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.