Sam Presti was peppered with 26 questions for more than half an hour Wednesday afternoon.
The best was the fourth, the shortest and most significant.
“How do you think the team has gotten better this off-season?”
It was an inquiry that dismissed any preconceived notions and disregarded all pessimism that had been built by a relatively stale summer. And it forced Presti to think, requiring the Thunder general manager depart briefly from his script and spell out how exactly this team could be better when its inactivity primarily suggests it's gotten worse.
“Well,” Presti said, “I think it all comes down to how you define ‘better.'”
And with that, Presti spent the better part of the next 30 minutes detailing his definition during his annual preseason news conference. Along the way, he expressed excitement and extreme confidence in his club, choosing to view widespread question marks not as concerns but as opportunities.
“We're excited about the opportunity to build on the success and strengths of last season,” Presti said, “and we think we have an opportunity to do that.”
Following a 60-win season, the Thunder lost sixth man Kevin Martin to Minnesota and struck out on all of its attempts at replacing him with a proven veteran. The team is now expected to look to guards Reggie Jackson and Jeremy Lamb, two players with 138 career games between them, to step in and supply greater contributions. So far, it sounds like both have met and perhaps exceeded expectations.
“I think Reggie Jackson and Jeremy Lamb have, really, almost pushed the standards higher for some of the younger players that will follow them in our program in the future,” Presti said. “They've been incredibly diligent. The time they've put in and the quality of the work has been exceptional.”
Their success over the summer shouldn't come as a surprise. The Thunder has been here before. An untold strength of the Thunder has been the team's ability to withstand key losses such as Jeff Green and James Harden and still improve following their departures. Presti credit his club for adjusting and adapting.
“We're going to constantly be looking to do that,” Presti said.
In addition to players who are expected to emerge, the overall youth of the Thunder also gives Presti confidence this team will be better. Nine players are 25 or younger. Presti called them “pre-prime players,” guys who will improve naturally with time. They're supplemented by six players 26 or older, veterans who can fulfill specific roles on the court and be mentors off it.
“Part of our confidence comes from the work ethics, the unique blend of age and experience that these guys have together, and it's rare to have the continuity that we've been able to achieve. We value that,” Presti said. “Will that translate into a high level of success this year? We don't know. But we feel confident about our team and our approach.”
Part of the team's continuity includes its coaching staff. Although lead assistant coach Maurice Cheeks left for the head coaching job in Detroit, and took fellow assistant Maz Trakh with him, Scott Brooks is entering his fifth full season. He's the league's fourth longest tenured coach with one team, trailing Gregg Popovich, Erik Spoelstra and Rick Carlisle. And like his players, Brooks also is expected to continue to improve. With 54 playoff games under his belt as a coach, Brooks, 48, ranks seventh among active coaches in that category. It's Brooks' job to put together these new puzzle pieces but his five-year foundation is being viewed as an advantage.
“Our job, over the course of 82 games, is to figure out how everybody fits together and how that group is best maximized,” Presti said. “And hopefully, we'll be playing our best basketball at the end of the year. I've got tremendous confidence in Scott and the coaching staff to figure that out.”