Oklahoma City Thunder Prove Market Size Does Not Prevent Winning Culture
If you hadn't noticed, something on the order of superconducting magnets appears to be drawing the NBA's biggest names to cities like Los Angeles, New York and Miami.
By all accounts, that "something" is market size and the promotional opportunity that comes therewith.
That hasn't stopped the Oklahoma City Thunder from carving out a space as one of the league's elite franchises, and it hasn't stopped general manager Sam Presti from building a winner without the luxury of big city pomp and circumstance.
It goes without saying that all those reputable names clamoring for trades aren't asking to be dealt to OKC. Carmelo Anthony had his heart set on New York. Chris Paul and Dwight Howard both wound up in Los Angeles.
Those with a choice in the matter always seem to prefer media meccas to the cozy confines of the heartland.
For some odd reason, though, the star talent drafted to the Thunder don't seem particularly interested in leaving.
Perhaps it has something to do with the realization that success has more to do with locker-room culture than a franchise's capacity to turn merely mortal stars into global brands. Perhaps Presti has used his years in the San Antonio Spurs' front office to remind them of just how dangerous an under-the-radar organization can be.
Maybe they've simply grown to accept Mark Twain's adage that, "It's not the size of the dog in the fight, it's the size of the fight in the dog."
There's a lot of fight in these Thunder.
There's a lot of fight in their fans, too.
While their more urbane counterparts show up to games late and struggle to raise the decibel level beyond a dull murmur, OKC's fanbase harkened back to the lively Sacramento Kings fans who shook Arco Arena a decade ago.
Like those fans, the Thunder's faithful following have a chip on their shoulders.
So too do Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden.
After all, they don't generate the buzz that other title contenders take for granted. They didn't come together amidst any free-agent intrigue. There were no trade demands, no "Decisions," no coups.
Whereas the prevailing "Mitch Kupchak model" of winning titles conjures up images of a cobbled-together Frankenstein monster, the Thunder were simply born this way.
But for the deal that exchanged swingman Jeff Green for center Kendrick Perkins, OKC is a product of the draft. It's proof that a patient rebuilding process pays dividends when management, scouts and coaches do their jobs.
Even if there's nothing wrong with the ways in which the large-market power brokers have shaped their rosters, there's something unmistakably right about the way in which the Thunder have done so.
That's a good thing for the rest of the league.
You may have lost a battle or two, but you can still win the war.
While your cornerstone superstars were lured away by the prospect of ever-greater celebrity and short-term title odds, your time will come. It's no coincidence that the Magic picked Rob Hennigan, a product of the Spurs and Thunder front offices, to take their vacant general manager position this summer.
While the superstars attempting to author their own fates may indeed come into windows of four or fives years worth of title contention, the Thunder are poised for a legitimate dynasty.
Say what you will about the Miami Heat, Los Angeles Lakers, New York Knicks and their collections of stars who are already in their primes. The Thunder just got to the NBA Finals when their four best players were all 23 years old at most.
When Russell Westbrook is Dwyane Wade's age, Dwyane Wade will be 37.
Most importantly, the Thunder have more than youth and talent alone.
They have a winning culture.
You won't find one of its stars yelling at his coach in front of thousands. You won't find them combing the NBA landscape for more lucrative markets in which to play or derailing entire seasons with trade demands.
This franchise understands that there are two sides to every superstar's favorite invocation that, "this is a business." For so many, that's become a justification for abdicating all manner of loyalty. For teams like Oklahoma City, though, it's also a reminder that winning begins with professionalism.
That professionalism will pay off if it hasn't already. Last season's trip to the NBA Finals may have come up empty, but there will be at least a few more such trips in the offing.
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