- Ramona Shelburne, ESPN Senior Writer
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LOS ANGELES -- They come to town in a plane like everybody else, arrive at the arena by bus and sip water and Gatorade during games.
Of course everything else about the Oklahoma City Thunder is bigger, better, faster and stronger than the rest of the league.
Oooak lahoma! Where 50 wins come sweeping down the plains
They are, at this moment, the next big thing, which is saying quite a bit in a league where three good talents reside in South Beach.
Of course the same was said about the Portland Trail Blazers a few years ago.
But for now, the Thunder are the envy of the league, an example of how to build a winner through the draft, a beacon of hope to small-market franchises and the team no one wants to play in the playoffs.
General manager Sam Presti has created a blueprint for success that executives around the NBA study like professors on a dissertation committee. But there aren't many secrets to uncover through research or analysis. Presti's moves have been made out in the open for anyone to see and presumably try to imitate.
Which brings us to your Los Angeles Clippers, the team the Thunder will be facing Wednesday night at Staples Center and may be -- Shhhh! Don't say it out loud -- the team with a shot at becoming the next Oklahoma City Thunder, if that whole curse thing burns itself out.
Right now, Blake Griffin does not equal Durant. But in three years?
And right now, Eric Gordon probably does not equal Westbrook. But is that far away?
"Sam's done a great job in Oklahoma City," Clippers GM Neil Olshey said. "But first of all, how do you build a team around Kevin Durant? First, get Kevin Durant. It's like the question of, how do you become a millionaire? First get a million dollars.
"But after they got Durant, he did a great job going out on a limb to get Westbrook. And then from there, he built around the type of people that Kevin and Russell are. James Harden is a great kid. Jeff Green is a great kid.
"So he supported his two most talented people by putting the right people around them. That's what we're trying to do. Eric Gordon is a quality person. Blake Griffin is a quality person. It's very important the influences you put around them. That's why you look at guys like Ryan Gomes, who's a team guy, a culture guy, and Randy Foye who is an impeccable character guy.
"We did not get the marquee guy that we'd targeted at the small forward position over the summer, so we chose to go with the culture and make sure that nothing was going to tear away at what we can build with Eric, Blake, [Chris] Kaman, Al-Farouq [Aminu] and those guys being the future."
Ah, but that's only half the battle.
The real key to what the Thunder nee Seattle SuperSonics did to deserve all this was the hardest part. They traded away the two most recognizable faces of their franchise -- Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis -- for draft picks and/or salary cap flexibility.
At the time, they were wildly unpopular moves for a franchise that was already wildly unpopular in Seattle because its new owners intended to relocate to Oklahoma City.
Those moves meant that the next two years were going to be rough. The SuperSonics went 20-62 in 2007-08, Durant's first year and the franchise's last in Seattle. The next year in Oklahoma City, where the fans were so happy to have a professional team in town they didn't mind losing all that much, the team went 23-59.
The franchise fired coach P.J. Carlesimo after a 1-12 start in 2008-09 and replaced him with an assistant coach named Scott Brooks.
As rebuilding projects go, it was the NBA version of imploding the old Texas Stadium with a ton of dynamite.
The Clippers haven't done that. Yet.
"Sometimes you do have to break things down to build them back up," Olshey said. "But what we're trying to do, by keeping Baron [Davis] and Chris [Kaman], who is an All-Star, and other veteran guys like Randy Foye and Ryan Gomes who can contribute right away.
"We're trying to stay as relevant as possible in the present while not cannibalizing our future."
Olshey said his vision more closely mirrors what Kevin Pritchard did in his reformation project in Portland.
"If you want to go back to the genesis of this, you have to go back to Kevin Pritchard and the Portland Trail Blazers," Olshey said.
"The conversation starts there. Kevin went in to a veteran team with a high payroll and moved those veteran players that weren't the right fit culturally for what they were trying to do, for draft picks that ended up giving them the leverage to pull off a deal for LaMarcus Aldridge and Brandon Roy, who are now their cornerstones."
This is going to sound weird, but the question Olshey, his staff and new coach Vinny Del Negro must answer going forward is whether they can afford to try to keep winning.
In other words, asking whether the long-term future of the franchise is best served by trading Kaman or Davis or both for draft picks and/or salary cap relief and, perhaps most important, creating more playing time for Griffin, Gordon and rookies Eric Bledsoe and Aminu.
That's an easier sell in a market like Oklahoma City, still basking in the glow of having its own team. But in Los Angeles, with the Lakers as neighbors and an owner who has opened his wallet for free agents and to build a new state-of-the-art training facility, it's not realistic.
"We don't have the luxury of tearing it down and having a five-year rebuilding plan," Olshey said. "And that's not what we'd want to do anyway."
So when we say Yeeow! A-yip-i-o-ee ay!
We're only saying "You're doin' fine, Oklahoma."
But not everybody can do it exactly your way.
Ramona Shelburne is a columnist and writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow her on Twitter.
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