Why GM Sam Presti believes the Thunder will still make noise
It’s not that Sam Presti hasn’t been here before, at least in a sense. Nine years ago at the age of 29 he was tasked with rebuilding an organization, when he was hired as the general manager of the Seattle SuperSonics.
A year later, the Sonics became the Oklahoma City Thunder, and Presti has since built the Thunder into a contender with astute drafts and free agent signings. An NBA championship seemed not only attainable but a certainty, with Kevin Durant leading the way and Russell Westbrook emerging as an elite player.
That has changed. Durant signed with the Warriors as a free agent, and Presti now has to reshape an organization that is expected to slip into mediocrity. But the always-prepared general manager has other plans. The Thunder have moved on from Durant, re-signing Westbrook to an extension as well as adding Victor Oladipo, Ersan Ilyasova, and Joffrey Lauvergne, making for an intriguing mix.
Presti, a Concord native, recently was presented with the Humanitarian of the Year award by the Oklahoma Center for Community and Justice, a testament to his progressive leadership abilities.
“I see it less as an outcome and more of a catalyst to trying to grow and learn and evolve whatever it is that you’re a part of,” Presti said. “To me, as a catalyst, creator or a leader, creating opportunity for others, creating a diverse environment is really healthy for the collective group. I think that’s sometimes what gets lost. Diversity is not a destination, it’s a launching point for our continued growth and evolution.”
For a few days following Durant’s departure, there was speculation the Thunder would start over and trade Westbrook, who was set to become a free agent after the 2016-17 season. Instead, he signed a two-year contract extension and the organization was recharged instead of rebooted.
“It’s been a tremendous opportunity for us as an organization and obviously Russell and his commitment and a lot of the young players we’ve had in place, we’re really excited about the opportunity to continue to build what is an unwritten legacy,” Presti said. “We will be going on our ninth season in Oklahoma City and we see this as another point in time to continue to build on our principles and vision for what the Thunder stands for and is about. We’re uniformly excited about what lies ahead, knowing full well that there’s going to be ups and downs. Part of building a sustainable and enduring organization is encountering different things along the way and figuring out how to turn them into opportunities to grow. That’s our mentality.”
Westbrook was prepared to lead the organization, remaining quiet for days following Durant’s departure, until the news conference to announce his contract extension. There he accepted the reins of the franchise, and one of the league’s fiercest competitors appears determined to continue that championship crusade, without his former All-Star teammate.
“The first thing is Russell is a tremendous competitor but also highly intelligent,” Presti said. “He understands that the approach that we have to take in order to maximize ourselves is going to be one first, making sure we’re sound fundamentally and we’re continually growing through the season. That’s always kind of been a staple of the organization.
“One of the reasons why we have a lot of optimism and excitement frankly about this season upcoming is the fact that [coach] Billy Donovan has demonstrated a tremendous ability to be creative, adjust and evolve different styles of play, and utilize a lot of our personnel.”
Donovan, who is entering his second season, struggled at times last regular season, but he guided the Thunder to the brink of the NBA Finals before Oklahoma City blew a 3-1 series lead to Golden State.
“It’s been tremendous to work with Billy. He is really committed to and invested in [success] for the organization,” Presti said. “We really saw his growth during the season, but I thought the most impressive thing he was able to do last year was take a longer view and allow a commitment to the process of improvement to really drive our results. This season coming in, he’s going to have encountered a lot of the different first-time challenges any coach would encounter. He did an exceptional job last year dealing with a lot of uncertainties.”
The Thunder will have a dramatically different look. Not only did Durant sign with the Warriors, but Presti shipped longtime forward Serge Ibaka to Orlando for Oladipo. For nearly a decade, Durant, Ibaka and Westbrook were synonymous with Thunder basketball. Now two of the three are gone.
“Our ability to adapt and evolve is important and certainly has been a big part of our organization,” Presti said. “We’ve gone through several different cycles as a team and have tried to evolve off of a foundation of principles. The vision of the team and what we want the Thunder to stand for is steadfast.
“The reason why we’re optimistic about the future is because I think we have a clear identity of who we are. We know there are going to be inherent challenges. Our job is to figure out how to make progress and how to continue the legacy of the organization, and how to continue to create an environment where players and staff can thrive and do their best work. That’s energizing for everybody.”
Reinsdorf recalls Bulls’ dynasty
Jerry Reinsdorf was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame on Sept. 9 primarily for building the Bulls’ dynasty of the 1990s. Of course, he also was partially responsible for dismantling the Bulls following their 1998 championship, not allowing them to go for a fourth straight title and seventh in nine years.
Reinsdorf, who has owned the Bulls since 1985, recently offered his opinions on Michael Jordan, who changed the face of the NBA, the dynasty years, and the current Bulls.
When asked why he and general manager Jerry Krause rebuilt the Bulls despite having just won a title, Reinsdorf said, “We had five players who were going to become free agents whose market value was going to be much better than their ability deserved. I don’t want to name any names. And we knew we weren’t going to make any attempt to re-sign them. I knew that was the last championship.”
The Bulls have attempted to resuscitate their championship chances after a disappointing 2015-16 season. The offseason’s biggest splash — other than Kevin Durant signing with the Warriors — was made when the Bulls signed Heat guard Dwyane Wade.
“I thought for sure he’d go back to Miami,” Reinsdorf said. “I think he’s a tremendous addition, not only as a player but to our culture. Right off the bat he wanted to know, ‘What could I do in the community?’ He’s got his own plans and Rajon [Rondo, another offseason acquisition] has his own plans. These guys are going to be a real plus. Despite the fact some [media] seem to think we got older, we’ve got a pretty young team. So the older players, I think, are going to be great mentors for the [younger players].
“I’m not predicting anything but I think we’re going to be competitive. As bad as we were last year [42-40], we beat Cleveland three out of four and Toronto four out of four.”
Reinsdorf, despite rumors to the contrary, said his relationship with Jordan, who was angry the team was broken up after the 1998 title, has been positive.
“It’s always been good. I don’t see him very often because I don’t go to the league meetings, but it’s very cordial,” Reinsdorf said. “I talk to him. It’s a good relationship. It’s always been. It’s never been a strained relationship.”
According to Reinsdorf, Jordan said he couldn’t attend the recent ceremony in Springfield (he has been to the Hall only twice since his own 2009 induction, for the enshrinements of Scottie Pippen and Phil Knight) because he had a scheduling conflict. But Jordan did write a letter in support of Reinsdorf’s induction.
The building of the Bulls began, obviously, with the drafting of Jordan in 1984. But it took seven years to win a championship, after meticulous additions to Jordan’s supporting cast.
“It was recognizing what were the pieces that had to be put around Michael, the right complementary pieces,” Reinsdorf said. “When he was drafted, I don’t think there was a person in the world other than himself that knew he was going to be that good. His coming-out was at the  Olympics. Did I know the first year that he would be the greatest player of all time? I think it might have taken a year or two to figure that out.”
The Bulls may have won eight consecutive titles if Jordan did not retire after the 1992-93 season to pursue a baseball career. When he returned, a rusty Jordan couldn’t lead the Bulls past the Magic in the 1995 playoffs. A fully engaged Jordan came back and led the Bulls to three more consecutive titles from 1996-98.
“He didn’t have nearly the skill set in the second three [titles] that he had in the first three,” Reinsdorf said. “He became a smarter player and he became the best post player on the team, which he didn’t the first three years. And he did involve his teammates.
“I think the second three-peat team was probably a smarter team. I remember Phil [Jackson] saying right after we lost to Orlando, we’ve got to get somebody, using his words, ‘to fetch the ball.’ We needed rebounding and there was nobody else out there besides [Dennis] Rodman. We talked to Scottie and Michael and they were for it, so we did it.”
Hall is well with inductee Iverson
Despite the fact he was late for his Hall of Fame news conference, Allen Iverson offered plenty of wisdom when he did arrive.
On how he learned he was elected to the Hall:
“I knew the day that they were supposed to have called. I was in the kitchen and the phone rang and I looked at my phone and seen Springfield, Mass. [on the caller ID], and it’s only two ways you can feel. They’re going to say you’re in or you’re not. That nervous energy was there for me. And man, when she said [I was in], I broke down obviously.
“Once they let you know [you’re in], they tell you, ‘Don’t tell everybody because we don’t want everybody to know.’ How can I [not] call all the people that helped me accomplish that I just got that call that I’m going to be a Hall of Famer. I can’t tell you how many nights I cried from criticism and people critiquing everything about me and my life and the choices that I made and the mistakes that I made. To be able to say, after all of that, still to be recognized as one of the best to ever play the game, is a great moment for me and my family.”
On being considered the franchise savior after being drafted by the 76ers No. 1 overall in 1996:
“Me being 21 years old, having to carry a whole franchise on my shoulders and having to come in night in and night out and perform and be a franchise player at that age. Just the expectations and coming into a city where there was Charles Barkley and Dr. J [Julius Erving] and Moses Malone, Bobby Jones, [Billy] Cunningham, all of these greats, and to have to come in there and try to fill those shoes when I only wear a size 10, you know what I mean? And these guys are giants, and to come in there and give these fans something to see every night, give them something to cherish for the rest of their lives. I was a puppy, all the mistakes I was making, I didn’t even realize I was making mistakes.
“I was put into a situation where I was poor all my life, and then all of a sudden you put your John Hancock down, you’re rich and famous. I still don’t know how to deal with a lot of stuff that I go through now, in the aftermath of being an NBA basketball player. I’m still learning, as a father, as a boyfriend, as a family member, as a friend.”
On being one of the country’s top football prospects before deciding on basketball:
“I was saying, I hope when I get to the Hall of Fame I don’t get asked the same questions I’ve been getting asked my whole career. And I’ll pat you on the back for that one, that was a great [question]. The craziest feeling that I have is the fact that when I have my conversation with God, to me in my heart, and people can vouch for this, to me in my heart, I thought I was the greatest football player that God ever created. I honestly think that.
“I say to myself, I’m in the Hall of Fame for being a basketball player. If I thought [God] gave me all the talent in the world for football and thought I was on my way to the NFL, had all the tools and recruited by every team in the whole country, and I end up being in the Hall of Fame as a basketball player, that’s how I know God loves me.”
The rumors of Clippers guard Chris Paul and center DeAndre Jordan having any issues were dispelled when they participated together in a court refurbishing at the Boys & Girls Club in Carson, Calif. Paul originally was supposed to dedicate the court by himself, but Jordan made a surprise appearance and the two teamed up with students, who were assigned to use their computers to answer trivia questions. Paul and Jordan went on to participate in a clinic along with former Clipper Lamond Murray. Paul also made an emotional tour to the Hall of Fame last week after winning the Mannie Jackson Human Spirit Award for his community service. Paul broke down in tears during the ceremony. “It hit me that I’ve been in the NBA for 12 seasons and I still didn’t know a lot of the history of the game,” he said. “To go to the Hall of Fame and see the groundwork for why I get to live the way that I live, it was a pretty touching experience for me.” When Paul said he begged his mother for pair of Iverson Reebok sneakers when he was a child, Iverson, who was present, also got emotional . . . The Thunder’s Mitch McGary was suspended an additional 10 games for violating the league’s anti-drug program. That penalty will be added to the five games he was set to serve to begin the season. The NBA fines players $25,000 for the first positive marijuana test and the player then enters the drug program. The fact McGary was suspended 10 games likely means he tested positive for at least a second time. The NBA suspends players for 20 games for the first positive test for steroids or performance-enhancing drugs, 45 for the second positive test, and two years for the third positive test. The NBA suspends players for two seasons for a positive test for a “drug of abuse,” which includes cocaine and amphetamines.
The Timberwolves are positioned well for the future, as Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns took home the Rookie of the Year award the last two seasons. They are the fourth set of teammates to win the award in back-to-back years: