Young Thunder’s success has roots going back to franchise’s first days in OKC

Young Thunder’s success has roots going back to franchise’s first days in OKC

The overachieving Thunder is among the NBA’s youngest teams. But while OKC lacks experience on the court, it boasts remarkable continuity elsewhere in the organization, giving the current team ties to Thunder players and teams of the past. 

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

| Feb 16, 2024, 7:27am CST

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

Feb 16, 2024, 7:27am CST

OKLAHOMA CITY — It was just his second season in the Thunder organization, but Mark Daigneault had been around long enough to recognize a moment when it came. 

And here was one, just after an OKC playoff win against the Mavericks. The Thunder, under first-year head coach Billy Donovan, had won in Dallas and was sitting pretty with a series lead. 

So when center Nick Collison broke up the celebration to address his teammates — hardly an everyday occurrence — Daigneault took note. 

“(Collison) stopped everybody, which he didn’t do very often, and he was like, ‘Happy teams get beat. We have to get back to 0-0 for the next game,’” Daigneault said. “And I thought that was pretty profound. I was like, ‘Oh, that’s really wise.’”

If Daigneault — now the Thunder’s head coach — has a trademark phrase these days it’s “zero and zero.” 

Beat one of the NBA’s best teams? The next game, you’re 0-0. Won 10 straight? Great. Lost to the worst team in the league? Get over it. 

The Thunder should approach a game — any game — like it has zero wins and zero losses.  

That record reset is a philosophical tenet. 

And there’s something fitting about it having a connection to Collison. 

Though the Thunder — 37-17 entering this weekend’s All-Star break — has overachieved as one of the NBA’s youngest teams, it has a winning foundation that dates back to the franchise’s first days in Oklahoma City. 

Maybe the players on the court lack experience. But the operation around them is steeped in it, and there are through lines that run further back than that Collison locker-room moment, threads that connect Russell Westbrook to Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Kevin Durant to Chet Holmgren. 

“I really don’t know what any other organization’s like,” Daigneault said. “However, I do know that there’s a great deal of stability and continuity here. Not only in one area. From our governor to our front office to really every department has great continuity. I’ve been here almost 10 years now, and there’s a number of people that are 10 years plus, and there’s a handful of people that have been here from the beginning.”

All told, 20 employees in the Thunder’s basketball operations department have been with the franchise for 10 or more years. 

That includes Rob Hennigan, the vice president of basketball operations who’s logged a decade despite leaving for five years to run the Orlando Magic before returning. 

It includes Donnie Strack, the vice president of human and player performance, the man who met with Daigneault and newly acquired Gordon Hayward last week to talk about Hayward’s return to play from injury.

And Ayana Lawson, the vice president of lifestyle services and social impact, who assists players with everything from finding homes when they’re new to the city to supporting causes about which they’re passionate. 

And, of course, it includes Sam Presti, the team’s executive vice president and general manger. 

There’s no stronger connective tissue than Presti, who’s been the top basketball decision-maker in the organization since before it arrived in Oklahoma City. 

And if you really want to measure the depth of the Thunder’s roots — and they way they connect to the current team —  he’s a good place to start. 

In the beginning…

A lot’s changed since Presti held his inaugural Oklahoma City news conference on July 10, 2008. 

There was no Thunder logo behind him; the franchise wouldn’t announce that name for another two months. 

The topic and tone of the questions were different then than now, focusing on the impending construction of a practice facility and the challenges of moving to a new city. 

And Presti was more succinct. The transcript of that first media availability is 2,764 words. Plug last September’s preseason Presti press conference into a word counter and you run the risk of exhausting it. 

The total checks in at more than 16,000. 

But there are themes in that first news conference that resonate today, that apply to this young Thunder team fighting for playoff positioning almost 16 years later. 

Presti has tweaked the language, but the franchise still echoes the prime principles. 

He talked then about “discipline and a meticulous nature” in building a team, and those still are core concepts. He preached patience, as has during the rebuild that led OKC to this season. 

And Presti stressed then that the Thunder would seek players “that have a tremendous work ethic, that play for the team and give themselves to the team,” a standard OKC still applies. 

If you’re paying attention, you’ll spot near-constant callbacks to established OKC credos. 

After the Thunder traded for Hayward last week, Daigneault talked about the importance of Hayward the person as well as the player. He noted that Presti has been “very selective about who we’re bringing in the door” and finding players who fit with the organization, within the on-court system and inside the locker room.  

At one point this season, Daigneault lauded rookie Cason Wallace for his intellect and competitiveness and used a longtime Thunder buzzword in his description. 

“He’s not going to flinch at all,” Daigneault said. 

For years, “We don’t flinch” has been a sort of unofficial Thunder mantra. It speaks to the adaptability and resilience the franchise strives for. 

These are old concepts that date back to the Thunder’s heyday and still apply to a young team seeking to replicate past playoff successes. 

But do they actually matter? Have they helped the Thunder win games?

It’s hard to say. Culture is hard to quantify. 

But inside the organization, there’s a belief that this continuity matters. 

From then to now

Holmgren has barely played for the Thunder, let alone for anyone else. 

The No. 2 pick in the 2022 NBA Draft missed last season with an injury and hit the All-Star break with 54 games to his name. 

And yet, he already has come to understand that there’s some ineffable something about the organization for which he plays. 

“The whole everything about the Thunder is different from everything I’ve heard about other places in this league,” Holmgren said last month. “From management to the rest of the staff all the way down to the players, everything just operates different.”

That’s vague, sure. 

But continuity is one cultural difference.

Presti was hired to run the franchise in 2007 when it still was the Seattle Supersonics. When the Thunder rebooted with the move to OKC, his finger was on the reset button. 

Only a handful of basketball executives — including presidents R.C. Buford of San Antonio and Pat Riley of Miami — have been with teams longer. 

And Presti has held the title of general manager with the same franchise longer than any other active exec. 

Beyond that, though, there’s a remarkable consistency in the people around him. From player-facing staffers to faces behind the scenes, there’s a wealth of experience guiding OKC’s young team. 

Seven staffers with vice president titles have spent 10 or more years with the Thunder. Chief of Staff Glenn Wong is on that list. So are four scouts. 

All that experience means that young players — like Holmgren, a rookie, and Jalen Williams, an emerging second-year star — step into a machine that’s been running smoothly and successfully for years. 

“That level of stability, continuity, I think that compounds in a lot of different ways,” Daigneault said. “And probably in ways that we don’t even notice at this point.”

Most of the Thunder’s top players will travel to a playoff game for the first time this season. But logistics director Marc St. Yves has been managing team travel for more than a decade. 

The extra attention at playoff time might catch a young player off guard, but that’s unlikely to happen to Paul Huggins, the franchise’s security director who has more than 10 years of service. 

When Gilgeous-Alexander’s MVP campaign begins in earnest, it’ll be run by Matt Tumbleson, the Thunder’s vice president of basketball communications and engagement, who’s spent 13 years in the organization and ran campaigns for past MVP winners Durant and Westbrook. 

And as Gilgeous-Alexander, Williams and Holmgren emerge as budding stars on a young playoff contender, they’re doing it surrounded by many of the same people who helped Durant, Westbrook, and James Harden navigate those same waters. 

“I have to think there’s some type of mileage that you gain as an organization through that, that you learn, and everyone gets kicked around a little bit,” Presti said in the preseason. “I think we’ve gotten kicked around. Hopefully, we’ve learned from some of those things. One of the things you hope to learn from (it) is it’s real hard to win, and when you do, you need to appreciate it. When you have a great player or great players, really appreciate them.”

Daigneault came to the organization from the University of Florida staff in 2014, a year before Donovan — his former boss with the Gators — arrived to be the head coach. 

The Thunder is the only organization is the only one he’s ever known, and so he can’t compare the continuity to any other franchise. He can’t really know how much it matters. 

But it’s clear — whether or not there’s a tangible on-court benefit — that Daigneault wouldn’t trade it, that he finds meaning in a thread that connects Collison to his current team. 

“It’s certainly something I don’t take for granted, something I know everybody here doesn’t take for granted,” Daigneault said. “It’s pretty special.”

 

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Brett Dawson, the Thunder beat writer at Sellout Crowd, has covered basketball for more than 20 seasons at the pro and college levels. He previously worked the Thunder beat at The Oklahoman and The Athletic and also has covered the New Orleans Pelicans, Los Angeles Lakers and L.A. Clippers. He’s covered college programs at Louisville, Illinois and Kentucky, his alma mater. He taught sports journalism for a year at the prestigious Missouri School of Journalism. You can reach him at [email protected] or find him sipping a stout or an IPA at one of Oklahoma City’s better breweries.

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