By Randy Renner, Senior Writer
Sam Presti sat and talked with Oklahoma City reporters for the ninth time leading into a Thunder training camp on Wednesday but it was perhaps the first time since that first season that he didn’t quite know for sure what kind of team he has.
For most every one of those past eight seasons Presti knew he had a core of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka. They would be the foundation each seasonal version of the Thunder would be built upon.
Now only Westbrook remains.
“It’s going to be a process of discovery for ourselves,” he said, “to find the best version of ourselves.”
And it won’t be a process that’s complete by the start of the season, probably not even by the middle of the season.
Head coach Billy Donovan tinkered with options last season and then tailored the team to fit precisely against matchups with each opponent in the playoffs. It was a method that at times looked like madness in the regular season but then worked to near perfection in the playoffs.
Now, without Durant and Ibaka, and with players new to the Thunder in Victor Oladipo and Ersan Ilyasova and new to the NBA in Alex Abrines and Domantas Sabonis, Donovan will tinker and tailor even more and all with Presti’s full blessings.
“I think Billy did an excellent job (last season),” Presti said. “He could have been really shortsighted and impulsive, especially with so many uncertainties in being new to the job. He showed such competitive maturity and wisdom through that. I think he's going to do a great job, but I think it will be progressional. And I think there will always be a plan of attack, but it's going to be to continue to create different options for us as a basketball team”
And with all the comings and goings between the end of last season and the beginning of this one they will will be very different options indeed.
“I'm really, really excited about the group that we have and watching them come together because I think they also have a tremendous opportunity to come together as a really cohesive team and a team that's really connected on an emotional level.”
And there’s a sense of excitement and anticipation of what’s to come.
“There's a real positive energy and enthusiasm amongst the players, the staff in general,” Presti said. “And I think I've picked that up around the city as well, which is so great.”
This season’s version of the Thunder will be built on speed, quickness and length. It has the potential to be outstanding defensively, which will be a very good thing because they may not be nearly as good offensively.
But Presti was quick to point out we really don’t know that, or much of anything for sure, about this season’s Thunder.
“If we were to just make judgments based off of what we think versus what we know, I think we'll be really missing a learning opportunity,” he said.
“Until we know kind of how this particular team is going to look and evolve, it would be really hard for us to make a judgment on what we do or we don't have. I do think one thing we can say we have is I do think we have a physicality to us, an athleticism to us, and I think there's a competitive spirit to this particular group that's really fun to be around.”
So this ninth season of Thunder basketball will be different than most all of the others. No one really knows for sure what to expect.
Surprises, good and bad, likely await. But hey, that’s part of the fun right?
“We're not competing with our past. We never have,” Presti pointed out. “But we are 100% committed and excited about creating our future, and that is what I think people sense, and that is what makes it great to be a part of what we're doing right now.”
Training camp officially begins on Saturday.
Presti spoke with reporters for about 35 minutes on a variety of subjects. Among the highlights:
Mitch McGary’s suspension.. “I'm disappointed in the fact that he's in that situation. He's under contract with the team. He'll be with us in training camp with an opportunity to compete. All that being said, I think it's going to be a competitive camp. We've got probably more deserving players lined up to come to camp than we have roster spots.”
Possible contract extensions for Steven Adams, Victor Oladipo and Andre Roberson…”The way I look at each deal is every one of them is unique to itself because you're dealing with people. You're dealing with priorities. You're dealing with all the different factors, and then a lot of times you don't even know what you're dealing with outside of what you think you're dealing with. When you have two motivated parties, generally you can find that opportunity to find a common ground. At the same time if those things don't get completed, then you go into the next summer. Obviously you go into free agency and it's a restricted free agency. I look at that as more of an opportunity than a necessity.”
Bringing Alex Abrines over from Spain now instead of next season…”In a lot of ways it's like adding an additional draft pick. People sometimes forget how young he really is. Just given the fact that he's played professionally for so long. I think like with any emerging player or any player transitioning from Europe to the NBA, there will be assimilation process, especially given the fact that our team is assimilating to identify where everybody's strengths can be leveraged. It was great to have him in the immediacy, but we see long-term an opportunity for him to grow and thrive with us. He shoots the basketball at a high level. He's got good size. He's bigger than people probably realize when you get up close to him. And he has a good understanding of how to play and what his game is, which I think happens when you play overseas at that level. We're really excited not just to have him now, but we see a long-term future for him here.”
What Oladipo can bring to the team…” I think people here in Oklahoma City are going to take to him very quickly and very kindly. He, in addition to getting better season by season, I mean, it's exciting to think about the speed, agility, quickness and ferocity of a Westbrook-Oladipo backcourt. That's exciting for us. So couple that with some of the other big, physical, athletic players that we have those are the things that get you excited.”
Is Cameron Payne healthy and ready for camp coming off his foot surgery…”He's going to be a little rusty because he hasn't played as much basketball. But the most important thing is he's healthy. He's in a really good position going forward. We'll have to watch some things just because he's assimilating back into normal workloads. But he's, you know, unrestricted and should be able to go through as much as our training staff feels like he's capable of. But we're not going to be able to evaluate where he is based on what we're seeing in the media see. I think we're going to have to understand in context that he's coming back from that injury.”
Does the team need more shooters or at least better shooting to be successful with the losses of Durant and Ibaka…”There has to be in competitive sports more ways to win than one. I think we demonstrated that last year. We weren't a great three-point shooting team. When we won, we won by playing to our strengths. Leveraging our advantages. If everyone's trying to win the same way, I think it's the easiest path to the middle, and we have to continue to figure out what that path for us is going to be to maximizing ourselves as a team. I wouldn't say just this season, but I think moving forward as well because, as we know, teams change, players change.”