The Oklahoma City Thunder's rapid ascension to the heights of the Western Conference was the first step.
Now comes the hard part.
Even as the organization attempts to negotiate a contract extension with guard Reggie Jackson prior to an Oct. 31 deadline, one can't help but look ahead to Kevin Durant's looming free agency in 2016. Oklahoma City's ability to contend for the foreseeable future depends upon keeping both players in the fold.
And while their respective circumstances really aren't analogous, they share something important in common.
Neither courtship will come down to money alone.
In Jackson's case, finances are certainly part of the equation. With a similarly situated guard like Eric Bledsoe commanding a five-year, $70 million contract in September, Jackson may well expect a colossal raise over the $2,325,680 he's scheduled to make this season.
The Oklahoman's Darnell Mayberry argued in July, "As of today, Jackson is not a max player. But a stellar 2014-15 season could change the perception and put him closer to that coveted eight-figure salary."
That's one reason Jackson's camp may put off an extension and explore free agency next summer. He'd have another season to prove himself, and there would be a legitimate market for his services replete with suitors who could drive up his price in a bidding war.
That doesn't mean the Thunder will let Jackson walk.
As Mayberry put it: "The good news for the Thunder is it has prepared for this day for years. It's why Oklahoma City hasn't chased free agents or exceeded the tax level. Whether Jackson's number comes in big or small, the Thunder is in position to handle it, especially with Kendrick Perkins' contract coming off the books next summer."
The franchise's bigger concern is whether it can accommodate Jackson's aspirations to be a central part of the team's plans.
It's not just that he wants to be a starter—he also wants to be a leader.
Jackson told Mayberry in September:
I feel like I can lead a team. That's just how I've been raised and that's just how I've always felt. I want to be the guy in charge. I want to be the guy leading the team. The head of the snake. I guess that's just how I'm encrypted DNA-wise. I played quarterback in high school. I had a year I was a receiver. But I was more comfortable playing quarterback. I've just always been good leading my team. That's how I’ve always been, being vocal. And when the ball's in my hand, I feel like I can make the right plays and just impact the team.
Hopefully he'll be satisfied with a starting job, assuming head coach Scott Brooks agrees to that particular request.
Jackson told reporters at media day:
I want to be a starter. I've always wanted to be a starter. I've always wanted to be great. All the greats I've seen started, so that's kind of the mold.
I think me and everybody else has a reason and a chance to go out there and be great in whatever aspect they want in life, and I've always tried to do my best. That's kind of how I approach life. My family taught me, and especially my brothers growing up, that I always wanted a chance to be great. That's my destiny.
But Jackson is coming off a breakout season in which he started 36 regular-season games in place of an injured Westbrook, posting career highs across the board with 13.1 points, 4.1 assists and 3.9 rebounds in 28.5 minutes per contest.
The 24-year-old started another four games alongside Westbrook in the playoffs when Brooks opted to adopt a different look midway through OKC's conference finals matchup with the San Antonio Spurs. With a history of particularly strong performances against those Spurs, Jackson responded with three strong performances—including a 21-point Game 6.
In his eyes, this is a sign that he and Westbrook are the backcourt of the future. It's a strong assumption, too, especially in a post-James Harden era in which the team could use another wing option on the offensive end.
Jackson may more naturally be a point guard, but—like Westbrook—he's comfortable looking for his own shot and has served as a valuable sixth-man spark plug accordingly.
You could make an argument for starting Jeremy Lamb at the shooting guard spot on account of his superior length, but the 22-year-old is a far less-proven product at this point—averaging just 19.7 minutes in his second season after seeing negligible action as a rookie.
So Jackson may well get his wish.
Durant seemed to sympathize with Jackson's plight, but he also notes the importance of anchoring a second unit and finishing games.
"Yeah, I mean, as kids we're taught that being a starter means that you're it," he told USA Today's Sam Amick in September. "But I've seen starters average 10 minutes a game, and not finish games. But Reggie finishes games for us, and I think that's more important."
Brooks' ultimate decision on the matter could play an important role in determining Jackson's future with the club. The organization may not control whether an agreement is hammered out before that Oct. 31 deadline, but—even if the two sides kick the can to next summer—the Thunder can make an impression on Jackson in the meantime.
Keeping this core together (and happy) is increasingly critical.
With just two seasons to sell Durant on this team's championship pedigree, the Jackson subplot could go a long way toward determining OKC's viability as a near-term contender.
KD has consistently said all the right things, but he's also steered clear of making any promises.
"I'm taking it day by day with the Oklahoma City Thunder," Durant told Amick. "That's my main concern. And whatever the future holds, I don't know, because I can't tell you the future. I'm going to take it a day at a time."
"I enjoy being here," he added. "I enjoy my teammates. I like the direction we're going in, and that's not just a cliché (expletive) answer. That's real."
And no one doubts it.
Durant's MVP acceptance speech quickly became a thing of legend. There's no question he cares for this franchise and those who wear its uniform. His humble, team-first disposition remains the perfect fit for an organization that's made every attempt to stay classy under general manager Sam Presti.
But storybook endings are no guarantee in this business. Should the Thunder take a step back between now and 2016, Durant will have opportunities—and perhaps reasons—to go elsewhere.
So there's an urgency to retaining and placating Jackson. An urgency for Brooks to take this team to another level, perhaps making adjustments to his suspect approach to half-court offense. Now's the time to take advantage of the league's most talented young core as it enters its collective prime.
That core's future in Oklahoma City may depend on it.