To understand what point in the process Sam Presti thinks his team has now entered following a trip to the Western Conference Finals, you must first go back to the place the franchise was at the start of the season.
When the curtain was raised on 2010-11, the Thunder was coming off a 50-win season and its first-ever playoff appearance. Presti, the team's general manager, and players credited that season's success to the previous year, when the Thunder won just 23 games after a dreadful 3-29 start.
Those failures fostered humility and hunger.
But with back-to-back successful seasons now in the books, the Thunder's challenge is to now circumvent complacency. Somehow, that same drive and desire that was present the past two seasons while the Thunder was looking to prove itself needs to remain now that the team has reached elite status.
“I'd like to see us match the urgency to improve now that we're dealing with a level of success,” Presti said at his season-ending news conference Friday.
“Now, I think we need to retain the discipline to continue to look at ourselves critically and to take that and apply those things for next season as well.”
Legendary coach and current president of the Miami Heat Pat Riley famously described it as the “disease of me” when players accomplish a level of success and grow an inflated ego and sense of entitlement. It's torn teams apart in the past. The Thunder is next up in figuring out a way to keep out those parasites. Next year's success is heavily dependant upon effectively doing so.
Presti attempted to pre-empt customary questions about expectations for next season by making it clear that every NBA team's goal is to win a title and the Thunder is no different. What separates the Thunder from some, or even most, is the focus on how that championship comes.
“That's how we've improved as a basketball team,” Presti said.
Presti again preached about internal growth, a catch phrase that almost has become synonymous with standing pat. Rather than big changes, it appears the Thunder will instead work toward achieving steady improvement. It's been the team's philosophy for three seasons now, save the one bold move that sent Jeff Green to Boston for Kendrick Perkins.
“That's not an area that we're going to depart from or shift away from,” Presti said of player development. “That's got to be an ongoing process for our organization.”
Presti said he was pleased with the amount of growth the Thunder had individually and collectively this season. He also mentioned a heightened IQ and level of execution on the part of players and coaches.
Perhaps most significant, though, was how the deep playoff run helped Thunder players quickly pick up on the importance of detail. Immediately following the Game 5 loss to Dallas, forward Nick Collison pointed out how the team was talented enough to win but must learn how to win. Perkins, not 10 minutes later, stressed the significance of mental toughness, specifically pointing to the team's need to maintain composure during tough times.
“There's a collected recognition that has started to take place with our team about the things that separate good teams from high-performing teams,” Presti said. “And when our players start to recognize those things I think that's definitely a sign of movement.”
Presti praised coach Scott Brooks for his development as well. By mid-season, Brooks showed an ability to be more flexible, juggling his lineups more often and going from a nine-man rotation to playing 10 players.
“I think Scott deserves a lot of credit,” Presti said. “He was incredibly resourceful.”
Presti, citing team policy, declined to discuss the possibility of a contract extension for Brooks, who is entering the final year of his deal. At the end of the 2008-09 season, Brooks signed a two-year deal with a third-year option. It's possible that Presti decides to wait until after the 2011-12 season before making a decision on Brooks' future to allow more time for evaluation.
“I think Scotty did a great job,” Presti said. “He's continued to push our team forward … He continues to drive himself to improve … He wants to come back better. That's one of the qualities we like about him. That's why he's a great fit for our organization.”
When asked about assistant coaches, Presti said a potential change with the remaining staff is Brooks' decision.
The biggest order of business for Presti this summer, or whenever a potential lockout is lifted, is re-signing point guard Russell Westbrook. The third-year point guard exceeded all expectations and developed into an All-Star, a Second-Team All-NBA member and, by most accounts, a top-five point guard in 2010-11.
“We're looking forward to having those conversations at the appropriate time,” Presti said.
Decisions must also be made on shooting guard Daequan Cook, a restricted free agent, and center Nazr Mohammed, an unrestricted free agent. Presti said he liked what Cook did this season, which was convert a career-high 42.2 percent of his 3-pointers despite limited and, at times, erratic playing time.
Mohammed, meanwhile, could return as a veteran presence. But the Thunder has two potential backup plans in youngsters Byron Mullens and Cole Aldrich. Mohammed, however, has said he would like to return.
“Naz did a great job for us. He really did,” Presti said. “One thing you're always looking for in players, and I think people, is for them to be dependable and reliable. And he's both of those things. We knew that before he arrived. That's who he is. He's a true pro. We liked what he did for us. At the appropriate time, we'll sit down and see where he is with things and have a conversation.”