On Sunday night the Western Conference Finals begin in San Antonio. On one side are the veteran and methodical San Antonio Spurs; in their fifteenth straight postseason under the guidance of head coach Gregg Popovich and with four championships since 1999. On the other side, you will find the inexperienced but supremely talented and athletic Oklahoma City Thunder; with an average age of 26 and making their second consecutive Conference Finals appearance as a unit. At first it seems like a stark contrast, although these teams share more similarities than differences.
Both teams have eased through the postseason. The Spurs haven’t lost a game since mid-April and dominated the Jazz in the first round and the Clippers in the second round. The Thunder swept the defending champion Mavericks and needed just five games to oust the Lakers.
The Spurs trio of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili has accomplished basketball’s greatest challenge together three times, while the Thunder’s threesome of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden are trying to emulate the success of their competitors.
The main connection between the two goes much deeper than the on-court success. The Thunder have built their organization on the same principles that have made the Spurs so successful. Thunder general manager Sam Presti began his basketball operations career as an intern under Spurs general manager R.C. Buford. Since taken over as the GM in Oklahoma City in 2007, Presti has instituted a similar foundation. It’s a brand of basketball that stresses fundamentals and teamwork.
Both teams have taken unheralded players and incorporated them into their system, making them far more effective. However, a team cannot expect to compete in the NBA without a true franchise player.
There is no more valuable commodity in pro sports than the NBA superstar. They are highly sought after and even harder to find. The Spurs have Tim Duncan, the most underrated transcendent athlete I can remember. Kevin Durant has continued to develop into that player for the Thunder. Without the Duncan or Durant, the two teams would be nowhere near the Conference Finals regardless of their penchant for getting the most out of their players and playing team-oriented basketball.
The Spurs have set the standard in the NBA for fifteen years. There’s nothing more difficult in sports than sustained excellence. The longevity shared between Duncan, Popovich, Buford, owner Peter Holt, and the San Antonio franchise is truly exceptional. The Thunder have patiently and astutely observed and it appears as if Oklahoma City is headed in the same direction as their ideological big brother.
There’s a nostalgic element to breaking down professional sports teams by separable eras. To identify the different groups of players, coaches, executives that have come and gone and reflect on what it all means and what we can take from it.
This era of the San Antonio Spurs has left its definite mark on the game of basketball but they feel their time to exit stage right is not yet here. Their counterparts the Thunder are primed to have their own period of dominance. Tonight it’s about the ethos of basketball, the old guard against the up and comers. The holding of the fort or the potential passing of the torch, and we, as fans, are privileged to be a part of it.