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A Thunder Q & A, Part I: Chasing the Champs

DrumsInTheDeep here with a little pre-game reading for you. J.A. Sherman (from Welcome to Loud City) and I started what may be a recurring feature between our two blogs, similar to our Fraternizing With the Enemy series, but perhaps a little deeper. A couple weeks ago he reached out, explaining that since the Spurs and Thunder were perhaps destined to meet in the playoffs, and the squad in OKC has been noticeably attempting to emulate the Spurs' success, why not build a running dialogue? I jumped in with him, and here is the first in hopefully several installments. You can find where I answered his questions here. Enjoy!

THE QUESTION: How exactly have the Thunder been trying to follow the Spurs' model? You guys haven't been around THAT long--are you surprised you're already at championship level? What do you think has contributed to that?

1) The Thunder Model: Chasing the Champs

Over the past two years, numerous struggling teams have spoken well of the "Thunder Model" of team building. Upon first glance, the notion is novel - from the organization's final year in Seattle to their first year in Oklahoma City, the team won a combined 43 games. Every year there are teams that end up with those kinds of records. However, there are very, very few who go from losing over 50 games to winning 50 games, and so when it happens, others look up and take notice. The Thunder model must be some stroke of magic/genius, right?
Not exactly. The "Thunder Model" has been an improbable blend of good fortune and player selection savvy to the point where it is actually kind of dangerous to call it a model at all. Teams tank all the time, but it is the rare case where a team winds up in successive years with three lottery picks that turn into their three best players. And even when a team gets it right by tanking and winning the lottery, it is still no guarantee that they will be able to put the pieces together in time. The Cavaliers had LeBron James for seven years, saw him post some of the most ridiculous stat lines of all time, and never managed to break through for the Championship (thanks in part to you guys) before he left for South Beach.

So whatever the Thunder model is now, I want to see it follow the Spurs model of long-term commitment. It is that commitment in the steadfast belief that the organization can and will always find a way to stay competitive, to not cut corners, and trust in the people who are committed to winning.

2) Where are the Thunder now?

Today's Thunder, I would say, are one of the best three regular season teams in the NBA. This isn't exactly a great revelation, since we can easily see that OKC, Miami, and Chicago have taken turns owning the best record in the league since the day the season started. Barring some sort of catastrophe, the Thunder will likely wind up as the #1 seed in the west because 1) they have more talent than anyone else; 2) they have more regular season hunger than anyone else; and 3) the only team that could catch them (you guys) aren't exactly known for breaking the bank to finish with the best regular season record anyway. So OKC is a great regular season team that aspires to be a great playoff team.

Yes, the Thunder did reach the Western Conference Finals last season, in my opinion going a step beyond reasonable expectations. They beat a hot Nuggets team, battled through seven grueling games with your personal vanquishers the Grizzlies, and then lost to the Mavericks in five competitive games. The big question we have now is (and really, this is the only question that matters), what did OKC learn from that experience, both about the playoffs as well as themselves?

I remember those battles that the Spurs had with the Lakers, where it seemed like Tim Duncan & company always fell apart when the heat came. It kept happening and happening and happening, until suddenly it didn't. They figured it out.

So I think that's really where the Thunder are right now - they have some experience, but they also have some hurdles to overcome to take things to the next level. The question we have is how many times will they have to attempt the hurdles before they clear them.

3) What are the major reasons why the Thunder are on the cusp?

This is the question that draws me to the Spurs. It is not merely that Thunder GM Sam Presti got his start there, or that the Thunder managed to draft a potential All-Timer, or that both teams took huge risks on unproven and unconventional point guards. Rather it is the idea, borne from inception, that the Thunder wanted to build something that was long-term. Your site's slogan, "pounding the rock," encapsulates this idea perfectly, and I want to see the Thunder follow the same path. The process takes one swing at a time, some swings produce more than others, and you never take a stick of dynamite to it unless you have a clear plan in place as to where the rubble is going to land.

The Thunder were unsurprisingly quiet during yesterday's trade deadline because they believe they have the right tools in place to pound the rock. We shall soon find out if their chisel is sharp enough and their muscle strong enough to knock off a championship stone in a few months.