A formula for booming Thunder
As the NBA's big-city franchises snatch up stars, Oklahoma City shoots for them
MIAMI -- Across from American Airlines Arena, the side of an office building is covered with a large ad featuring a black-and-white image of The Beatles. The iconic picture of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr towers over Biscayne Blvd. and serves as a not-so subtle reminder that the band's songs can now be easily purchased online.
On the other side of the palm tree-lined street, "The Heatles," LeBron James' modest nickname for the Miami Heat, are serving as a not-so-subtle reminder that if you're a big-city team and have enough cap room, purchasing a collection of All-Stars for your team is becoming almost as easy as putting together a playlist.
The Heat's dramatic lights-out, strobe-lit player introductions, with Phil Collins' "In the Air Tonight" booming in the background, wasn't so much a motivational tool for home fans as it was an educational montage at the beginning of the season for many who didn't recognize half the roster. After all, James and Chris Bosh -- who signed with the Heat in the offseason to form South Beach's version of the "Big Three" with Dwyane Wade -- headlined a group of ten players who made their Miami debut this season.
Of course, the Heat weren't alone in making massive roster changes in the offseason, and even during the season, in order to win a championship.
In New York, the Knicks welcomed 15 new players at one point or another during the season en route to assembling their own "Big Three" of Amare Stoudemire, Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups after a three-team, 13-player trade to get Anthony and Billups in February.
In Chicago, Carlos Boozer, Kyle Korver and Ronnie Brewer highlight ten newcomers on the Bulls' roster from a year ago (not to mention first-year head coach Tom Thibodeau) who have taken a once-middling team to the top of the Eastern Conference.
In Orlando, six new players have come through the organization this season as the Magic reshuffled their roster in December after a six-player trade in order to surround Dwight Howard with Jason Richardson, Hedo Turkoglu and Gilbert Arenas.
This is the new NBA, where you don't so much assemble teams as you collect All-Stars in an arms race to see who can make the splashiest acquisition and produce the most headlines.
Patience isn't a virtue; it's virtually nonexistent.
It's a time when franchise players run from the pressure of carrying teams in Cleveland, Denver or Salt Lake City and flee toward the fame and fortune that awaits them in Miami, New York and Chicago.
Why spend years building something when you can seemingly buy it overnight?
Kevin Durant is leaning against his locker while Miami Heat highlights play on the television in front of him during a recent road trip to Los Angeles. It was Durant who -- one day before James' one-hour July television special to announce he was taking his talents to South Beach -- announced via Twitter that he was signing a five-year contract extension with Oklahoma City.
"I did that because I wanted to do that," Durant said. "I do stuff because it benefits me. I don't do it to make everyone else happy. I thought that was the best decision for me. To leave an organization like this is something I didn't want to do. I like the city and I like everyone here so I re-signed."
It was an anti-LeBron move for the leader of the anti-"Heatles" team.
While the Heat and other teams around the league have been busy trying to make blockbuster acquisitions and shake up their rosters, the Oklahoma City Thunder's blueprint for success has always stayed true the foundation of a city known for its masonry by building their team one brick at a time.
"Going through it the way we have is a long process, and people might get impatient, but [Thunder general manager] Sam [Presti] is a very patient guy; he knows what it takes," Durant said. "He's seen it work in San Antonio. He took it one day at a time. We didn't make one big-bang move to become a playoff team. We took our time and now we're seeing the benefits of that."
The irony of Presti's patience is that when he was hired four years ago to be the general manager of the Seattle SuperSonics he was just 30 years old after spending the previous seven years working his way up the San Antonio Spurs' organization. The sage executive who was content with taking his time and waiting his turn happened to be the youngest executive in the league.
"Our goal was to build a team we thought was sustainable," Presti said. "We made a strong commitment to that, and I think it's important that our guys like being together on and off the court. It's made this process easier."
Of the top 11 players on the Thunder roster, only four weren't on the team last season, and three of those players -- Kendrick Perkins, Nate Robinson and Nazr Mohammed -- just joined the team at the trade deadline in late February. The fourth player, Daequan Cook, was with the Heat the previous three seasons.
The two trades Presti made at the trade deadline caused the biggest roster shakeup many of the young players on the Thunder had ever been a part of. By the time Jeff Green, Nenad Krstic, Morris Peterson and D.J. White were dealt, they had almost become family members on a team that spends as much time together off the court as it does on the court. The moves, however, gave the Thunder the size, veteran leadership and championship experience they lacked last season when the Los Angeles Lakers beat them in the first round of the playoffs.
"It was tough because we're all so close," Thunder forward Nick Collison said. "But you can tell we're building something special here."
Long before Presti was trying to piece together an NBA team, he was a drummer in various bands at Emerson College in Boston. He would play everything from jazz to hip-hop to rock 'n' roll. He was a versatile perfectionist who would constantly listen and study drummers from different genres.
His favorite drummer was Elvin Jones, who helped redefine jazz with the classic John Coltrane Quartet. Jones, a master at polyrhythmic combination rhythms, believed if you could understand the melody then you could understand how the melody could be developed and extended.
Presti began to understand the melody of winning basketball while with the Spurs for seven years, and has remained committed to bringing the same sound to Oklahoma City, no matter how off-key it may have seemed to those listening at the beginning of his tenure.
A drum set, like a team, isn't built with just one instrument but many pieces that must come together to complement one another. Each player on the team represents a different part of the collective drum kit. There's the bass drum, snare drum, toms, floor toms, hi-hat and ride cymbal, and each one must seamlessly play off each other like an extended duet passage from Coltrane and Jones.
Presti knew that making music like that in a relatively small market would only be possible by drafting and acquiring selfless players who weren't concerned with things off the court. If this were college, he'd bypass the one-and-done kids and be the coach looking for the four-year players who want to play in a college town where everyone knows the team roster by heart and packs the arena no matter the day or the opponent.
"People say there's not much to do in Oklahoma City, but there's plenty to do," Thunder head coach Scott Brooks said. "But if you're looking for a lot of things to do your mind is probably not in the right place, and we want guys who are committed to the game and to the team."
Brooks pauses and smiles as he looks across the hallway at Russell Westbrook chasing Kevin Durant to the court before the shootaround.
"The organization has taken the approach that we're going to build from the grassroots level and we're going to draft our guys and we're going to develop them and get them better and we're going to pick up pieces along the way," Brooks said. "We love the way we're doing it. We're not saying it's the only way or the right way, but we love it."
After James and Bosh left Cleveland and Toronto respectively in the offseason to join Wade in Miami, Collison was one of only four players from 2003 NBA draft to remain with the franchise who selected him. The franchise Collison has played for, however, beginning with his first four years in Seattle to his last three years Oklahoma City, has been anything but stable until recently.
"I've been with one organization but I've played for five head coaches, two GMs and with probably 65 different players in two different cities," Collison said. "The biggest difference now is we have some continuity. You can finally build that chemistry on and off the court. A lot of the best teams in the league have played together for a couple years and now we're able to come to training camp and build on what we're doing instead of starting out new every year."
At 31, Collison is the oldest player in the Thunder locker room outside of Mohammed, 33, who just joined the team. Collison's married and has a daughter and still lives in Seattle in the offseason. On most teams he would be far from an elder statesman, but he almost sounds like a proud father when he looks around at the bustling locker room before the game as his teammates are haggling over tickets and figuring out where they're going to eat dinner after the game.
"We have so many single guys the same age, at the same place in life on this team," Collison said. "Kevin, Russell, James [Harden], Eric [Maynor], all these guys are all the same age. It reminds me a lot like college or an AAU team where the guys hang out a lot off the court. There's not necessarily a lot to do in Oklahoma City besides hanging out so you get to know each other real quick."
The biggest splash the team has made outside of the draft was trading for Perkins, who signed a four-year contract extension shortly after arriving in Oklahoma City. Perkins was the starting center for the Celtics when they beat the Lakers in the 2008 NBA Finals, and his absence in Game 7 of last year's Finals after tearing ligaments in his right knee during Game 6 perhaps prevented Boston from winning a second title.
Perkins' willingness to commit to the team long-term before ever playing a game is another testament to the culture the Thunder have built, but also debunks the notion that every player wants to play in a big market, even one who has experienced what winning in a big city is like.
"There are only a few guys in the league who have an opportunity to market themselves off the court, and maybe a bigger market is important for them in doing that," Collison said. "The majority of the league, though, is not getting a lot of deals like that. For most players in the league, a chance to win and a chance to be a part of an organization are really big. The biggest thing with our organization is we treat everybody well and it's a good young team with good guys. It's good to come to work every day because everyone is happy."
Before a recent home game in Oklahoma City, a montage of Thunder highlights was played before player introductions as Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir" played in the background. It was an appropriate song, not only because of Presti's appreciation for John Bonham at the drums but because "Kashmir" took Led Zeppelin three years to write and produce.
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While some musicians tell tall tales of waking up in the middle of the night and writing a hit song or sitting in front of a piano and composing an entire album in a weekend, one of the defining songs by one of rock 'n' roll's defining bands took three years to mold and master.
It doesn't necessarily make it better than songs written overnight, but it makes it more rewarding and memorable when the final product finally comes together, whether it's this year, next year or the year after.
"We're not where we need to be yet, but I love figuring out the pieces that we have and finding a way to make it work," Brooks said. "You can win a lot of different ways in this league, but I think this is the best way. Our guys like being in Oklahoma, they like playing for the Thunder and they like playing for each other. I think it shows, and I think it's going to help us get to where we want to be."
Arash Markazi is a columnist and writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter. Markazi reported from Miami and Los Angeles.