Culture is a phrase that can be tossed around without much thought; it is a cliche that all teams pride themselves on. However, a good culture and approach to work is the bedrock that Sam Presti has built the Thunder on. He has assembled OKC to be professional, player-friendly and respectful over the course of the last 14 years.
For franchises in big markets, culture can be acquired and discarded in one single moment. By sheer stroke of fortune, the Los Angeles Lakers acquired a winning culture when LeBron James decided to move to California to pursue interests outside of basketball.
It is not so easy for small markets that do not have the glamour of New York, Los Angeles or Miami. The Thunder need to be a good, well-run organisation for players to want to play here. Good culture is integral to the Thunder and it is a differentiator within the marketplace.
There are few franchises that are as respectful to the wishes of the player than the Thunder. Sam Presti is willing to sit down with members of his roster and discuss their future with the team. This rule stands for the whole roster and not just a select few. OKC treated Russell Westbrook in the same way that they are currently working with Ty Jerome. That evenness does not apply to every team across the league.
The Thunder’s owners have been a relatively hands-off ownership group. Clay Bennett does not get involved in the minute details and has provided Presti with the autonomy to make decisions as he sees fits. Presti exercised his organisational juice when he announced that the Thunder would not allow fans back into the arena during the 2020-21 season as a way of protecting public health.
Allowing Sam to have autonomy has helped to create a basketball team where hard work, selflessness and team play is valued highly. This is not say that the Thunder have drummed out all individualism from their star players; that is completely wrong, Shai is allowed to be Shai but he is aware of that he has a role to play on the team.
These traits and characteristics are the non-negotiables that contribute to the Thunder being a destination that players discuss in glowing terms. Kemba Walker briefly joined the Thunder last season and spoke kindly about how he was treated during his tenure with the club.
Kemba Walker on his short tenure on the Thunder.— Thunder Film Room (@ThunderFilmRoom) October 15, 2021
“They were unbelievable in the time that I was with them, like literally unbelievable. They took such great care of me.”
He did go to OKC to meet everyone & he really wants a #15 Walker jersey @okcthunder.pic.twitter.com/uA99TACnoY
LeBron James singled out Sam Presti as being one of the best GMs in the league. James praised Presti’s eye for talent and his ability to keep the Thunder competitive without any huge downturns.
Lakers’ LeBron James on Thunder GM Sam Presti: “The MVP over there is Sam Presti… I don’t understand this guy’s eye for talent. He drafted KD, Russ, Jeff Green, Serge Ibaka, Reggie Jackson, Josh Giddey. … This guy is pretty damn good.” pic.twitter.com/mNb35Ggi6P— Ben Golliver (@BenGolliver) February 19, 2022
In the last two off-seasons, two veterans have expressed a desire to retire in Oklahoma City and finish out their playing career with the Thunder. Mike Muscala has been public in his praise of the city and the fanbase. Kenrich Williams has now joined that same club.
At media day, Williams spoke about the peace of mind he has playing for the Thunder. Oklahoma City has become home for Kenny Hustle and the organisation has been integral in creating that sense of security for Kenrich.
Kenrich Williams on why he wants to retire in OKC: “The whole organization, from top to bottom. The front office, the coaches, the players. The city. My family loves it here. There’s not enough money to beat peace of mind. And that’s what I have here in Oklahoma City.”— Brandon Rahbar (@BrandonRahbar) September 26, 2022
Praise and good words are obviously nice to hear but Kenny’s statement is quite telling. The Thunder are an organisation where players feel comfortable regardless of status. That culture could be decisive in attracting good veteran role players to the team as the Thunder grow. Coach Daigneault has an impressive young core at his disposal but will need even-tempered old heads to support the likes of Shai and Giddey.
It sounds odd to say but the Thunder may actually be an attractive proposition for a role player looking to play basketball on a team where there is little fuss. The future is bright for Oklahoma City as long as they take of the team’s culture and maintain their team-centric approach.