Thunder’s blueprint familiar
OKLAHOMA CITY — When owner Clay Bennett was seeking a leader for his team that would one day become the Oklahoma City Thunder, he picked a rising star from a San Antonio franchise on the verge of winning its fourth NBA championship in a decade.
It was the start of a process that would model Bennett’s franchise after the Spurs, leading up to their meeting in the Western Conference finals starting Sunday night.
The standards that led to San Antonio’s success rubbed off on Sam Presti, who got his start as a video intern for the Spurs before rising through that organization and eventually getting hired by Bennett as general manager of the relocating Seattle SuperSonics.
He recognized the importance San Antonio placed on humility, sacrifice and a family atmosphere, and has tried to instill those standards in the Thunder.
“I think everyone within the NBA has great respect for what the Spurs have accomplished and the standards that they have established in recent years, but I think every organization has to have their own identity,” Presti said Thursday.
“Certainly, we’re always going to look to try to pull from organizations such as the Spurs in our effort to build an identity and a foundation for an organization in Oklahoma City that has great endurance.”
The similarities are numerous. Each team plays in a smaller NBA market and has a nucleus of homegrown players acquired through the draft, including hidden gems plucked from overseas.
But more than the basketball product, the franchises have a reputation for how they handle their business: no bad-mouthing other teams or players, few scrapes with the law or other incidents and no sense of entitlement.
“I tell guys all the time: ‘Not every guy can come here and play. This isn’t for everybody,’ ” said Nazr Mohammed, who won an NBA title with San Antonio in 2005 and is now a backup for the Thunder.
“The same in San Antonio. That isn’t for everybody. ... It’s not even the player, more so the person.”
It might not be no-nonsense, but there certainly isn’t much of it.
“It starts at the top, the way Sam has built the organization and then the players he’s brought in to match that system. It’s amazing to have these young guys around here that understand just the hard work, the family atmosphere,” Mohammed said.
“I’ve been on some teams where you’ve got a bunch of young guys. Family atmosphere is the furthest thing from guys’ minds. Guys are thinking about, ‘When am I going to get my opportunity to get out there and show the world what I can do and get my second contract?’ Here, it’s nothing like that. Guys just want to work, win, get better and they know and understand like veterans that the rest will take care of itself.”
While Presti has tried to foster that San Antonio-style atmosphere, he credits his players and coaches for carrying it out and putting in the work that has led to consecutive Western Conference finals appearances for the second time in franchise history.
At the forefront, he sees San Antonio’s Tim Duncan and Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant – both superstars who don’t care about the limelight and only want “to work hard and play basketball.”
Coach Gregg Popovich joked that San Antonio “tried to keep (Presti) in a closet for a while so no one would know about him” but word eventually got out. And now some of the Spurs’ secrets may be working against them.
Presti has said from the beginning that he wasn’t trying to re-create the Spurs.
“No two places are the same, and you’re going to have different circumstances and different approaches,” Presti said. “We have a lot of respect for them but we also have to build our own identity.
“Everyone else wants to make us the ‘Spurs North’ or whatever, but we’re the ones going, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa!’ We’ve got a long way to go.”
western conference finals
NO. 1 SAN ANTONIO (50-16 REGULAR SEASON, 8-0 PLAYOFFS) VS. NO. 2 OKLAHOMA CITY (47-19, 8-1)
SERIES: Begins Sunday. Games 1, 2, 5 and 7 in San Antonio; Games 3, 4 and 6 in Oklahoma City.
Season series: Spurs, 2-1. San Antonio won the last two meetings, including a victory at Oklahoma City, as it charged past the Thunder to earn the No. 1 seed. None of the games was particularly close, with Oklahoma City leading by 22 after three quarters in its Jan. 8 home victory, before the Spurs built leads of 24 and 27 points in their two wins – the last coming on March 16, before the Spurs upgraded their rotation. Tim Duncan averaged 14.5 points and 17 rebounds in San Antonio’s victories, while rookie Kawhi Leonard added 14.3 points in the series. Kevin Durant scored 22.7 per game for the Thunder.
story line: The best of the West, who have been the most impressive teams in the playoffs, meet for a trip to the NBA finals. The Thunder was the conference favorite for much of the season, but the Spurs seem to have assumed that role now after winning 18 straight games by an average of 14 points. They are looking for a fifth NBA title, while Durant and Russell Westbrook are trying to lead the Thunder to its first since the franchise moved to Oklahoma City from Seattle.
key matchup: Tony Parker vs. Westbrook. The Parker-Chris Paul matchup didn’t live up to expectations last round because Paul was banged up, but this one very well might. Both All-Stars are among the best at running the pick-and-roll, Parker rarely looking better than when he torched the Thunder for 42 points and nine assists in the Spurs’ 107-96 victory Feb. 4. Westbrook, who averaged 25.6 points in the Thunder’s five-game victory over the Lakers in the second round, had a 36-point outing against the Spurs in the regular season but shot only 13 of 29 in that game.
key matchup, part 2: Manu Ginobili vs. James Harden. Ginobili has long been one of the NBA’s top sixth men, but Harden won the award this season. Harden was terrific against the Spurs in the regular season, averaging 19 points on 59 percent shooting. Ginobili sat out all three meetings but is healthy now when it matters most, eliminating what has been the Spurs’ biggest problem since their last title in 2007.
x factor: Danny Green. A reserve who totaled only 12 points in the teams’ first two meetings, Green was a Spurs starter by the finale, when he made five 3-pointers and scored 21 points. He’s fourth in playoff scoring for San Antonio after the Big Three, averaging 10.4 points.
prediction: Spurs in 7.
The Associated Press