Close your eyes, picture an Oklahoma City Thunder logo and ask yourself what comes to mind.
Kevin Durant? Russell Westbrook?
All three have defined the Thunder's existence.
But they're not all Oklahoma City wants to be about.
“When we arrived in Oklahoma in 2008,” said Thunder general manager Sam Presti, “we did so with a vision to ultimately build, enhance and sustain a team, and also construct an organization that had the endurance to accept the various cycles and challenges that exists in professional sports.”
Though Year 6 is underway, Presti says that goal remains far from complete.
“I always talk about the fact that we're building a franchise and not just a team,” Presti said at his season-ending news conference last summer. “The cement is certainly not dry for the identity for the Thunder.”
There's a franchise invading Chesapeake Energy Arena on Wednesday night, though, that represents a shining example of what dry cement looks like. It's the San Antonio Spurs, a model of consistency and an organization many have said the Thunder has looked to emulate.
The Spurs embody all that the Thunder seeks to establish as identifiable tenets.
Resiliency. Stability. Longevity.
Reliability. Humility. Community.
“We want to ensure that our identity, when we reach the 10-year anniversary of the Thunder in Oklahoma, is consistent with the values set forth in Year 1,” Presti said.
“This will take discipline and resolve, and while we have achieved some success to date, we are still very early in our existence as an organization. We strongly believe that we are capable of building an organization of great endurance and civic pride in Oklahoma City, but I don't think we can assume that something that meaningful and delicate can be achieved in five years.”
San Antonio has earned its reputation by succeeding on and off the court for the last 25 years. The Spurs have had quality ownership and quality management. They developed a philosophy and stuck to their plan. They committed to high-character players and community-based initiatives.
In a league that's ever-changing, the Spurs have managed to be the rare constant.
That's what they're known for as much, if not more, than their four NBA championships.
“To be able to accomplish the goal of sustainable success, you have to demonstrate that your organization possesses the trait of emotional resiliency,” Presti said. “Success is not linear, and lasting success is often the product of the ability to recover from the unforeseen events and adversities that exists in sports. You have to have the resolve, optimism and belief to continue your march forward, and I think our players have demonstrated that over time.”
San Antonio, for instance, has lost in the first or second round of the playoffs eight times in the Tim Duncan era.
Rarely does that get discussed.
But the way the Spurs have responded following those seasons does.
That's because the best franchises aren't defined solely by winning. They're also defined by how they handle not winning.
The Thunder recently went through its first phase of adversity. OKC journeyed to the NBA Finals in 2012 and lost, and then it lost James Harden. Many wrote off the Thunder, but the team responded by winning an Oklahoma City-era franchise-record 60 games.
Then Westbrook suffered a knee injury, derailing the Thunder's playoff run in the second round.
The setback, though, became another chance for the Thunder to cultivate an identity.
“Although losing Russell at that specific point in time was difficult, I think we learned a lot about our team and our people,” Presti said. “Coming into this year, we felt that we were positioned to continue to be amongst the contending teams even though we were coming off a disappointing finish. And I think that is what lets you know that you are building something of substance, something beyond the present and ultimately sustainable.”
So how long does it take for cement to dry?
How will we know when it's taking shape around the Thunder's identity?
“We do not feel that there is a true finish line when striving for excellence,” Presti said. “We want our organization to continuously learn, adapt and evolve. Our focus is on the process of building, enhancing and sustaining the organization, and we accept the fact that there is likely no silver-bullet moment that will allow us to achieve the kind of sustainability we feel is essential to building a team and organization in Oklahoma City.
“For us, it will be embracing the accumulation of incremental and marginal gains that build a foundation for lasting, year-in and year-out success. We want people who are with us to have their work last well beyond their tenure with the organization. We all realize we are caretakers of the organization and its values. We understand how rare it is to put the foundation in place for an organization and what the work signifies for our community now and in the future. We see it as much as a responsibility as a privilege.”