Thunder continuing to find ways to improve

BY foxsports • September 26, 2012

Oklahoma City general manager Sam Presti has never been about the quick fix. Yes, the Thunder's journey from the lottery to title contender is years in the making, but the work is hardly done.

Nothing is assumed in OKC. There is no sense of entitlement for the defending Western Conference champions. They just don't expect to be back in The Finals next June. That's just not the Thunder way.

"We'd be doing a disservice to ourselves … if we were to take any kind of approach other than coming in and just doing our jobs, understanding what works for us and putting in an honest day's work and going home," Presti told media gathered Wednesday at the team's practice facility.

There's plenty to work with when sizing up the Thunder. Kevin Durant, a three-time scoring champ, may just be the best player in the West. Russell Westbrook is an All-Star. James Harden is the reigning Sixth Man of the Year. Is there a power forward around with more upside than 23-year-old Serge Ibaka?

Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka also happened to be locked up contractually for the foreseeable future. Scott Brooks, too. As for Harden, well, it gets somewhat CBA tricky predicting the OKC future of the Bearded One.

Keeping the band together, or at least most of it, insures the Thunder remain in the title conversation for the balance of this decade. But it's more to it than the makeup of the roster, at least in Presti's mind.

Attitude and work ethic are big players in climbing that last hurdle.

"First and foremost, we have to take a real building mentality to what it is that we establish for ourselves as a base this season," he said. "We're going to have to start from zero. That's how we've done it every year, and that's served us well. As I said before, we have to think big, but we have to build small and maintain the consistency with how we have approached things in the past.

"I also think what is important is that we continue to embrace our identity, continue to be consistent with who we are, not try to get outside ourselves and be something that isn't repeatable for us and isn't consistent with us. That's going to be an important thing for us going into the season and I think in seasons beyond that, to embrace who we are and what we're about."

OKC isn't without challenges. The constraints of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement will lead to the some tough decisions as soon as next summer. Will the franchise be able to afford Harden, who will be one of the prized free agents? Will the Thunder have to amnesty Kendrick Perkins to keep Harden? (Perkins will miss the entire preseason rehabbing from offseason surgeries.)

Presti deftly avoided questions of Harden's future, which comes as no surprise. This guy can sidestep with the best of 'em. But when it comes to the impact of the new CBA, he acknowledges the issues ahead.

"It's always evolving," Presti said. "I wouldn't say that you're ever totally comfortable with anything. I think if you ever get too comfortable you'll probably stop learning, stop progressing.

"We're definitely getting to the point to see the landscape. There are realities in there that we've talked about, that we're transparent about. We have to manage and we're comfortable with that. We'll do the best we can."

In other words, this Harden deal is going to be one tough nut to crack and they've got a budget to think about. If anyone can find a way to make it all work, it's Presti.

The Thunder's attention to detail and commitment to internal improvement has helped establish Oklahoma City as a model NBA franchise. The team is not only scary young and talented, but it knows it get even better.

Coming out every night when the mindset that they're better than their opponent and playing up to lofty standard is the Thunder's next step.

"We have to continue to study ourselves and find marginal areas where we can get improvements," Presti said. "I think some of those will be communication, concentration and then establishing a standard of performance that we can call on and measure ourselves by regardless of who we're playing, where we're playing or when we're playing.

"That standard of performance has to tie us together and keep us consistent. As I said before, part of continuing to improve is understanding your own performance and being good self-evaluators. I think that's another thing you find in high performing teams and we have to continue to do that."

Presti knows what others expect of the Thunder this season: Championship or bust. That's fine. How they manage those expectations isn't changing.

"We've dealt with all kinds of expectations – low ones, high ones," he said. "We've never really been driven by those. We have a set of things internally that we measure ourselves by and we'll continue to do that."

That's worked pretty well so far.