Oklahoma City general manager Sam Presti has steadily upgraded his organization toward elite status with astute draft picks and free agent signings, while encouraging his players to have faith and take ownership in the franchise’s workmanlike philosophy.
After emerging as a perennial Western Conference contender, the Thunder took a step back last season with injuries to Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. They missed the playoffs. Presti removed once-popular coach Scott Brooks after seven seasons, a .620 winning percentage, and five playoff appearances, replacing him with sought-after University of Florida coach Billy Donovan.
Matters are still not settled in Oklahoma City. The impending free agency of Durant, who is coming off right foot surgery, hovers over the organization. There will be many suitors for his services if he elects free agency next summer. There is also uncertainty about Durant’s effectiveness after the first major injury of his career.
Westbrook could be a free agent in 2017, which means two franchise cornerstones could depart. The Thunder nabbed center Enes Kanter before the trade deadline last season and are banking on the continued development of complementary players Steven Adams, Dion Waiters, Andre Roberson, and Mitch McGary.
Whether Durant leaves the only NBA franchise he has ever known could depend on how he and Westbrook blend with Donovan, and how the Thunder fare this season.
The Globe exchanged e-mails with Presti, a Concord native, and asked him five questions about the team.
1. How has the transition gone with Donovan? How has he adjusted so far to the new environment?
“Billy’s transition has been very good. We believe it stems from a rare combination of the organizational stability and identity that we have established in Oklahoma City as we enter our eighth season, the continuity of our core players over that same period of time, and Billy’s personal qualities of curiosity, authentic communication, humility, and emotional intelligence.”
2. Is there a refreshed atmosphere with a healthy team and new additions?
“We have an ambition to build a great, enduring organization. And to preserve that ideal and sustain our success, it requires us to continually stimulate progress and evolution without relinquishing the principles and standards that we are built upon. The combination of the transition to a new coaching staff, a healthy team with the benefit of seven years of experience together that is now entering its prime years, and some additions to our roster that fit our age horizon also help fortify the existing culture, and has created an organizational momentum that has everyone excited about the present but also very optimistic about the future.”
3. How do you keep Durant from placing too pressure on himself after coming back from injury?
“People often forget that Kevin is a player who, along with Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka, has won more playoff series and been to more conference finals by the age of 27 than any players of their caliber other than Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan. He understands that performance is a process and not an all-or-nothing event, and he has an advanced perspective for someone so young in the world, let alone in the NBA. His preparation is of the highest order, and he has an established track record of performance that he will draw on as he continues to meet his own elite standards.”
4. Given Durant’s contract situation, do you sense the players feel this is a pivotal year? Do you feel that way?
“We adopted an organizational approach in 2008 that is centered on being intentional about focusing on the present, not getting sidetracked by things we can’t control, and ensuring that all of our attention and intention is on embracing the season as it comes to us. We have seen every year as important, meaningful, and worthy of our full attention, and this season will be treated in the same fashion. This approach has served us well and our players have been excellent in terms of staying disciplined to this approach during the various circumstances we have encountered over the years.
“I really think that our standing as an organization is very much due to their ability to work in the present tense and place their attention on the quality of the work, not in the past or toward a future that has yet to arrive. If we continue to stay true to this concept, and I believe we will, it allows us to embrace the opportunities that this, like any season, presents and also allows us to continue to build an identity for the Thunder that will stand the test of time.
5. How do you think the new salary cap will affect general managers in how they put together teams? Will it make your job easier or more difficult?
“It’s often overlooked, but the current CBA isn’t new anymore, it’s entering its fifth year. What makes it seem new, almost like a completely new set of rules, is the impact that the new TV money has had and more importantly how the NBA chose to structure the influx of the money beginning with one massive spike this summer. With that said, our job is to make the most of the circumstances as they’re presented to us, we can’t control them.
“Wasting energy on it or dwelling on it is inefficient and can take your mind away from where the organization needs it most. We all have to be able to adjust and adapt in ways that allow our teams to stay at an elite level day to day without compromising the future versions of those teams from the same opportunities and vision.”
East on upswing, West still rules
Former Nets assistant GM and NBA guru Bobby Marks was asked about the upcoming season. He says the East has improved, the top-heavy West remains incredibly difficult, and at least seven teams have a legitimate shot at winning the league title.
“I’m a little more impressed with the [improvement] of the East,” he said. “I’m not as sold on New Orleans as a lot of people are. I could see them taking a step back. [Jrue] Holiday playing for a whole 82 games, I’m not sure he can do that. Utah will be a lot better. They’re quite possibly a playoff team. I think Phoenix got better.
“There’s a group of [unpredictable] teams in Sacramento and LA and Denver. I’m not sold on Dallas. Portland has taken a back seat. I think the West is so top-heavy, it’s as good as we’ve seen it, one to five. But you’re going to have a bunch of teams scrambling for [playoff spots] seven and eight.”
The NBA is preparing for the salary cap increase that begins next summer with the first year of the new television contract. The increase means teams will have more money to spend and salaries will escalate exponentially, making some deals that now seem bloated look like bargains in the next few years.
One of those deals is the four-year, $32 million contract Celtics shooting guard Avery Bradley signed in the summer of 2014. That deal looks good, among a handful of contracts signed by other players opting for long-term security.
“We saw it a little bit this past summer when teams were spending with an eye toward next year,” Marks said. “I think it’s a lot more level playing field where you’ve got some of these small- to mid-market teams now being able to compete with the big-market teams because they have the money. And it’s proven that if you have a good product on the court, you’ll be able to attract some of these guys.
“I’m always a big believer that free agency is such a crapshoot. We’re into this day and age where we are overpaying, and to try to build your team through the draft and free agency is the right way to do it.”
The Celtics are one of those teams that wants to build through free agency and the draft but have struggled with the former. What’s more, only two premium free agents this past summer — LaMarcus Aldridge and Greg Monroe — signed with other teams. The movement is limited.
“I think you’ve got to get a little lucky,” Marks said. “If you’re Boston and you can use one of those [first-round] picks to possibly land a franchise player in the draft, then that’s even better than going through free agency because you’ve got a guy at a rookie salary and you’re saving $16 million rather than going to spend money on a guy like that.
“If Boston is able to continue what they’re doing, get into the playoffs and put a [quality] product on the court, I think that’s a drawing point for a lot of these guys.”
This should be another exciting season and we’re beginning to see how the league will transform from the LeBron James era to the post-LeBron era with the emergence of standouts such as Anthony Davis.
“You’ve got that next wave of kids with [Stephen] Curry and [James] Harden coming up the ranks,” Marks said. “And you’ve got a middle [group] that’s still strong with the Kevin Durants and the Russell Westbrooks, so I think there’s a good parity in the league. I don’t know if it’s at the level of the NFL where any team could win it. I think it’s as healthy as we’ve seen it. It should be a very competitive year.
“It’s not like years where we’re going in and we know the two or three teams that will be in the Finals. It’s going to be an interesting season.”
Stevens prefers a bit more variety
The Celtics’ preseason schedule was a bit different this season with two European teams, and then five games with Atlantic Division opponents — two each with the Nets and Knicks and the preseason finale against the 76ers on Friday in Manchester, N.H. Those same teams meet five days later in Boston.
The preseason schedule in many years is boring, with two games each against Atlantic opponents and perhaps an occasional game against a non-Atlantic opponent. Celtics coach Brad Stevens expressed the desire for a change to the schedule that would include more variety.
Brooklyn coach Lionel Hollins, whose team played Fenerbahce Ulker, Detroit, and four Atlantic Division teams, isn’t thrilled about seeing the Celtics twice in five days. He also prefers variety.
“When I was [playing] in Philly, we played Boston three times in the preseason, seven times during the regular season, and then a seven-game series against them two straight years,” Hollins said. “That’s a bit much. I don’t mind playing some of the Western teams that are close by, it’s easy to get to these teams and makes the travel different. It’s not a huge issue, but I would prefer to play some teams that you’re not playing all year long, especially in your division, in your conference, that you’re trying to battle with for playoff positions.”
Hollins recalled the same situation while playing for the Trail Blazers in the late 1970s.
“We played Seattle two or three preseason games, and then seven times in the regular season, it gets real tense as it goes along,” he said.
It’s difficult to determine the usefulness of Friday’s Celtics game with the 76ers when the teams meet five nights later in the regular-season opener. It’s become apparent that some Atlantic Division teams feel they are seeing too much of each other in the preseason.
Hollins also believes the exhibition schedule should be reduced to four games. Some teams are playing six games this year, others seven. Hollins wants more practice time.
“It’s something with the CBA, we only have five days of training camp that you could go two-a-days, and even with that one of the practices is only an hour with limited contact,” Hollins said. “You need practice time. The guys have to prepare and get comfortable with whatever you’re trying to implement. It’s hard when you’re in the preseason and you’re playing and traveling like you do during the regular season.
“There’s really no need to. People say, ‘It’s like the regular season, getting everybody ready.’ You don’t have to get ready for the regular season. When it happens, you do it. So I just feel like the practice time is more valuable than traveling around playing back-to-backs, and playing [three games in four nights] in the preseason.”
Commissioner Adam Silver has been open to changes in the schedule, especially the preseason. So there could be adjustments to the October itinerary.
Celtics fans should watch the fate of the Nets closely as Boston owns Brooklyn’s 2016 first-round pick. It appears the Nets will have a difficult time cracking the top eight of the Eastern Conference, meaning they will be headed for the draft lottery and the Celtics could have a premium pick. Not having a first-round pick for two of the past three years has been difficult for general manager Billy King, but the club is banking that Syracuse product Chris McCullough, who is recovering from a torn ACL, will eventually become a cornerstone. The Nets have gotten younger through trades and by taking chances on players such as former first-round pick Shane Larkin, who is expected to be the team’s backup point guard . . . Jared Cunningham may have finally found a home as he pushes for a roster spot in Cleveland. He is averaging 13.6 points per game during the preseason, including a 31-point outing on Oct. 8 against Philadelphia. Cunningham has been a journeyman since leaving Oregon State a year early and landing with the Mavericks as the 24th overall pick of the 2012 draft. At 24, he gives the Cavaliers much-needed athleticism in the backcourt . . . The AmeriLeague continues to nab intriguing names, one being former 2012 first-round pick Royce White, who has been limited to three NBA games because of anxiety issues and poor performance. White came out of Iowa State with potential superstar talent but his disorder led to him getting traded three times and finally waived by the 76ers. The Las Vegas-based league is attempting to compete with the NBA Developmental League and also added former Celtic Henry Walker (formerly Bill), who spent a chunk of last season with the Heat. Walker played well in stretches in Miami but didn’t receive an NBA training camp invite . . . The Pelicans made an interesting signing last week in former Euroleague standout and New Orleans native Bo McCalebb, who played for the Fenerbahce Ulker club that beat the Celtics in an exhibition game in 2012. McCalebb, a standout at the University of New Orleans, could be a solid backup point guard . . . Ex-Celtic Vitor Faverani is coming off the bench for Maccabi Tel Aviv after being unable to land an NBA contract. He scored 3 points in eight minutes in a loss to CSKA Moscow.
The old guard
There were 12 first- or second-time All-Stars last season, but the old guard still maintained a presence with six All-Stars age 33 or older. Should injury of ineffectiveness take its toll, what under-30 players could make an appearance at the Air Canada Centre next February?
Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team source was used in this report.