As OKC moves into another competitive era, Sam Presti draws inspiration from the first

As OKC moves into another competitive era, Sam Presti draws inspiration from the first

The Thunder general manager built a young OKC team into a winner once before. He’s applying the lessons he learned then as he tries to do it again now.

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

| Sep 29, 2023, 1:10pm CDT

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

Sep 29, 2023, 1:10pm CDT

OKLAHOMA CITY — Here’s what happens when somebody asks Sam Presti a question about his bench. 

The Thunder GM runs through some of his team’s likely reserves and talks a little about the distribution of minutes, about the opportunity available to players and the chance to develop depth using G League assignments. 

And then he tells a story about seeing “Hamilton”; about the energy and passion in the show at the Civic Center Music Hall; about how he was “floored” by the lead actor’s performance. 

“Then I found out later on that he was the understudy,” Presti said at his preseason news conference this week. “He didn’t get a lot of reps. He didn’t get a lot of minutes. But within that moment, with pressure and expectation and a lot of other people relying on him, he was captivating.”

It’s hard for Presti not to draw parallels between performance and basketball. When he sees a virtuoso on the drums, he can’t help but think of the rhythms of the game. 

When he remembers Marty McFly riffing on Chuck Berry at the end of “Back to the Future” — and the way the rest of the Starlighters stop playing and watch — he equates it to a player whose spectacular skills aren’t being used “within the framework” of a team. 

Thinking about basketball in that way, drawing insight from outside the industry, Presti said, “keeps me inspired to keep thinking about things and challenging the people I work with.” 

With his Thunder team at the dawn of a promising season, though, there might be no more important place for Presti to draw inspiration now than from his own past. 

This is his second Thunder team poised to move from NBA novelty to playoff contender, and the lessons Presti learned from Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden figure to serve him with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Josh Giddey and Chet Holmgren. 

“I do think that does help us, because I think what you see is just the different stages that the team can go through and all the struggles that it can experience,” Presti said. “But being a young team now is different than (before); there’s a different set of silent forces.”

About those. 

In any era, Presti said, there are things that “generally get in the way of a young team’s success,” variables like the pursuit of individual statistics, personal ambitions, accolades and 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.”

Those factors can change with time, and Presti is quick to point out that social media has a presence it lacked in the inaugural era of Thunder basketball. It’s “a hyper-individualistic endeavor” Presti said, that has great value but “also erodes your responsibility to other people because it’s so focused on you.”

It’s more prevalent now, more potentially divisive to a team. 

And that’s hardly the only change since the days when the Durant/Westbrook Thunder were on the come-up. 

The NBA plays a different game than it did then. The collective bargaining agreement and salary cap strategies have changed. 

The organization navigated some rocky terrain in climbing what Presti has called its “first mountain,” but there’s a danger in following the same steps, in what Presti called the “mental time travel” of trying to lay out a future path based solely on the past. 

“That just doesn’t work…,” Presti said. “It’s the reason why the Minute Men didn’t call on the Air Force. They didn’t have that. Would have been handy, but it doesn’t work that way.” 

But there are through lines, too, Presti said, universal truths and consistent obstacles to success, lessons learned from his first Thunder build that apply to his second. 

More than anything, there’s the experience of going through it. 

The Thunder has crammed an era into its first decade-plus — the Finals; the Harden trade; the rise and departure of Durant; the emergence of Westbrook as a spectacular soloist; the Paul George experiment; a rebuild around Gilgeous-Alexander. 

There were big wins and hard losses on that first climb, and the realization Presti said, that “it’s real hard to win, and when you do you need to appreciate it.” 

“I have to think there’s some type of mileage that you gain as an organization through that, that you learn and everyone gets kicked around a little bit,” Presti said. “I think we’ve gotten kicked around. Hopefully we’ve learned from some of those things.” 

And though Presti plays it coy on specifics — he’ll never tell you how the blueprint differs this second time around — the man who draws inspiration from all around is clear that his second swing at contention will pull from his first. 

“You cannot be wise with another man’s experience,” Presti said. “We had to go through that to learn what it is that we’ve learned about trying to build the best basketball team in Oklahoma City with a set of values that people here would appreciate and would resonate with them. The next 15 years, the second mountain is what we’re focused on now, with the experience that is our own, that we’re not mimicking anyone else, we’re not imitating anyone else.” 


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Brett Dawson, the Thunder beat writer at Sellout Crowd, has covered basketball for more than 20 seasons at the pro and college levels. He previously worked the Thunder beat at The Oklahoman and The Athletic and also has covered the New Orleans Pelicans, Los Angeles Lakers and L.A. Clippers. He’s covered college programs at Louisville, Illinois and Kentucky, his alma mater. He taught sports journalism for a year at the prestigious Missouri School of Journalism. You can reach him at [email protected] or find him sipping a stout or an IPA at one of Oklahoma City’s better breweries.

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