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OKC Thunder: What Sam Presti won't risk for a title

COMMENTARY — The Dwight Howard trade to the Lakers raises new questions about whether the small-market Oklahoma City Thunder can keep up financially. The answer is no, and hinges on one of Sam Presti's favorite phrases: “sustainability.” A refresher on how the Thunder defines that.
by Berry Tramel Published: August 15, 2012

The 2007-08 New Orleans Hornets won 56 games, beat Dallas in a first-round playoff series and took San Antonio to seven games in a spirited Western Conference semifinal series.

Those Hornets had a 22-year-old Chris Paul, a 27-year-old David West and a 25-year-old Tyson Chandler.

Paul was signed through summer 2012, West and Chandler through summer 2011.

The Hornets' future looked bright. By last season, the Hornets were 21-45. Paul was a Clipper, West a Pacer and Chandler a Knickerbocker after having won an NBA title as a Maverick.

The bottom can fall out quickly. In a league where most of the best players seem to migrate to a select few franchises, why will the Thunder be different?

Thunder fan and Oklahoman reader Tom McLain asked a great question right after the NBA Finals, in response to a column I wrote about the new luxury tax: Doesn't the new collective bargaining agreement encourage disparity more than parity? And isn't the Thunder, the heady present notwithstanding, eventually a classic candidate to give up the chase like so many other NBA franchises have done?

The latest evidence came last week, when Dwight Howard became a Laker and the Orlando Magic, like the Hornets before them, officially entered full rebuilding mode, with no reason to believe it ever would reach such lofty heights again.

The Thunder looks good for now, with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook signed well into this decade. But when their contracts are up, can the Thunder avoid the fate of the Hornets and Magic?

Or even if Durant and Westbrook stick around the way Karl Malone and John Stockton stuck around Salt Lake City, what of OKC basketball when they are gone?

Is Thundermania sustainable for five years? For 10? Can OKC remain a viable NBA market in this era of superstar aggregation (LA, Boston, Miami)?

There is reason for hope. And it's in that word from the previous paragraph. Sustainability.

It's a word Sam Presti has trotted out as much as he's used “process” and “culture.” Those are his triple crown of terms.

Presti has preached sustainability since this franchise first docked in OKC. Sustainability was in short supply in the decision-making of the Hornets and Magic in recent years. Just check out the contracts given to Peja Stojakovic (Hornets) and Hedo Turkoglu (Magic). Those all-in decisions meant the future was now.

But sustainability means being competitive virtually every year. Maybe not championship-level, but competitive.

That's the San Antonio model and, to a certain extent, the Utah model. Those franchises are the answer to the boom-and-bust histories of the Hornets and Magic and the like.

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by Berry Tramel
Berry Tramel, a lifelong Oklahoman, sports fan and newspaper reader, joined The Oklahoman in 1991 and has served as beat writer, assistant sports editor, sports editor and columnist. Tramel grew up reading four daily newspapers — The Oklahoman,...
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