The issue is still three years away, but the question of how will the Thunder manage to retain young guns Kevin Durant, Jeff Green and Russell Westbrook is one that is already being asked. For the answer, look no further than the San Antonio Spurs, who visit the Ford Center tonight for the first time this season. The Thunder would like to duplicate several aspects of the Spurs organization, particularly their championships and community-oriented philosophy. But nothing will be more vital to Oklahoma City’s future than pulling off what San Antonio has done to hang on to its All-Star trio of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. The Spurs have reached the point Oklahoma City is aiming to be in 2012-13, not in terms of on-the-court success but with regard to salary-cap structure. San Antonio currently has more than $42 million of its $70 million payroll committed to Duncan ($20.5 million), Parker ($11.5 million) and Ginobili ($9.9 million). No other Spurs player is earning more than veteran forward Kurt Thomas’ $4.2 million. It’s a financial model that can be found throughout the league. The Boston Celtics have a similar structure, but the Spurs are the best example because of the way they’ve built from the ground up similar to the Thunder’s current stage. Getting there takes careful management of the cap, financial restraint and a heap of patience. But the Thunder is ahead of schedule in reaching that destination and retaining its talented young threesome. Like San Antonio, Oklahoma City will benefit from drafting its young nucleus. NBA rules permit teams to offer its own free agents longer and more lucrative contracts than any other team. Durant and Green will be the first to receive contract extensions, both of them kicking in before the start of the 2011-12 season. The Thunder currently has only $7 million in fourth-year team options pending for that season, going toward Westbrook and D.J. White. The earliest Westbrook can sign an extension is just before the start of the 2011-12 season, with the new contract kicking in during the 2012-13 year. Of the trio, Durant is certain to receive the maximum contract allowed under NBA rules, and Green and Westbrook would likely fall in the Parker/Ginobili range. Convincing the main cogs to stick around figures to be the easy part for Oklahoma City. Locating and landing the bargain-priced role players is where it’ll get tricky.
Spurs at Thunder
→When: 7 tonight →Where: Ford Center →TV: Fox Sports Oklahoma (Cox 37), NBA TV (Cox 256) →Radio: WWLS 98.1-FM, WWLS 640-AM, Sirius 217, XM 235 →Live blog: http://www.newsok.com/sports/thunder Three things to know
→Kevin Durant returned to the starting lineup Saturday after missing seven games with a sprained ankle. →San Antonio is in second place in the Western Conference standings and is 21-12 on the road. →The Spurs have won eight of their past 13 games. Probable starters