The formerly up-and-coming Oklahoma City Thunder is all grown up. The team’s rise has occurred as quickly as Kobe Bryant blames his teammates after the Los Angeles Lakers lose.
Only three seasons ago, most Thunder performances brought to mind Harlem Globetrotter-Washington General mismatches. The team uniform should have included floppy high-top sneakers and red-foam noses. You almost expected the Thunder to fall for the hidden-ball trick.
Now, the Thunder is making its opponents disappear.
Built by scalpel-sharp General Manager Sam Presti, who shuns the spotlight like deer in a housing subdivision, the Thunder swept the defending champion Dallas Mavericks during the first round of the NBA playoffs. In the best-of-seven Western Conference semifinals, the Thunder holds a 3-1 lead against the Lakers with Game 5 on Monday night in Oklahoma City.
The Thunder has hit it big the old-fashioned way: by building through the draft. In five years leading the ballclub’s basketball operation, Presti has produced second-to-none results. Core-of-the-roster players Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Serge Ibaka, each acquired through the draft, are all part of Presti’s hot streak. The characteristically self-effacing Presti isn’t seeking applause — just wins.
“None of us are gonna take any bows for Russell’s talent or development, or Kevin’s, or James’s . . . or for knowing Serge Ibaka would turn into this type of player in his [third] year,” Presti, who rarely grants interviews, said during a lengthy phone conversation last week. “We just try to do the best we can and shift the odds.”
Even the worst sports executives can get lucky once or twice in the draft. When it happens time and time again, you’re dealing with a master’s eye for talent.
The skill Presti has demonstrated in managing the league’s Byzantine salary cap (the Thunder has retained its star-powered young nucleus while maintaining a payroll below the punitive luxury-tax threshold) and creating a winning culture (“we’re looking for great people as much as players,” Presti says) is as important as his success in assembling a watch-out-for-those-guys roster. Under Presti, the NBA’s smallest-market team is proving a point: Size isn’t all that matters.
“I don’t know if there’s a right way to build a team; every situation is different,” he said. “Every place has different circumstances. But finding [players] with tremendous makeup and tremendous focus and determination . . . those are driving qualities to success” anywhere.
With each Northwest Division title (the Thunder has won the past two) and playoff appearance (three straight), the Thunder is landing combination blows to the widespread belief that professional sports now mirror the real estate market: It’s all about location, location, location.
Sure, it has been historically easier for clubs in Los Angeles, New York and Miami to attract the highest-profile superstars in free agency. Many pro athletes are drawn to the biggest stages and the chance to join forces with players of comparable — or greater — ability (though so far, LeBron James hasn’t had quite the South Beach experience he envisioned). Luring big-name performers from other teams has been as much a part of the New York Yankees’ identity as their pinstripes. But smarts and sound judgment can be equalizers.
That’s the foundation of the Thunder’s success. It’s why many teams (the Wizards have been trying unsuccessfully for years) strive to emulate the Thunder model — and not only those from less-chic zip codes. In today’s NBA, it’s not about keeping up with the Joneses. It’s about copying the Thunder.
Sentiments like that make Presti about as comfortable as a sore-kneed defender is against Durant. Presti would rather not come across as the smartest guy in the room (though he often is). He prefers to push buttons behind the curtains and let the product do the shouting.
Despite the Thunder’s new position among the league’s elite, he says, “We’re certainly not content. What we’re trying to establish here is an organization that has great endurance . . . that’s capable of sustaining success.”
For three seasons, the Thunder has been on a straight-line climb. The team’s winning percentages during the run best reflect its big-headline-worthy progress: .610, .671 and .712 (the NBA’s third best this season). Its postseason ascent has been no less remarkable: After pushing the eventual champion Lakers to six games in an opening-round 2009-10 playoff loss, the Thunder advanced to the Western Conference finals last season.
“We’ve had a lot of good fortune as we’ve gone through this process,” Presti said, again with modesty.
The Thunder was touched by serendipity even before it became the Thunder.
After cutting his teeth for seven years in the San Antonio Spurs’ rock-solid organization (Presti held a variety of positions, eventually rising to assistant general manager), Presti was only 30 when he was named the Seattle SuperSonics’ general manager in 2007.
The dismal Sonics already had one foot in Oklahoma City (the team and the city of Seattle failed to reach an agreement on a new arena) by the time Presti signed on, but they had the No. 2 overall draft pick. With the draft’s first selection, Portland chose center Greg Oden. Then Presti picked Durant.
Major injuries have derailed Oden’s start-and-stop career. Since he joined the NBA, Durant, who was born in the District and raised around Prince George’s County, has been in the Hall of Fame express lane.
The league’s three-time defending scoring champion, Durant is one of the faces of the NBA. He’s a tech-lab clean megastar who’s just fine with Oklahoma City’s slow-paced lifestyle.
On the same night James partnered with ESPN in his narcissistic made-for-television announcement about joining the Heat, Durant simply tweeted that he had reached an agreement to remain with the Thunder through the 2016 season. He’s a hip-hop heartland hero.
“We’re four years into our existence in Oklahoma City. By way of example, the Boston Celtics have 66 years of history,” Presti said. “It will take a long time to build an identity for our organization . . . so having a person like Kevin Durant wear the uniform, being part of the first team that represented Oklahoma City, [was] incredibly meaningful.
“Our guys . . . they’re young. There’s gonna be twists and turns. We understand that. But if we stay on course, and continue to support them as I’m confident we will, we can hopefully build an identity the people of Oklahoma City can be proud of.”
The thought of Durant, Westbrook, Harden and Ibaka working together for a decade or so probably isn’t comforting to other would-be title contenders. And that’s just the way Presti has planned it.
For Jason Reid’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/reid