OKLAHOMA CITY -- It feels like a long time ago when the bouncy Oklahoma City Thunder won four straight against the mechanical San Antonio Spurs in 2012 to advance to the NBA Finals in six games. James Harden hit the biggest shot of the series, a dagger straightaway 3 to ice Game 5. Stephen Jackson played 32 minutes in Game 6. Royal Ivey and Lazar Hayward were part of the Thunder's garbage time crew. Tim Duncan was only 36 years old.
That was four years ago, and not much has changed. The Thunder and Spurs are in their third postseason series in four years, locked in a 1-1 tie with a pivotal Game 3 on Friday. And leftover from that first series in 2012 is, remarkably, 13 players. The postseason battles will forever link the two organizations, but they're also connected because a common ground in vision and philosophy operated with a simple core value as a priority: continuity.
Over the past 10 seasons (starting with the 2006-07 season), the Spurs' quartet of Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Matt Bonner have the most seasons together in the league with 10. Second to that group: The Thunder foursome of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka and Nick Collison with seven.
In today's turnstile of transactions with players coming and going, putting together a core roster that stays together doesn't happen much. The league's collective bargaining agreement makes continuity difficult, especially with a roster that's good. It's rare to keep a core together for one contract cycle, much less two. Or three. Or four.
The takeaway, though, is what stability and continuity have bred: success. The past five seasons, the Spurs have the best overall record in the NBA, winning 74 percent of their games. The second-best overall record? The Thunder, winning 68 percent. In fact, across the four major sports, only the New England Patriots have a higher winning percentage than the Spurs the past five seasons.
"That familiarity with your teammates is definitely something that's underrated in this league," Durant said. "I think that's one thing the Spurs are really great at, is knowing who they want on their team and knowing it's going to take time to build a really good team. So guys like, obviously, Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Ginobili, Kawhi Leonard, who they've groomed into a fantastic player, and along with getting LaMarcus Aldridge, they have guys that if you bring a new guy in, they can make them feel comfortable.
"You've got five or six guys who have been there, in Tim Duncan's case 35 years, or Kawhi Leonard's case, five or six years," Durant added. "And they have the same coach for the last 20 years. So that continuity is definitely important in basketball."
Gregg Popovich remains the monarch of San Antonio basketball, anchoring the organization almost by himself. The Thunder, on the other hand, haven't had the same coach, firing Scott Brooks last season after six-plus years at the helm. Billy Donovan was hired, which was spun as "stimulating the program" and "transitioning" into a new era.
But in some ways, Donovan was able to seamlessly slot in, because by his own admission, he sort of just went off what Durant and Westbrook have already established. Donovan has deferred to his four cornerstones in many situations, including them in decisions and changes.
"One of the [Florida] teams I had before I came here, we had four seniors that all started for us," Donovan said. "And those guys set the table with your culture right when anybody new came into the program or the gym. And I think the same thing for Nick and Serge and Kevin and Russell is they obviously have started off with the franchise here at a very early stage and have built it into something extremely special. Those four guys are the mainstays.
"So I think from a culture standpoint you get guys that have invested a lot personally, have had a lot of individual success and understand the league. And also create a winning environment every single day. So I think it's very important, very valuable."
For the Thunder, the philosophy was simple when the franchise relocated in 2008. They wanted a fresh start, and a new identity. They had a unique opportunity with the ability to act virtually as an expansion franchise, and it's something they've sold to players, one in particular who will be a free agent this summer. Look at this. You built this. Now you really want to leave it?
"You just know you've been with somebody since the ground floor," Durant said of playing so long with Westbrook. "You built this thing up. Just knowing you've got someone that's going to go out there and play hard with you every single night no matter who we're playing, that's a great feeling. Sometimes we're looked at as pros and we're supposed to adapt to situations quick. But most of the time, we have different teammates every single year; it's kind of hard to adapt and hard to figure out the game of basketball. This is a complex game but simple at the same time, and you need that continuity each and every year. And that's one thing our team, and especially their team, have figured out."
Thunder general manager Sam Presti has started calling Durant, Westbrook, Ibaka and Collison the "founding fathers" of the organization. The Thunder used to really focus on an inclusive identity, not propping up Durant and Westbrook's superstardom so as to cast the rest of the roster as nobodies -- something Durant and Westbrook even embraced themselves.
It was obvious on billboard advertisements around town, with each one always featuring one of the Thunder's stars with a lesser role player. That's changed this year, with a billboard featuring Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka together lining I-40, which cuts through downtown Oklahoma City. On the giant playoff banners across the street from Chesapeake Energy Arena, Durant and Westbrook are the most prominently featured players. In the postseason, when players do postgame availability at a podium, the Thunder have a policy of sorts that Durant and Westbrook handle it every game, no matter who the star may have been.
It's a change in tone for the Thunder, clearly trying to place ownership and responsibility of the franchise on their two stars. They're the founding fathers after all.
"What these guys have done in terms of the footprint they've left inside the organization," Donovan said, "they've earned the right and the ability to be able to help maintain what's been built."
The Spurs are the standard of continuity, with their five championships and almost 20 years of sustained success. And they're the roadblock again for the Thunder in the postseason. The Thunder's future is uncertain with Durant's free agency, and an early playoff elimination could cloud it even more. They're determined to mimic the Spurs' continuity, but it may be the Spurs that tear it apart.