The San Antonio Spurs are the 2014 NBA Champions, defeating the Miami Heat in just five games and holding aloft the Larry O’Brien trophy for the fifth time in fifteen years – since Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich came together and got things going in 1999. It’s a monumental record and terrific achievement by an organization that has built a culture of winning and playing competitive team basketball.
Far from the big bright lights of Los Angeles, or the beaches of Miami, the San Antonio Spurs are a small market team with a big heart and big ideals. It is a strategy that has seen them become one of the most successful NBA franchises in the modern era and something for other small market teams to aspire to.
Enter the Oklahoma City Thunder.
The Thunder were eliminated by the eventual champions in just six games, but the series in itself was fairly close. During the regular season, the Thunder managed to sweep the Spurs, but come playoff time, the intensity lifted and the Spurs were not going to be denied. As frustrating as it was to see the Thunder fall to their Western Conference rival, there were some glaring similarities between the two organizations – and the Thunder would be wise to further explore them.
The concept of “team” basketball has been lost in the modern era, as superstars have teamed up to give themselves the best chance at winning an NBA Championship. In some cases, this has worked out and for the past two years we have witnessed the Miami Heat use the free agency / superteam model with great success, however this year it was the “underdog” that got the job done. The systems and structures of the Spurs negated the star power of LeBron James (who got little assistance from the other members of the Big 3) and the Spurs were again crowned the best team in basketball.
OKC have a supremely talented roster and have made huge strides over the past handful of years. They reached the NBA Finals in 2012 losing to the Miami Heat after defeating the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference Finals and gave the Spurs a run for their money in this years’ installment of the WCF. You get the feeling that the time is just around the corner for the “little brother” Thunder.
Drafting and developing talent, making solid off season signings and incorporating it all effortlessly into a system is San Antonio’s way of winning championships and remaining competitive for nearly two decades. The Thunder appear to be trying to emulate that strategy – and they would be wise to do so. OKC arguably have more individual athleticism and talent on the roster, but they have yet to truly develop into a well oiled team. Partly due to the age of their roster, partly due to the youthful inexperience of their head coach – the Thunder just haven’t been able to climb their “Everest” just yet.
As the Thunder players were undoubtedly watching the NBA Finals an wishing it were them, they might have also been taking notes on just what it takes to become the best. To be within a couple of games of the eventual NBA Champions is no small feat and it won’t be wasted on superstar Kevin Durant who will be instrumental in leading the Thunder to a title. Ball movement, unselfishness, solid team defense, effort, heart and balance would have been notes made by the league MVP during this series.
The Thunder will now work to build upon a terrific 2013-14 NBA campaign with the hopes of going one better and playing in another NBA Finals series. They have two first round draft picks, a substantial trade exception and a front office determined to win the right way. Coupled with their star duo Durant and Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka and young talents Jeremy Lamb and Steven Adams, the Thunder have a wonderful core.
And after watching the Spurs in action, they now have the blueprint for success in the modern NBA.