable position of a whole lot of franchises in this league, and are built only to improve. We all want things now because waiting sucks. But stay the course. See the positives. Understand the vision. Suppress the knee-jerking as best you can.
Jonathan Tjarks of RealGM wrote one of the best post-mortems on the Thunder’s season making this excellent point: Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James were all 27 in their first season with the Heat. Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka are still two seasons away from that. Obviously there’s a cloud that comes with that — free agency — but assuming their eyes don’t wander and they’re bought in to this process as much as they say they are, they could still experience an incredible run of championship dominance.
This is wildly optimistic, but allow me for a moment: If the Thunder could win their first title when Durant turns 27 (yes, that means another season of failure), that means with a championship every three seasons, KD would have three by the time he’s 33 and just now coming out of his prime. One title should be enough to satisfy, but there’s still so, so much time for this team to be great. Tim Duncan is 38 and back in the Finals for crying out loud.
Obviously, it requires an initial breakthrough, and until that happens, the pressure will be ridiculous and the frustration high. Each missteps will be magnified to the max, with ample amounts of finger-pointing and tsk-tsking. Scott Brooks this, James Harden that, and all the like. But what encourages me most, is how resolute Presti is. The teams that saw open championship windows with young rosters slam shut were the ones that started chasing their own tails. The Cavs with LeBron scrambled to appease him at every turn, trying to piece together a roster to “go for it” every October. That short-sighted approach ended up bottoming out the roster and leaving the Cavs completely empty. That’s the idea behind Presti’s sustainability model: They’re going for it. Every season. With a top tier roster that’s clearly in the class of the league, the Thunder don’t need to go splash in free agency or pull of a blockbuster trade to “go for it.” Because they already are.
Knowing the way a lot of you are, you just slammed your laptop lid shut and are now stomping around your desk. How can you say that? The Thunder lost! Don’t you see?!?! The way this funny game of basketball works is that the games are individual entities, especially in the postseason. This Thunder incarnation was good enough to win a championship this season. They just didn’t make the necessary plays. If Ibaka is healthy for Games 1 and 2 — who knows. If Durant is able to drop that dagger 3 in Game 6 — who knows. If Ginobili doesn’t make his 3 — who knows. The Thunder might be the ones lining up to challenge the Heat tonight. They’re close. So very, very close. And though it’s not comforting, there’s no shame in losing to the Spurs. That’s one helluva team.
Here’s something to remember: The Thunder are going to be better next season. Durant and Westbrook will be a year older, and a year angrier. Serge Ibaka will be better. The young guys will come back better — Steven Adams, Jeremy Lamb, Reggie Jackson. They have a little money to spend on a veteran contributor. The minutes that got sucked up by Caron Butler and Derek Fisher will be going to other, presumably better, players. The 2014-15 Thunder will be the next evolution of the 2013-14 Thunder. And hopefully this time, we can see them full strength throughout an entire postseason.
Obviously the assumptive ticking clock is what casts a shadow over everything. Durant’s free agency is coming, and the gallery feels that without a title in OKC, he’s going to look elsewhere to quench his thirst. It’s a fair sentiment, but one that Presti and company can’t be bothered by. They have their plan, and they have to trust it. Like I said earlier, you can’t make 2016 the center of every decision. Durant’s going to do what he wants, and that’s his prerogative. It’s up to the Thunder to continue to churn out contenders until they can’t. And if they do, Durant’s no dummy. This isn’t the same situation as LeBron in Cleveland. LeBron never had a Westbrook, much less an Ibaka. Heck, I’m not sure he ever even had a Reggie Jackson. Bright lights and bigger cities may intrigue Durant, but which team is going to be able to put together a three-man supporting cast better than the Thunder’s in 2016, under the current salary cap rules? The league operates in cycles, and in the same way it took time for Durant to breakthrough the barrier to finally pull an MVP away from LeBron, the same thing will happen with a championship if they just stay the course.
I know, though: You want it now. So do they. They wanted it in 2012. Trying to take the long view doesn’t put anything on anyone’s fingers right now. It doesn’t guarantee anything in the future. But what’s the alternative? What’s the fix? Fire Scott Brooks and hire… who? Make a daring deal and trade Westbrook for… who? Go back to 2012 and not trade Harden, something that as time passes, looks like a better and better decision? The Thunder stand firmly in their place, and it’s a pretty good place to be.