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The “Thunder Way”

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Sam Presti has taken the lessons of another successful franchise to build the Thunder, but it’s not the franchise you think.

NCAA Basketball: West Virginia at Oklahoma Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Kevin Durant. James Harden. Serge Ibaka. Reggie Jackson.

All groomed by the Oklahoma City Thunder. All continuing their basketball careers elsewhere. The Thunder’s front office was built on the strength of general manager Sam Presti. Presti was plucked from the San Antonio Spurs after serving eight years under R.C. Buford and Gregg Popovich. The belief was that Presti would be able to recreate the Spurs success with the Thunder nee Seattle Supersonics.

Since taking over the team in the 2007-08 NBA season, no team has drafted a more talented collection of players than Thunder general manager, Sam Presti.

“Every decision that we made for a long, long time was a first decision,” director of basketball operations, Paul Rivers, said to the Wall Street Journal.

However, with great players comes greater demands. Harden wouldn’t accept anything less than the max. Jackson and Ibaka both thought their talents earned them bigger roles than what they had in OKC. Durant has stated “basketball reasons” as his main reasoning for departing the Thunder.

As written by of The New York Times in 2012, “The fate of Harden was the first serious test of the Thunder’s utopian culture…” Despite losing two top ten players, a three-and-d big men, and an exceptional role player/quasi starter, the Thunder remain a playoff caliber team. The front office has brought in Steven Adams, Victor Oladipo, Enes Kanter, Domantas Sabonis, Andre Roberson, Cameron Payne to help make sure this team doesn’t bottom out any time soon.

That is all part of the plan.

Presti has buzzwords in OKC: process, system, patience, sustainability. Presti wants the legacy of the OKC organization to be continually built day-by-day.

In 2012 when the Thunder squared off against the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals many envisioned that OKC was a dynasty in waiting and would find themselves back on the sport’s biggest stage in a matter of years--if not months. That all changed with the trade to move Harden.

The Thunder were able to recoup Kevin Martin (great in his sixth man role during his lone season with OKC), Jeremy Lamb (still has yet to fulfill the potential many saw in him), the 12th overall pick in the 2013 NBA Draft (which became Adams) and a future first round pick (which became Mitch McGary).

OKC knew they had a good player in Harden--I doubt they believed he would be THIS good, but they knew he was talented--and this move was a clear signal as to what their modus operandi as a franchise would be: sustained excellence.

Martin was a stop-gap. He could keep the team afloat in Harden’s absence and would then be replaced by Lamb in the sixth man role. With Hall of Fame talents in Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, management wanted to make sure that they did all they could to ensure they would have an ever improving stable of up-and-coming talent to surround them with.

Their worst fear was watching the team grow old with no hope for repeating their success in the future. Rather, they want the team and the organization to mature and grow in unison. They believed that what happened within the team offices would be reflected by what happens on the court.

Here is where Sam Presti’s teachings from the San Antonio Spurs reveal themselves. The Spurs under Buford and Popovich have constantly reworked and updated their roster in order to get the most out of their franchise cornerstone: Tim Duncan.

Presti and OKC believed they had their Duncan in Durant. They thought they had combined Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili in Russell Westbrook. All they needed to do was to find the right pieces to complete the puzzle and voila, a championship team.

They made sure the facilities were top-of-the-line. Water bottles and Gatorades were constantly replaced the moment one was taken from a refrigerator. The basketballs were all lined up neat and equally.

What if, in all their meticulous planning, and their thinking ahead they forgot something? What if they only brought part of the Spursian philosophy with them to Oklahoma? What if they are not emulating the Spurs at all? What if another team, in another sport, is a closer parallel to what’s been going on with the Thunder?

Presti and co. might’ve forgotten to bring the fun. In recent years we’ve gratefully have been given more and more insight into the inner workings of the Spurs franchise. Aside from the shrewd roster moves, Buford and Pop have really built a family type atmosphere in Texas.

Pop will often speak to his players/coaches/executives about everyday topics like politics, world news, economy, etc. as much if not more than about basketball. Pop has been quoted saying that the Spurs look for players that have a sense of humor and have gotten over themselves when building their roster.

For all the secrecy, the Spurs have really found a way to make the NBA feel more like a dorm room than a business office. Steve Kerr readily admits that a lot of what he saw during his tenure with the Spurs helped shaped the type of environment that he wanted to build with the Golden State Warriors.

In a Sports Illustrated feature story on Russell Westbrook (immaculately written by the great Lee Jenkins), Troy Weaver offers this interesting insight into the workings of the Thunder’s front office, “Weaver, in another cross-sport comparison, likens the Thunder to the St. Louis Cardinals. Players are protected and eccentricities embraced.” Jenkins also slide this tidbit in near the story’s conclusion, “They privately prefer to be compared to the Cardinals...who lost albert Pujols in ‘11 and reached the World Series in ‘13.”.

For all the talk of sacrifice in San Antonio not every player is going to be so willing to take a lesser role or accept less money. As the smallest market in the NBA, Oklahoma City had preferred to be financially savvy in i’s early years.

Short-sighted or not, it meant that chasing bigger names in free agency was not part of their plans. They instead relied upon interior development and some penny pinching. Prior to signing Enes Kanter to a five-year, $70 million max contract, the most the Thunder had ever spent on a free agent was a three-year, 15.6 million for Nenad Kristic.

I would like to offer my own cross-sport comparison; the Thunder have built their team in a very similar way to the New England Patriots.

“Do Your Job” and the “Patriot Way” are phrases that have been tied to New England ever since Bill Belichick took over the team in 2000. In that stretch the Patriots have gone to six Super Bowls (winning four), and have the best record of any team in the entire NFL.

However, we have seen the team part ways year-after-year with high-level talent only to find above average replacements that are both cheaper and younger.

Ty Law. Willie McGinest. Lawyer Milloy. Randy Moss. Richard Seymour. Adam Vinatieri.

All were moved on from before impending raises or their play began to recede.

Oklahoma City hasn’t been quite as cutthroat, but they have shown that they will put the culture ahead of the player. This black-and-white approach to sports has worked for both teams. However, it might be a model better suited for the NFL.

Contracts don’t linger on the salary cap after a player is moved and the pool of players is much deeper than that the NBA provides. Football teams can hold over four times as many players on their active roster. This allows them to keep backups ingrained in the system and more readily available when next man up is called upon.

The Thunder are one of 22 NBA teams that have their own NBA Development League franchise, which offers them a greater shot at finding and developing younger prospects. If used right, they could exploit the D-League in ways unseen to the NBA.

Sam Presti is very good at his job. Let’s just stop assuming that because he was once a member of the Spurs that he is trying to replicate that with the Thunder. There are other great franchises and they have differing philosophies on what the best practices are to obtain success. Presti has shown that he favors the Patriots way of operating.

There’s an intriguing line from a Wall Street Journal article on the Thunder from April 2016, “Thunder officials say the complete absence of lineage was actually a huge opportunity. It gave them carte blanche to build a team--and an organization--exactly the way they wanted.”

The “Thunder Way” is here to stay. It just isn’t the way many thought they would be getting.