Character, Selflessness Count

I’ve been away for a week or so… the “labor of love” of cleaning out 46 years of your parents home.  We all are blessed with having to do something like this at some point in time, it’s part of life.  Never the less, it is challenging…

Kevin Durant

During the time away, I read an article in the USA Today on The Oklahome City Thunder and Kevin Durant, Durant drives Thunderous resurgence in Oklahoma City.

I never knew Durant was like that, not at all.  I assumed he was another young, ego guy.  My apologies.  The article continues to help convince me that it is more and more about “Who is on the bus,” as the Good to Great book by Jim Collins says.  (*Good to Great is a fantastic book to use as a team reading.  If you do it, email me at ideas@allbasketballreview.com and I will send you the team follow up questions I used with our team after they read it.  It went really well for us.)

Enjoy the article…

OKLAHOMA CITY — Kevin Durant shakes his head in disbelief at the thought of his name in the MVP conversation.

“It’s surreal to me,” the third-year OklahomaCity Thunder forward says.

“Growing up, I never thought I could be the best player in my area, let alone make it to college and be one of the best players there. I never thought I could make it to the NBA. … Players like me come a dime a dozen is basically what I was thinking.”

Durant, at 21 the youngest to lead the NBA in scoring average (30.1 points), is a major reason for the Thunder’s turnaround from 23 wins in 2008-09 after relocating from Seattle (where they were the SuperSonics) to 50.

“Guys don’t have egos,” Durant said. “Everybody came in like that from Day One. It wasn’t about I and me. It was about us and team. I have faith in that.”

The Thunder face the defending champion Los Angeles Lakersin the first round of the Western Conference playoffs. Game 2 is Tuesday (10:30 p.m. ET).

The matchup features the old guard, Kobe Bryant, vs. the new forward, Durant. The Lakers won the season series 3-1, but the Thunder won the last meeting 91-75 on March 26.

Humility and selflessness are two cornerstones of Oklahoma City’s success, and it begins with general manager Sam Presti, 33, the executive hired by the SuperSonics in 2007.

Presti came in with a bold vision to reshape the organization. He sought hardworking, high-character, low-maintenance athletes who love to play and sacrifice individual achievements for team success.

Presti is determined to populate not only his roster but his organization with high-character individuals, including the team chef and practice facility janitor. Presti interviews everyone hired.

“We again really try to focus on the things that are important to our organization and our ability to build a team that can be sustainable,” he says.

And he has had the discipline to stick with his plan even in the midst of last season’s 3-29 start.

“You’re not entitled to anything. You have to go through the process, and there’s a lot of ups and downs,” Presti says. “How you respond to the successes and the adversities are important to your ability to sustain it.”

Strong values — resiliency in the face of adversity especially — resonate with the people of Oklahoma City and the state.

“The spoiled superstar brat wouldn’t get far in Oklahoma City,” Mayor Mick Cornett says. “We’re very value-conscious. Our city was settled in a land run. Those 10,000 people were desperate for a better life.”

Cornett says the Thunder have helped revamp the city’s image, which previously was branded with tornadoes and the 1995 bombing.

Coincidentally, Cornett says, it took Hurricane Katrina for people to realize basketball could be a success. While temporarily displaced, the New Orleans Hornets played two seasons here.

“This city knows tragedy,” Cornett says. “We turned around and helped another community that needed help. Oklahoma City would have never been on the top of anyone’s relocation list.”

The Thunder average 17,995 fans in 18,203-capacity Ford Center, and the atmosphere sometimes resembles a college game’s. Fans don’t sit until the Thunder score, and one side of the arena will chant “O” and the other side “Thunder.”

Oklahoma Sooners and Oklahoma State Cowboys football dominate, but, Cornett says, “College allegiances split us. The Thunder are the one thing everyone can root for.”

Smart GM work plus luck

Presti looks like he just stepped out of a Banana Republic ad, and he has a résumé that is just as polished: education and basketball at Emerson College in Boston, a Rhodes Scholar nomination, a front office job in 2000 with the San Antonio Spurs.

Presti drafted Durant during his first year with Seattle but also began with unpopular decisions, trading fan favorite Ray Allen to the Boston Celtics for draft pick Jeff Green (who has turned into a valuable component) and trading Rashard Lewis for what amounted to three first-round draft picks while creating salary-cap space.

He drafted point guard Russell Westbrook and reserve big man Serge Ibaka in 2008 and guard James Harden in 2009, traded for defender Thabo Sefolosha and signed center Nenad Krstic.

Presti has built a young team. Not one regular has more than six years of NBA experience, and no starter is older than 26.

Listening to Presti is like attending a business leadership seminar. He has his aphorisms: “We looked at development as a process and not an event.”

Thunder coach Scott Brooks says Presti is an incredible thinker, and Durant says he is a genius. Those are labels Presti declines. “The credit goes to the players and certainly the coaches for working with them,” he says.

In Brooks, Presti found a coach able to carry out the franchise’s plan on the court: defense and rebounding come first. A 10-year NBA journeyman, Brooks, 44, was named interim coach when the Thunder fired P.J. Carlesimoafter a 1-12 start last season. It didn’t get much better under Brooks right away.

“When you go through adversity with somebody like we did last year going through a tough year, him being an interim coach, you learn a lot about people,” Presti says.

Presti discovered the players listened and responded to Brooks. From Dec. 30 until the end of last season, the Thunder were 20-30.

“Of course you’re going to get frustrated about losses. It’s about coming in every day and not letting the losses affect how hard you work,” Durant says.

Durant sees Presti’s vision. So does Brooks.

Stats bear out priorities

This season, the Thunder rank in the top 10 in rebounding, fast-break points and steals and 11th out of 30 in points allowed.

“You can have great players, but if they don’t want to be coached, what are you going to do?” Brooks says. “You’re going to be frustrated as a coach and you’re going to be frustrated as a team because your better players don’t want to be coached. Our better players want to be coached every day, and that’s not everywhere.”

The Thunder wanted Green to be a more complete player and less of a scorer. They asked Westbrook to come back a better decision-maker. His turnovers are lower, his assists higher. Sefolosha was told he didn’t need to score and was often asked to guard the best perimeter scorer.

“It’s funny that a group of young guys have bought into it so quickly,” Durant says.

It starts with Durant, the face of the franchise. Brooks needed more from Durant — more points, rebounds, assists, steals, blocked shots. Durant delivered with better numbers this season. But it’s his scoring that has overwhelmed opponents.

Lithe at 6-9, 230, Durant is difficult to defend. He scores inside and out, in transition and in halfcourt sets with his soft shot. He also converts at the foul line. No one has taken more free throws than Durant (10.2 a game), and he makes 90%.

From Dec. 22 to Feb. 23, Durant scored 25 or more points in 29 consecutive games, a feat not even last year’s MVP, LeBron James, or Bryant has accomplished. He also led the league with 47 30-plus point games.

The future holds many opportunities. The Thunder are under the salary cap this year and next and have money to re-sign players including Durant, who will make $6 million next season.

But Presti is quick to say, “We don’t have all the answers” and cites luck. He might not have all the answers, but he has some, and he is right about luck.

Where would the Thunder be had the Portland Trail Blazers selected Durant instead of oft-injured center Greg Oden? Oklahoma City has been relatively injury-free. The Thunder started the same lineup 76 times this season.

As baseball executive Branch Rickey once said, luck is the residue of opportunity and design.


  1. I found your blog on google and read a few of your other posts. I just added you to my Google News Reader. Keep up the good work. Look forward to reading more from you in the future.

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