Quaint, small-market bio-dome, or flashy, nationally gossiped-about super team?
Somehow, the Thunder seem to straddle both reputations as they ascend. Obviously, OKC's management wishes to be something like the Spurs. After all, Clay Bennett and Sam Presti come from the San Antonio organization.
The Thunder brain trust might prefer quiet San Antonio anonymity, but the team's just too popular. OKC reflexively makes new. James Harden's contract situation is followed as though it were the U.S.-Iran hostage crisis redux. Russell Westbrook is publicly questioned more often than some high-profile NFL quarterbacks.
Blame Kevin Durant. He's the captivating superstar that Tim Duncan never was. KD has all of Timmy's best qualities; he's a fine teammate, a good citizen and a hard worker by all accounts.
The differences are that Durant plays with a scoring flair that appeals to causal fans, and that KD operates with an engaging, inviting public persona. A negative person (or a Spurs fan) would also cite "Tim Duncan plays defense" as a reason.
So in a way, Kevin Durant becomes the lightning rod that only zaps his teammates.
He's such an endearing figure, so talented and so revered, that he draws the kind of interest that results in criticism of his teammates. When Westbrook goes rogue, people howl over how Russ should be passing to Durant. While these people probably have a point, the amplified harshness would not occur in say, San Antonio.
The Spurs do so much well, and their success can be attributed to a tone set by the Duncan-Popovich-Buford triad. They're all brothers in intelligent, long-term thinking, but Gregg Popovich has his own cult of personality. Having covered a Spurs game or two (well, only one) in San Antonio, I can attest to how Pop-focused Spurs fan and media culture is.
Presti is the similar cult-like figure in NBA circles, but his attention is dwarfed by that given to the aforementioned Kevin Durant. The coach is an ancillary figure in this play, as Scott Brooks has been doubted more often and more loudly than even Russell Westbrook.
In this way, there isn't the clear line of authority and sense that a grizzled, curmudgeonly figure is guiding the franchise.
OKC might do things "the right way," but the team is attached and defined by a group of stars it developed. The Thunder may have helped mold Kevin Durant as we know him, but through force of star power and charisma, he is in many ways bigger than the Thunder.
In the end, this is the central difference between these two franchises and why OKC feels more like the Lakers than San Antonio. In Oklahoma City, the stars are the topic du jour, every jour. This is a glamour franchise, despite itself. We are captivated by the foursome of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Serge Ibaka.
The Thunder might use the Spurs as an operational model (look for market inefficiencies, stay laser-focused on basketball, don't seek out media and develop drafted talent), but this young team is culturally becoming understood as the new Lakers.
OKC will stay wedded to a small-market existence of building through drafts and trades, as free agents will be hard to woo. But, lucky for them, they won't have any needs for awhile. Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and Serge Ibaka are also signed to long-term deals. Though a small market, the team that grew up before our eyes should command the national attention of a big market behemoth.