Sam Presti’s vision is realized: OKC makes an arrival, not an appearance

Sam Presti’s vision is realized: OKC makes an arrival, not an appearance

A first-round sweep of the Pelicans put the Thunder in rare company regardless of what happens next.

Jenni Carlson

By Jenni Carlson

| May 1, 2024, 6:00am CDT

Jenni Carlson

By Jenni Carlson

May 1, 2024, 6:00am CDT

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Sam Presti sat tall in front of a Thunder blue backdrop sporting a navy blue sweater, a button-up shirt and a beard. Well coiffed and put together is how the Thunder general manager usually looks, and his exit interview at the end of the 2020-21 season was no different.

What was different: no reporters in the room with him.

It was May 2021, and spikes in COVID cases pushed lots of meetings to virtual platforms. But really, few were clamoring to hear about the Thunder in those days. The team was coming off a 22-win season in which it lost 26 of its last 29 games.

Reposition? Replenish? Rebuild?

Over it.

But Presti made it clear that day almost three years ago that the Thunder wouldn’t rush the process.

“When we do get back to the postseason,” he said, “we want it to be an arrival, not an appearance.”

Mission accomplished.

The Thunder not only returned to the playoffs but also announced its return as a force. Top seed in the West. A series win against the Pelicans. A series sweep to boot. And the Thunder made history with each of those accomplishments, becoming the youngest team to achieve each of them.

The runway for this bunch looks long. Maybe not a decade, but maybe.

Look out, NBA. The Thunder is back.

Remember a couple of weeks ago when the narrative surrounding this team was quite different? The talk in some circles was that the Thunder was vulnerable. Susceptible. Weak even.

“They’re the weakest No. 1 seed that we’ve seen in a very long time,” Shannon Sharpe said on ESPN’s First Take before the start of the playoffs. “They had a great season, but I do not believe … they beat the Mavs. I don’t believe they beat the Nuggets. I don’t believe they beat the Lakers.”

Well, the Thunder doesn’t have to beat the Lakers — they’ve already gone fishin’ in Cancun.

As for the Mavs and Nuggets, the Thunder may get its chance at those two teams. The Mavs and Clippers are duking it out for a chance to face the Thunder in the Western Conference semifinals while the Nuggets will have to contend with the Timberwolves in the other semifinal. 

Regardless of who comes across the Thunder’s path in the remainder of the playoffs, everyone should be able to agree: this isn’t a weak team.

But is it a team bound for the NBA Finals?

Since the NBA expanded the first-round series to seven games in 2003, 34 teams have swept their opening opponent. Of those teams, 15 went on to make the NBA Finals.

That’s 44%.

That’s a fairly significant amount. 

If you really want to dream big, five of the teams that have swept first-round series since 2003 eventually won the title. Heat in 2013. Warriors in 2015. Cavaliers in 2016. Warriors in 2017. Bucks in 2021.

Here’s the thing: those title-winning teams that had first-round sweeps were veteran teams. LeBron was with Miami in 2013 and Cleveland in 2016. Steph Curry and Co. were in prime form in 2015 and of course added Kevin Durant in 2017. Giannis was a year removed from being the MVP when the Bucks won in 2021.

This Thunder bunch isn’t as seasoned as any of those teams.

But one of the teams that had a first-round sweep and made the NBA Finals is a much closer approximation to the Thunder circa 2024.

It’s the Thunder circa 2012.

Yes, the first and only time Oklahoma City made the NBA Finals, it also won its first-round series via sweep. The Thunder swept the Mavericks, winning close games in OKC, then going to Dallas and winning two with relative ease.

A couple things about that series: that Thunder bunch with KD and Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Serge Ibaka was still relatively young. Not as young as this Thunder team — their historic youth has been well established — but it wasn’t like that 2012 team had a bunch of grizzled veterans.

But there’s one notable difference in the two series. The Mavs, only a year removed from winning the NBA title, were all systems go. Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Kidd and the rest of the starters were healthy. Same for the reserves, led by Jason Terry and Vince Carter.

The Pelicans, on the other hand, were without Zion Williamson. Their best player. Their top scorer.

The Thunder might’ve still swept the Pels had he played, but it would’ve been a different series. Just like the series in 2012 against the Mavs would’ve been different had Dirk been hurt.

I don’t say this to discount what the Thunder did over the past couple of weeks. It completely dominated the Pelicans, holding them below 93 points in all four games and winning by an average of 15.8 points.

But before you go asking for time off in June so you can go to the NBA Finals, you might want to see what the Thunder does against a team that has its best player available.

Now, there’s a good chance if the Clippers are the Thunder’s opponent in the next round, Kawhi Leonard will be out. He seems to be perpetually treating this or nursing that, but even if he’s unavailable, the Clippers are still likely to have Paul George and James Harden, Terance Mann and Ivica Zubac, Russell Westbrook and Norman Powell. They’re better with Kawhi, but without him, they’re still better than the Zion-less Pelicans.

If the Thunder puts the clamps on the Clippers or the Mavs in the next round, well, then, maybe a vacation request isn’t a bad idea.

But even if that doesn’t happen, the Thunder has already shown itself capable. It did what a lot of No. 1 seeds have done over the years, dominating the first round and making quick work of an overmatched opponent. It proved that it can handle playoff basketball, the uptick in physicality and pressure and stakes.

The Thunder has shown it can be a factor now and for years to come.

Sam Presti may not have expected the Thunder to get here quite this fast, but no matter what happens the rest of the way in these playoffs, this bunch has done more than make an appearance.

It has arrived.

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Jenni Carlson is a columnist with the Sellout Crowd network. Follow her on Twitter at @JenniCarlson_OK. Email [email protected].

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