OKLAHOMA CITY — Isaiah Joe spent a couple seasons in Philadelphia before moving to Oklahoma City a year ago, and the Sixer squads he was a part of were veteran. Experienced. Successful, too.
His first season in Philly the Joel Embiid-led Sixers had the best record in the East. Both seasons Joe was there, they advanced to the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Joe knows, then, some of what makes for successful teams.
When he signed with the Thunder as a free agent, he joined a team that was much younger, much less experienced — at 23, Joe was among the older guys last season. In Oklahoma City, Joe quickly realized he had landed on a squad that had a mentality more mature than its age would suggest.
“You could tell that the main goal was winning,” Joe said. “Nobody had ego out there on the court. … The guys are willing to learn and listen and do the right things to win games.
“When that’s part of the recipe, you’re a hard team to beat.”
Thing is, that’s not usually how young teams cook.
As the Thunder prepares to tip off the season Wednesday night in Chicago, expectations are high. And why wouldn’t they be? OKC made a 16-game improvement a year ago, making the Play-In Tournament, winning a game but falling just short of the playoffs. With a great core of players led by Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and joined by Chet Holmgren, everything is trending up.
“But every year’s a new challenge,” Thunder coach Mark Daigneault said after the team’s final practice before leaving for Chicago and a 7 p.m. Wednesday opener against the Bulls. “Every day presents a new challenge.
“Nothing carries over.”
But Daigneault and others inside Thunder headquarters hope there were some lessons learned and some habits made over the past couple of seasons that will continue this season. They are the lessons and habits that helped the Thunder make big strides a year ago.
That 16-game improvement was not normal. Teams that win less than 30 games (as OKC did in 2021-22 when it won only 24 games) usually need two years on average to improve 12 games. Had the Thunder held to the average, it would be looking at a 36-win record this season.
Instead, it blew past that in just one season. In essence, last year’s Thunder had two years worth of improvement.
“We got fortunate in a lot of different ways,” Thunder general manager Sam Presti said, “and that’s still with the fact that we finished as an under .500 team. We really struggled to play more than a month of consistent basketball.”
OK, Debbie Downer.
But yeah, Presti is right. The Thunder hasn’t been above .500 since the pandemic bubble.
Despite his dose of reality, Presti was thrilled not only that last year’s team beat the averages but also in the way the players did it. They managed to avoid what Presti calls “the silent forces of the NBA.”
Among them: statistics, accolades, personal ambitions, off-court opportunities.
“These things are important,” Presti said. “They’re not not important, but they have to come in the right order if you want to win at the highest level.”
Daigneault said, “We never undervalue those things. We understand all our players have individual careers. We want to help them achieve their individual goals. That’s part of what we want to do as a program.
“But it’s about priorities.”
Every team deals with the silent forces, and the good ones tend to be those that prioritize team success over everything else. That happens more often on experienced teams with older players who’ve gained more perspective and understanding as their careers unfold.
But Daignealt said he sensed that perspective and understanding from the young Thunder even before last season. Even though the wins weren’t as plentiful in those first couple of years of the rebuild, the mentality was good.
Presti felt the same way, a feeling that was confirmed by something then-Thunder guard Ty Jerome said during an interview.
“He basically said, ‘Hey, outside, we understand the results aren’t there, but we’re improving. Inside the building, the spirits are high,’” Presti said. “Once the players and the coaches were really not allowing outcomes to affect the environment, that’s pretty rare.”
Last season, the outcomes got better. Much, much better.
But those closest to the team said the personal goals, the silent forces or whatever you want to call them never got more important than the team. There was never any arguing over who had the ball in his hands, never any pouting about playing time or shot volume.
Jalen Williams credits communication among the players.
“We’re kind of open with addressing a lot of the stuff that goes on with each other,” said the second-year standout from Santa Clara. “I don’t think anybody feels the need to carry it over on the court.”
The messaging is good, too, from the coaching staff, especially Daigneault.
“Coach is always talking about keeping your feet on the floor,” Williams said.
That isn’t some sort of defensive posture. Daigneault is talking about having a good mental approach and being mindful of priorities, and after last season, he has even more power behind what he’s preaching.
“We had good individual achievements, not only at the top of the roster but throughout the roster,” he said, hinting at everything from SGA being first-team All-NBA to Lindy Waters having his two-way contract converted to a regular contract. “I thought we had a lot of individual success stories last season, and none of it interrupted team success. I think the guys have seen you can accomplish both by prioritizing the team.”
Will those lessons carry over to this season?
“Ultimately,” Daigneault said, “it’s their decision.”
Wednesday night, we’ll start finding out how this Thunder team approaches such issues, but if these past few seasons are any indication, the players understand what works. Doesn’t mean they’ll always do it. Doesn’t mean they’ll always win either.
After all, this is a team depending on a lot of players who aren’t even old enough to rent a car from most places.
Still, the results last season were outside evidence of what many on the inside have witnessed.
“We didn’t seem like a young team,” the sharpshooting Joe said. “We seemed like a team that’s been here before.”
Not just wise beyond their years. Successful beyond them, too.