Big brother comes to town Monday night for a big game.
But for as much as the Thunder has been compared to San Antonio over the years, not once have you heard anyone in Oklahoma City's organization express a desire to be like the Spurs.
Not outside the win column, anyway.
It might just be because the Thunder and Spurs are two different franchises that have blazed two totally different paths. They just happen to share a few obvious similarities and pivotal organizational philosophies.
Sam Presti perhaps summed up things best.
“Many people strive to sustain success in our business, but what the Spurs have done is sustain excellence,” the Thunder's architect told the San Antonio Express-News in September.
The Thunder is off to a good start. But to get here, to establish the “Thunder Way,” the ownership group, Presti and players had to undergo relocation, being an upstart franchise in an untapped market and building an identity, on the court and in the community, from scratch. All are things the Spurs haven't known since their ABA roots in the '70s.
But the biggest difference today still is seen on both benches, where a chess match will ensue between the 63-year-old Gregg Popovich and the 47-year-old Scott Brooks.
Popovich is king in San Antonio. What he says goes. He's a coach Brooks admittedly aims to learn from, and rightfully so given Popovich's four championships.
“Pop is one of the coaches that all coaches look at because he does it in the right way,” Brooks said. “He respects the game and he respects his opponent, and they demand great effort every night and we do the same thing.”
Brooks seems to be able to go on all day talking about the Spurs.
“They're one of the best teams in this league for the last 15 years or so,” he said. “They play hard. They play together. They play smart. They have great experience.”
That's just a few of about 40 ways the Thunder are different from the Spurs. But we offer 10 of the biggest differences that destroy the notion that Oklahoma City has become San Antonio north.
EXPERIENCE VS. YOUTH
From top to bottom in both organizations, there couldn't be more of a difference in experience. Clay Bennett, Sam Presti and Scott Brooks all took on unfamiliar positions as young decision-makers relative to their titles. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook had the keys to the franchise as 21-year-olds. In San Antonio, the leadership has been long-established, from owner Peter Holt to general manager R.C. Buford to coach Gregg Popovich to former star David Robinson. The Thunder has built from the bottom at every level. The Spurs have succeeded with several old NBA hands, supplanting them with newbies along the way.
BATTLE TESTED VS. JUST BEGINNING
As a young franchise, the Thunder has had enormous success with sprinkles of heartbreak. But OKC has a long way to go to catch up to San Antonio, an organization that understands the NBA's ups and downs better than most all others. The Spurs have won four NBA titles and journeyed to the Western Conference Finals on three other occasions since their first championship in 1999. But the Spurs also have been knocked out of the first round twice in the past four years and have seen many more than just two fan favorites unexpectedly leave town over the years.
CHANGE VS. CONSISTENCY
It's a credit to San Antonio's management and the character of its players that Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker have held together this long. But because that trio has it's become easy to lose sight of the turnover the Spurs have gone through. San Antonio repeatedly has had to reinvent itself since the mid-90s. The Thunder is only on chapter three after retooling in the wake of losing Jeff Green and James Harden. San Antonio has proved itself capable of keeping its core intact but also succeeding while restructuring around it. The Thunder has not to this point.
OLD SCHOOL VS. NEW SCHOOL
With all due respect to the Spurs, it was a little easier to win titles during their heyday. There were no super teams. San Antonio's stiffest competition was the Lakers, who had two of the best ever in Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal. But outside of a solid collection of talent in Phoenix and Dallas, the Spurs weren't competing against what's standing in the Thunder's way today. As a small market team, OKC has the never-before-seen challenge of competing on the court while having no chance to keep up in the tax era. It's tilted the advantage to the coasts.
APPRECIATED VS. ADMIRED
Perhaps no dynasty in NBA history has been considered boring like San Antonio. The Spurs, for whatever reason, just haven't moved the needle in America's heart despite fielding some of the best and brightest players the league has ever seen. Meanwhile, in Oklahoma City, the Thunder is a league darling and seemingly America's sweetheart. No matter how you judge it, be it jersey sales or ticket sales, television viewers or butts in the seats, the Thunder is one of the most popular teams today. And the admiration is only growing. It's a surprising development coming from such a small market.
INSIDE VS. OUTSIDE
San Antonio's most valuable player plays the post position and the offense seems to involve him at one point or another nearly every possession. The Thunder's most valuable players wreak havoc on the perimeter and work their way inside from there. The Spurs tend to beat you inside-out, while the Thunder tries to beat you outside-in. From an offensive standpoint, no two centers are more diametrically opposite than Tim Duncan and Kendrick Perkins. San Antonio has had a Hall of Fame post player every season since 1989. The Thunder, well, not so much. Not even in the Seattle days.
TIM DUNCAN VS. KEVIN DURANT
In an era of self-indulgent overexposure, San Antonio's Tim Duncan somehow has been able to go virtually unnoticed. He rarely speaks or draws attention to himself and couldn't be happier. Meanwhile, Thunder Kevin Durant inexplicably remains humble while diving headfirst into anything that offers a phone app. Duncan has been in the league 16 seasons and we barely know who he is. Duncan doesn't even have a Twitter account, fercryinoutloud. Meanwhile, Durant is in his sixth season, has more than 3.2 million Twitter followers and had a movie made in his honor at the tender age of 23.
YOU'RE SITTING VS. YOU'RE PLAYING
On Nov. 29, with his team playing its sixth road game in a span of eight days, San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich had starters Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and Danny Green fly home rather than play against the world champion Miami Heat. Under the exact same circumstances, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook would handcuff themselves to the team bus if Thunder coach Scott Brooks ever asked them to go home early. Durant led the NBA in total minutes (2,546) last season while Westbrook has played in 335 consecutive games, the longest active streak in the league.
BALL MOVEMENT VS. ISOLATION
San Antonio habitually ranks among the NBA leaders in team assists and leads the league again this season (25.4). The Thunder finished last in assists last season (18.3), but has taken a huge stride this season (22.4) to rank 10th. While the Spurs often seem to play by osmosis, the Thunder runs isolation plays to take advantage of its athleticism. “We relied on our talent, probably too much at times (in the past),” OKC veteran forward Nick Collison explained. “So we're trying to get away from that and get more to where we're executing, sharing the ball, getting easier shots.”
SIXTH MAN VS. SIXTH MAN
The most blatant similarity between San Antonio and OKC was having two of the league's premier sixth men, and both left-handed guards at that. Alas, that is now history with James Harden being traded from the Thunder to the Houston Rockets on Oct. 27. The Spurs' Manu Ginobili brought an international flair while Harden brought a world-class beard. Ginobili popularized the Euro-step move, but Harden is on the verge of perfecting it. Now the Thunder offers right-handed, clean-shaven sixth man Kevin Martin, who will either rain in long-range jumpers, or get to the free-throw line by drawing a foul.