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Sincerest Form of Flattery

By Jeff Koch on May 22, 2012.

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, these Western Conference Finals are going to be a mutual admiration society.

For all the rhetoric of the Spurs being the “model” franchise, there is really only one team that has successfully replicated the formula to any degree of success. It’s not surprising that Oklahoma City would find success in mimicking the Spurs, given the strong ties between front offices, management, and ownership, and given the similarity in market situations.

OKC understands that it’s just not about finding any big three, but finding the right big three. The similarities are pretty striking. The quick as lightning point guard who is a threat from any point on the court to be a one-man fast break instant offense. Parker is years ahead in his development, but Westbrook will easily have the same array of shots, speed changes, and command of the game that Parker does in 5 or 6 years. The jack-of-all-trades 6th man (both lefties, by the way), who willingly takes a supporting role even though he might be the most versatile, determined, and effective player of the bunch. And the transcendent, once-in-a-lifetime humble megastar, whose only devotion is to winning and team.

But the similarities don’t stop there. Both teams found their 3 stars in the draft and have developed them in-house. Both teams value chemistry and team over flash and style (despite Westbrook’s and Durant’s penchant for post-game wardrobe). Both teams go about their business without fuss or incident, on or off the court. Both teams get it.

And both teams are in the Western Conference Finals, right where they both should be.

But before we let the meme go and set up the inevitable “pupil-master” showdown, the imitation goes both ways. For years, the Spurs built the rest of their team with wily veterans, former stars looking to chase a ring, happy for a chance to play alongside Duncan and be coached by Pop. Finley, Horry, Barry, McDyess, Thomas. Most of our role players were on the wrong side of their primes, but were able to fit in the system and work because Duncan, Ginobili, and Parker were all still transcendent in skill and talent.

In 2008, a bad flight and some bad luck might have prevented a return trip to the Finals. By 2009, the writing was on the wall. Swept away by Dallas in the first round, with only 3 or 4 reliable players. In 2010, we exacted some revenge on Dallas, only to be swept out by a younger, hungrier Phoenix team in the 2nd round.

And here, then, is where the Spurs imitated the Thunder.

They remade the offense to be more up-tempo, more wide-open, more fast-paced. Rather than stocking the cupboard with retread veterans and players on the down side of 30, they set about building the team with youth and athleticism (but never at the expense of intelligence). Gary Neal, DeJuan Blair, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Tiago Splitter…suddenly this team was young and spry, an amazing mixture of intelligence, experience, youth, and energy.

All of this development has come from within, from internal player development, from the draft, from scouting, and from patience. Even when we do acquire veterans, they are system smart with a little bit of spring still left in their steps.

While everybody else was trying to buy the best team available and microwave chemistry overnight, our neighbors to the North built a perennial powerhouse the smart way and the cheap way. It’s all been developed from within, and the team is a team in the true sense of the word.

And over the last two years, the Spurs have imitated the Thunder in this regard, and built a true team, formidable enough to keep that championship window open years longer than anybody expected.

When the Thunder, at rock bottom, set about re-building their team, they looked to the Spurs; when the Spurs, losing traction, seeking to rejuvenate their team, they looked to the Thunder.

When the Western Conference Finals tip off on Sunday night, the two best teams–imitating each other–will set out to beat each other and earn a berth in the Finals. And in the process, they will prove each other right.

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