Given the upheaval during Oklahoma City Thunder coach Billy Donovan’s tenure — from the departure of Kevin Durant to the arrivals of Paul George and Carmelo Anthony — general manager Sam Presti spent much of his hour-long exit press conference on Wednesday extolling the benefits of continuity.
We now know Donovan will be back, because Presti told us as much. We know reigning MVP Russell Westbrook will be back, because he signed the NBA’s richest extension in September. But we don’t know if George or Anthony will be back, so the continuity Presti seeks weighs in the balance again.
The opportunity to build on what the GM termed a “disappointing” season — to see how they might compete once Andre Roberson returns from knee surgery and to continue building around a core that also includes stud center Steven Adams — rests on George’s decision in free agency and Anthony’s willingness to accept a tertiary role. Presti made no secret about either’s importance to their future.
Presti and George cannot discuss financial terms of his impending free agency before July 1 (wink, wink), but the Thunder GM made clear that the team will spend whatever it has to into the luxury tax to retain him, and they have talked openly about the 28-year-old wing’s vision for a Thunder future.
“The opportunity to look into that and have that dialogue has really encouraged us,” said Presti. “It’s made us feel good about where he is in his mind about the Thunder, where he is with his approach to things, and we’re looking forward to the opportunity in July to have a more official conversation.”
Presti repeatedly praised the core principles of “collaboration, transparency and trust” that his front office established with George and his representatives, and he knows nothing but what George has said publicly — that he enjoyed playing in Oklahoma City and with Westbrook. So, he was firm in his belief that a rumor that circulated Tuesday from former ESPN radio host Ryen Russillo, who cited a source suggesting “George is gone,” is merely hearsay. Either that, or he’s choosing not to believe it.
“I talked to PG, and I would say why: Why don’t we listen to Paul? He has had a lot of comments also,” Presti told reporters in Oklahoma City. “I’m not trying to dissuade anybody or say that what someone says someone told them is inaccurate, but I’d just rather listen to the man himself. I’d also reflect on the fact that PG really keeps his business, like, pretty in-house. We’ve gone through the whole year, we haven’t heard a whole lot of stuff since he’s been here. He’s been pretty straight down the middle, and I can’t do anything but trust the things I’m being told. And I do, because … if you can’t trust other people or if you’re going to live in a world of skepticism and cynicism, I can’t help you. I don’t know where that leaves us. Good luck. I’ll see you down the line. I’m not going to let myself go there.”
Presti urged everyone concerned George will walk as Durant did two years ago that that “people are different,” pointing to the different paths Durant and Westbrook took to the Golden State Warriors and in signing long-term with OKC, respectively. But as much as Presti suggested, “We’ll be prepared for everything,” whether George stays or goes, he sounded fearful of losing George, too. And he should be.
Sorry for the cynicism.
Anthony’s situation is equally unstable. The soon-to-be 34-year-old forward has a $28 million player option for 2018-19, and it’s hard to imagine him not picking that up this summer. Yet, Anthony spent his exit interview informing us, “I don’t think I can be effective as [the] type of player” the Thunder are asking him to be — a stretch forward who plays off the ball in a more limited role than he’s used to.
“I’m not sacrificing no bench role,” said Anthony, “so that’s out of the question.”
But Presti is no dummy. He saw the same things we saw throughout Anthony’s subpar season and disastrous playoffs — that the future Hall of Famer is a liability on defense and no longer the asset he once was offensively. Not in so many words, but Presti essentially told Melo through the media that he must choose between accepting his role in Oklahoma City and seeking opportunities elsewhere.
“I think every player is entitled to take a step back after the season, reflect on the year they had, and in his case make a determination about whether or not this is a role that he wants to continue to be functioning in,” said Presti. “I actually think he’s being quite honest with us, in that respect, and I respect it very much. I think it’s incumbent on us as an organization to show the same respect and be honest and transparent and straight with him about what that might look like going forward.”
What that might look like, if he picks up his option and continues to disagree with the Thunder’s direction for him, is a contract buyout. Anthony is not long for Oklahoma City, and Presti made that fairly clear when he said, “The opportunity to potentially have Westbrook, Paul George and Steven Adams all in their prime years, with playoff experience, and the fit of those guys both as competitors and players, is extremely, extremely exciting for us.” Anthony isn’t in his prime, and he’s not fitting.
Presti sees other opportunities for improvement from a Thunder team that won 48 games and got bounced in the first round. He thinks Alex Abrines and Terrance Ferguson will make strides. He thinks Roberson’s return will make them a top-five defense and the “best starting lineup in the league” again. He thinks Donovan can innovate offensively. And he thinks Westbrook can reach another level.
“One thing I can tell you about Westbrook is, he’s driven. He’s going to keep coming,” said Presti, who cited 3-point shooting and defense as needs for improvement. “He’s not going to kick his feet up and expect to come back next year and have things all of a sudden be a little bit different. Whether he’ll tell you this or not, he’s going to spend a lot of time thinking about things he can do to get better.”
We have our doubts, but Presti remains optimistic that running it back with this roster — with a full offseason to work everybody into the rotation — gives them “the capacity to still be playing” in May.
“We’re disappointed, and we should be,” he said. “We expected more out of the team.”
Now, the Thunder must wait to find out if George and Anthony have the same faith in Oklahoma City.
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