Less than a week after Thunder Head Coach Billy Donovan and all Thunder players had their exit interviews, Thunder General Manager Sam Presti stepped up to the mic today. After the wild ride that was the 2016-17 season, Presti offered some encouraging remarks as he debriefed the season and answer questions for just over an hour.
Looking Back at the Season
Presti opened up the press conference by echoing the thoughts of Thunder fans everywhere as he said, “We’re really proud of what we accomplished. With that being said, we still want to be playing basketball right now.” No doubt, this season is definitely something to be proud of after dealing with the unexpected loss of superstar Kevin Durant last summer, but at the same time, Oklahoma City would much rather be in the second round of the NBA playoffs right now.
Despite reeling from Durant’s departure, the organization had no other options but to recover as best as possible, and as the season went on, it was important for the team to “stabilize.” This is a word that Presti used multiple times, and he pointed out that while the beginning of the season was full of question marks, by the end of the season, despite losing to the Rockets in the first round of the playoffs, the team had a pretty solid idea of what they were capable of and where they could go from here.
Another important attribute that the team gained from this season was “collective experience.” The Thunder was the third youngest team in the NBA this season, including the youngest squad of the playoffs, but most of the guys gained valuable experience playing together for a full season.
One area that Presti said the team needed to focus on in the offseason was opportunistic, not impulsive, transition. If an opportunity arises to make a move in the offseason that is attractive to the Thunder, they need to act on it, but at the same time, they cannot simply jump at the very first offer that comes across the desk. This strategy is what made Presti able to make several small yet effective moves for the Thunder by bringing in guys like Jerami Grant, Taj Gibson, and Doug McDermott in different trades, yet not giving up too much at the same time.
Presti also touched on the youth of the team and how that should be viewed as encouraging as the organization continues to look at what immediate improvements need to be made. Intentional player development is key to assisting the younger guys as they continue to improve and prepare to stay ready to play at a high level every time they step on the court.
Lastly, Presti pointed out that due to the lack of firepower of this team, the Thunder had very little margin of error to play with this season, and that is what ultimately cost Oklahoma City a number of games, including the first round series of the playoffs against Houston. The areas he specifically mentioned were high volume of turnovers, sending opponents to the free throw line too often, and allowing too many points in the paint. Expect to see the Thunder improve in these areas for the next season.
Russ and Contract Talks
Presti was very short when asked about Russell Westbrook and the opportunity to sign him to a “super max” extension this summer. Essentially, no official talks can begin until July 1st, and when that day comes, Presti, Westbrook, and everyone else involved will sit down and talk it out.
Presti said that he is “obviously hopeful” about Westbrook wanting to stay with the Thunder, especially in light of what Westbrook had to say in his exit interview.
Young Standouts of the Season
When asked about who of the young fellas he thought stood out this season, Presti specifically mentioned Victor Oladipo, Steven Adams, and Enes Kanter, citing that they all saw continued improvement and had their best seasons yet.
Statistically, Victor Oladipo had his most efficient season despite having a career-low usage rate, but he was largely a letdown, specifically against the Houston Rockets in the playoffs. Oladipo was brought in to be the second punch behind Westbrook, and while that was sometimes the case, there were plenty of times where Oladipo’s production would seemingly disappear.
Steven Adams was somewhat of a similar situation this season. He finished 5th in the NBA in field goal percentage, but he struggled heavily in the second half of the season to have a consistent impact on the game. Far too often Adams was incapable of finishing on offense down low, or he found himself in foul trouble on the defensive side of the ball.
Then there is Enes Kanter. Kanter has been a bit of a question for the Thunder. His offensive abilities in the paint are some of the most impressive in the entire league, but his defensive deficiencies have time and time again cost Oklahoma City more than he can make up for on the other end of the floor. In the first round of the playoffs against the Rockets, Kanter was unplayable for much of the time because as soon as he was on the court with James Harden, Houston would exploit him in a pick-and-roll and almost certainly score every time.
Oladipo, Adams, and Kanter all have huge contracts for next season, and one thing is certain: they need to start playing up to their paycheck, or else Presti could find his seating getting warmer than it has ever been.
Presti had nothing but good things to say about Andre Roberson, pointing out his continual growth as a contributor for the Thunder in his fourth season in the league. While Dre’s numbers are not always the most spectacular, Roberson has built a reputation as one of the NBA’s most elite wing defenders, and that has become extremely valuable to the Thunder.
Extension talks were attempted in the fall, and while they were productive, both sides were unable to come to a resolution, so they were tabled until this summer. Roberson is a restricted free agent, which means that other teams can make an offer on him, but the Thunder reserves the right to match every offer in order to retain him.
Presti commented on Dre saying, “Every indication…is that he loves being here.” Presti pointed out that when a player actually wants to be here, it makes contract talks much easier, so when they begin extension talks again “they need to be fair with us. We have to be fair.”
Oklahoma City does not have a lot of wiggle room concerning the salary cap, but if the Thunder can sign Roberson at the right price, keeping him would be an excellent move.
Oklahoma City is very limited in what they are able to do this offseason due to salary cap restrictions. Priority one is signing Russell Westbrook to his extension, but there are several other things the Thunder need to do as well, including trying to re-sign Andre Roberson and unrestricted free agent Taj Gibson.
The Thunder also has the 21st pick in the upcoming NBA draft. Presti made it clear that the pick represents “opportunity,” and if there is a guy available that looks like he fits with the Thunder whenever it comes time to pick, the Thunder will definitely draft him. At the same time, Oklahoma City could be looking to move the pick and maybe even package it with a $5 million trade exception that they have leftover from the Jerami Grant trade this last season in order to bring in somebody else that could have a more immediate impact on the team.
Another move the Thunder will need to consider is whether or not to bring back Oklahoma City veteran Nick Collison. In his exit interview last week, Collison made it clear that he wanted to play another season in the NBA, and if the Thunder can manage to find a spot for him on the roster at the right price, Presti said, “If there’s a way to make that happen…we’re going to look to try to make that happen. What Collison lacks in youth and skill on the floor he more than makes up for in veteran leadership and locker room presence. He is a guy who has been in the league for over a decade, and he has been with the Thunder franchise since its days in Seattle. Keeping him around would be extremely valuable to the organization in terms of developing young guys.
Toward the end of his conference, Presti praised Thunder Head Coach Billy Donovan, saying that “He did an excellent job.” Presti also spoke highly of the team by saying “They (took) on the challenge of the season. There was a heart and soul to the team that I really respect. I really respect this team.”
And he’s right. This team came into the season with a giant question mark over their heads, and a lot of other teams, media members, and fans alike all expected an absolute collapse. But that did not happen.
Oklahoma City rallied around its team, and as an organization and a fanbase, the Thunder showed that while this was somewhat of a rebuilding year, the focal point is still a championship, and this franchise will not rest until it has achieved that feat. Very few expect the Thunder to be contenders for an NBA Finals trophy any time soon, but if Presti is able to make some moves this summer and players continue to develop in the offseason, Thunder faithful cannot help but wonder if championship contention is a lot closer than expected.
Article written by Zack Low. Follow @TheThunderGuys on Twitter and Instagram.