Sam Presti made no big moves during the offseason.
He drafted three promising but largely unheralded players, re-signed Derek Fisher and acquired Ryan Gomes.
No marquee names.
No blockbuster deals.
But when the Thunder general manager held his annual preseason state-of-the-franchise news conference on Wednesday afternoon, he made it clear that he still expects this team to be better, expects this bunch to be improved over last season's 60-win squad.
“I expect our guys to come back better,” Presti said.
He was talking about every player, but the reality is that the Thunder's improvement hinges largely on the improvement of the core players, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka.
Of course, it will be important for Thabo Sefolosha and Kendrick Perkins and Reggie Jackson and Jeremy Lamb to be better, but for the Thunder to move closer to becoming a championship team, Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka must be better.
I know, I know, we're talking about the guys who are already the best players on the team. Heck, what we saw out of Durant in the playoffs last season after Westbrook got hurt was nothing short of epic.
And here I am saying that he's one of the guys who needs to be better.
But it's the truth.
Growing a championship team is the Thunder way.
“For us, we've always focused on how we grow, how we improve,” Presti said. “We've never been a huge free agency team.”
Still, it was a bit unnerving for Thunder fans to watch as many Western Conference foes made franchise-altering moves this summer. The Thunder was in the hunt for the aging but sharpshooting Mike Miller, who signed with the Grizzlies, and Dorrell Wright, a versatile swingman went to the Blazers. Neither is a worldbeater, but either would've been a nice addition.
Instead, after Miller and Wright landed elsewhere, the Thunder was left with Fisher and Gomes, who played in Germany last season.
The reaction in Thunderland?
The Thunder wasn't going to make a big move in free agency anyway. Can't go over the salary cap and risk landing in the luxury tax.
Frankly, the big-time, long-term contracts that the Thunder gave Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka limit the team's flexibility in free agency. But you won't see anyone at Thunder World Headquarters complaining about that. That's because they signed those guys — Presti termed them “pre-prime players” — knowing that they had the ability and the willingness to improve.
With the Thunder's strong track record of developing players, there's little reason to believe Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka won't improve.
Durant had an offseason where he could focus on his game since this was a summer void of USA Basketball duties. He could improve individual skills. His moves to the basket. His passing. His creating shots off the dribble.
Ibaka had a similar opportunity, having an offseason without international duties for Spain. For a guy who's shown significant improvement every season he's been in Oklahoma City, the chance to work on his game the entire offseason could pay dramatic dividends.
Developing consistency and balance on both ends of the court could be where Serge makes his big leap this season.
As for Westbrook, his improvement is a little more unknown. He'll be coming off the knee injury that knocked him out of the playoffs last spring, so physically, he hasn't had the chance to work on skills the way he has in the past.
But that injury forced him to step back and watch his team. He had a chance to really study his teammates.
When Westbrook gets back on the court, he will have a better understanding of his teammates, and that should make him more effective.
By the way, thinking that Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka should be better isn't some sort of pipe dream. Making players better, even the really good ones, is what the Thunder does.
This is a franchise that has decided to build a winner instead of buying one.
“More than anything, we're sticking to that approach,” Presti said.
“Will that translate into a high level of success this year? We don't know. But we feel very confident about our team and our approach.”