It’s a whole lot easier to sound smart when things are going well. Sam Presti keeps sounding smarter and smarter. The Oklahoma City Thunder general manager put coach Scott Brooks in charge, drafted Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook and, not coincidentally, has seen the team go from miserable to title contender in just a couple of years.
Now the question becomes: When will the Thunder get to the point where they win it all? Presti says it has been no surprise that the Thunder have steadily improved, going from a 23-win team in his second year to the playoffs in his third to the Western Conference Finals this year.
But Presti, though he is a numbers guy, says it’s impossible to predict when his young core of players will reach their peak. That said, it’s pretty clear they don’t have much further to go as they are already true contenders.
Sam Presti joined The Sports Animal in Oklahoma City with Al and John to discuss the steady improvement of the team, the criticism of Russell Westbrook, whether he intends to keep the roster intact, a recap of the Kendrick Perkins trade, how the lack of a CBA affects his daily work going forward, the support from the people of Oklahoma City, the upcoming draft and the future of his young core of players.
What would he have said to someone two years ago if they said the Thunder would be in the Western Conference Finals in 2011?:
“I’d say that I would hope they were correct. … I think one thing that we learned during that year was never to underestimate our guys. Us in our building, us in our practice facility and us in our office, one of the things we’ve always prided ourselves is always just focusing on the day at hand and trying to improve. Through that season, I think a lot of our recent success was born … in the fact that the group as the whole just kept chipping away.”
His thoughts on the national criticism of Russell Westbrook:
“You’re only human if you know it’s there. Once you get to this point in the year, there’s only a couple teams or a couple series playing and that’s part of it. One thing we really learned about Russell through that process, or one thing that was confirmed, he’s an incredibly resilient person. … I think the other thing we learned is he’s really only focused on the things that he can control. … I think he deserves a lot of respect as a second-team all-NBA player, a 22-year-old point guard in the Western Conference Finals, in being self-critical.”
Does he want to keep this roster intact for next season?:
“Always we’re looking for ways to improve and we’ll take some time over the next weeks and months to look at all of our decisions. One of the things we’ve consistently said is we want to be a team capable of lasting success. Part of that is continuity, part of that is allowing things to take place. … I think the better word is evolutional, and this team is evolving. … We feel good about where we are.”
Evaluating the trade for Kendrick Perkins now that the season is over:
“Obviously when you make a trade like that you’re making it for a lot of different reasons. … It was a chance to not only get a player who understands the finer points of the games, understands how high-performing teams work, especially the defensive end. But to get someone like that, at that position, at 26 years old, was something we were very excited about. … We know and we knew when we made the trade that he was on pace in his recovery but he wasn’t going to be 100 percent. … You never heard Kendrick complain or make an excuse that, although he was deep into his rehab, it wasn’t completed. We like the fact that his standards never changed.”
How much might he be handcuffed by the uncertainty of the CBA at this point?:
“When it comes to those situations and just the labor agreement in general, I really have to defer to the league on that. … We were back at work the day after we were eliminated from the postseason, focused on the following year. … We had a large number of guys back at our facility a couple days after and I think that’s one of the strengths of our team.”
Has the city of Oklahoma City surprised him at all in their support of the franchise?:
“I’d like to be able to say it surprised me, but before moving here I had heard so many great things about this community. Moving here only confirmed that for everybody. Our fans are unbelievably supportive. They’re passionate and they’re compassionate, because I really feel as if they care about our players as people as well. … That’s not lost on the players or the players that have played here.”
What is he looking for in the draft this time around?:
“Obviously we’re going to pick 24th this year. We do not have a second-round pick. … We’re going to see what we can do with that selection. The pick can be used in any number of ways. Obviously we can take a player, we can trade it for a player, we can trade it for a future pick. … Where we always start out, first and foremost, is trying to find people we feel like can fit our organization.”
At what age does he expect his young group to peak?:
“That’s a great question and I wish I could tell you there was a way for us to predict that. There really isn’t. One thing we know is this, the experiences that we’re accumulating over time are really helping our players in the area of recognition, recognizing the things that high-performing teams do on a consistent basis. When you have those players, I don’t necessarily think their improvement is a result of time elapsed, but it’s actually what’s been accumulated, what’s been experienced within that time.”