By Michael Kinney
After tumultuous offseason in which the Oklahoma City Thunder lost its best player and resigned its leader, general manger Sam Presti didn’t show any signs of stress or worry when he met with the media Wednesday afternoon.
That included when he was asked about the most controversial topic in sports today, the National Anthem protest. It’s a NBA rule that players must stand during the National Anthem, but players around the league have hinted at making some kind of gesture during the season.
“Our viewpoint on it is obviously we’ve had players and staff stand for the National Anthem over the past eight years,” Presti said. “We’d love to see that continue. At the same time, our players have the opportunity and ability to express themselves as people, and we respect that above all… we have good relationships with our players. We want to work with them. We want to learn how we can help them take the symbol and try to create platforms for action. And I think that’s one of the great roles that any organization can play, especially here in Oklahoma City, which is great, given our relationship with the community.”
Presti was just as encouraging when talking about the upcoming 2016-17 season.
“Our approach to each season has been the same,” Presti said. “We want to build great habits. We want to understand that the work that we put in each day isn’t going to necessarily give us immediate results, but we’re working towards building the best team and finding the best version of ourselves every year.”
Whatever the best version of the Thunder turns out to be, it will undoubtedly have Russell Westbrook leading the charge. The spirited point guard signed an extension over the summer that will keep him in Oklahoma City at least through 2018. That was enough to lift up a disheartened fan base still reeling from the loss of Kevin Durant to the Golden State Warriors.
However, once the season begins Oct. 26, it will be all about what Westbrook does on the court to lead his team into the post-Durant future.
“I would say for anybody as a leader, you know, coming into a different environment and different circumstances, I think the expectation would be that you would continue to grow and evolve I think, and I think that’s his expectation,” Presti said. “So there’s opportunity across the board for our entire team, our entire roster, entire staff, and that’s where I think a lot of the excitement and enthusiasm comes from. But Russell has been a player and person that’s evolved every step of the way, and I think this is another opportunity for him to do that.”
Along with Westbrook, the Thunder return key veterans such as Steven Adams, Enes Kanter, Andre Roberson and Anthony.
Newcomers such as Victor Oladipo, Ronnie Price, Ersan Ilyasova, and Domantas Sabonis are expected to be key performers.
“Victor is definitely a player that presents great athleticism, great speed, high-character, professionalism, and a competitive spirit that we value,” Presti said. “How that fits into an entire team, that’s to me the path of the season for us.”
One player who will not be in the lineup for at least the first 14 games is forward Mitch McGary after he was suspended by the NBA. But with 16 players under contract heading into the season, there is no guarantee he will have a place on the roster when he returns.
“For me, I’m disappointed in the fact that he’s in that situation. He’ll be with us in training camp with an opportunity to compete,” Presti said. “All that being said, I think it’s going to be a competitive camp. We’ve got probably more deserving players lined up to come to camp than we have roster spots. But I think that’s a strong position to be in as a team, as an organization. We’re excited about that. I know the coaches are, and we’re probably going to have some tough decisions to make.”
Oklahoma City’s annual Blue and White Scrimmage is set for Sept. 27 at John Marshall High. Their first two preseason games will take place Oct. 3 and 5 in Spain when they take on Real Madrid and FC Barcelona. They return home Oct. 11 for a game against Dallas.