Why the Thunder aren’t the Spurs

Molding themselves after the Spurs has worked out well for the Thunder. Small markets. Committed and largely hands-off owners. Humble yet dominant superstars.

Yet, Oklahoma City took a turn on the road to being San Antonio.

OKC opens its season Thursday night in the Alamo City in a rematch of the most recent Western Conference finals and, judging by the Lakers’ opener, a possible preview of the next.

The Spurs’ inclusion in the title conversation is a product of their stability. Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich own the most wins for any player-coach duo in NBA history. Duncan and Tony Parker have played more games together than any set of current teammates. The top three spots in career winning percentage for active players are Manu Ginobili, Parker and Duncan.

Oh yeah, the Spurs’ winning percentage over the last 15 years is the best in North American pro sports.

Thunder general manager Sam Presti began his career as an intern in San Antonio. The Spurs won three titles during his eight years there, as he climbed the front office ranks. Presti knows the San Antonio Way, and it’s served him well building a title hopeful out of the Seattle Sonics’ rubble.

Part of that SA Way is keeping what you’ve got. The Spurs don’t lose stars. Oklahoma City lost one last week, trading away an Olympic gold medalist and reigning Sixth Man of the Year. The Spurs wouldn’t have traded James Harden because they’ve never had to.

Success has been the Spurs’ greatest recruiting advantage. San Antonio won championships before any of the Three Amigos ran through their rookie contracts.

Duncan stood atop the NBA mountain after his second year in the league. Tony Parker, too. Manu Ginobili did them one better, collecting a ring as a rookie.

So when it came time to negotiating with champions, San Antonio’s front office didn’t have to sell the chance to win big. Pop and Peter Holt just had to nod over to the Larry O’Brien trophies in the room.

And other than Duncan, no other Spur has been signed to anything approaching max money. That has a lot to do with the makeup of the team, as a clear pecking order has been established with Duncan at the top of the money pyramid for so many years and everyone else working their way down.

Mark Cuban once said that Manu Ginobili would easily command a maximum contract in markets such as New York. Ginobili’s first post-rookie contract didn’t come close to breaking the bank.

The Spurs of the Duncan-Pop Era were never forced into trading a foundation piece. That hasn’t happened in San Antonio since Sean Elliott and Dennis Rodman in the mid-1990s.

No such luck in OKC. Shorter rookie contracts plus longer development periods have pressed Presti into making franchise-anchoring decisions faster than his San Antonio counterparts ever had to.

Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook received max extensions before the Thunder ever played in the Finals. Serge Ibaka is making a pretty penny.

Locking those three up isn’t without consequence. The punitive luxury-tax rules in the new CBA don’t nurture the exorbitant payrolls of yesteryear.

“The challenges of sustaining success are a lot more stringent that those of achieving success,” Presti said earlier this week. “We’re not immune to that.”

Had the Thunder beaten Miami, perhaps Harden is content playing third banana on the league’s best team. Perhaps he can live with $56 million instead of $60 million in OKC.

Still, titles don’t always guarantee hometown discounts. Just ask Cuban’s Mavericks.

So Harden agrees on $80 million with the Rockets. That’s good business on Harden’s end … and Oklahoma City’s.

After the Thunder didn’t win it all in June, Harden didn’t budge from his number. Neither did Presti. GMs don’t trade players so young and with that much ceiling. Just ask Cleveland and Toronto. The former San Antonio intern moved Harden with nary a blink.

That’s more than just a poker face. That’s a clear vision of where the Thunder are going and how they’re getting there. Presti turned Harden into the proven Kevin Martin and promising Jeremy Lamb, plus two first-round picks. The Thunder’s track record in the draft suggests they’ll do all right there.

Commend Presti for staying his course, realizing it’s not the path the franchise he once toiled for ever had to walk.

The Spurs never had to take that road. The Thunder, as much as some would like them to be, aren’t the Spurs.

Follow Art Garcia on Twitter: @ArtGarcia92