The streak rolls on for the 'sustainable' Thunder

OKLAHOMA CITY -- With hair a little bit redder and a little less impeccably trimmed, a suit not quite as tailored and glasses that weren't quite as trendy, Sam Presti sat at a podium in 2007 as he was introduced as the 11th general manager of the Seattle SuperSonics.

At just 30 years old, Presti was the youngest executive in the league, dubbed by some to be the "Billy Beane of basketball."

"I feel strongly the successful organizations in the NBA, sports, business in general, are driven philosophically. And I believe what separates them is culture and identity," Presti said in his introductory news conference. "Those are going to be two focuses as we build this thing for the long haul. You'll hear those things consistently, and it's not something to me that takes traction when you just talk about it, but it's something you have to live and has to kind of be threaded through each decision you make as an organization."

Presti laid out his vision with a simple, two-word phrase that he has come to repeat roughly a billion times since, give or take: sustainable success. It was his mantra for the organization, a model he picked up from his time in San Antonio and something he saw as a priority for a franchise relocating to one of the smallest markets in the NBA. Fans and media sometimes would mock Presti's intentional repetition of "sustainability," poking fun at the idea he was committed to a good but not great team.

But on Wednesday night, as the Oklahoma City Thunder hammered the Philadelphia 76ers for their 41st win of the season, it was an example of Presti's plan in action. With another (at least) .500 season in the books, the Thunder are one of three teams to achieve that or better in each of the past eight seasons (Houston and San Antonio are the others). It might seem like a small achievement, but if it were easy, more than three teams would've done it.

Sustained success has never been something the Thunder were lauded for because of the make-up of their team. With a title contender in place and two of the brightest stars on the planet, their seat at the table was presumed. But with Kevin Durant leaving last summer, the Thunder's ability to sustain has finally been put to the test. With Russell Westbrook still in place and the second-youngest roster in the league around him, the Thunder have absorbed their body blow and forged ahead.

"It's really tough, and it's even harder in today's NBA with as much changeover as there is with players," said Nick Collison, who has spent his entire career with the franchise. "I think it says a lot about the organization. It's tough to win in this league and do it consistently. I think we all get a little bit spoiled; we get used to winning here. But for a lot of teams in the league it's tough to get 41 wins. It's something we're proud of, I'm proud of, because I've been here the whole time. We want to hold ourselves to that standard every year."

The Thunder have had only one sub-.500 season in Oklahoma City -- their first. The Thunder were really the first to Trust the Process. They just didn't have to trust it for very long. They won 50 games their second season in OKC. It has been at least 45 wins since, which includes an injury-ravaged 2014-15 campaign that featured Durant missing 55 games, Westbrook 15 and Serge Ibaka 18.

Of course, the elephant in the sustainable room: There has been no title to show for it all. To those who operate under Ricky Bobby's mantra of "if you're not first you're last," it has all been in vain. The Thunder have been close, appearing in four conference finals, with one NBA Finals berth in 2012.

They appeared set to watch the entire picture finally come together over the summer, first by going up 3-1 on the Golden State Warriors, and then with the likely re-signing of Durant. Westbrook and Durant were hitting their primes, and the organization had saved money with disciplined spending to be able to bust well into the luxury tax and build a roster around them for years to come. The Thunder blew their lead to the Warriors, then lost their franchise player to them a month later.

Their path back to competing for a title is unclear at this point, especially with Durant's Warriors poised to rule the West for the foreseeable future. But the Thunder have endured, an impressive accomplishment in the face of difficult circumstances. Some might say, "Yeah, but they have Westbrook," but that's kind of the point: They had Westbrook. He chose to re-sign -- the single biggest transaction since the team relocated to Oklahoma City -- and it's allowed them to continue plotting a path forward. There's at least a reasonable road map to follow, and that seemed like a long shot on July 5.

The Thunder are on pace for 47 wins in the first season post-Durant. They are 2.5 games back of the No. 4 seed, after finishing in third last season. The building has been full all season. There's excitement about the roster and optimism about the future.

Mediocrity, though, is the word they fear. There's always pressure, especially without the future guaranteed. Westbrook isn't signed forever. There's a clock on them. They're trying to go from good to great to good to great again. They aren't satisfied, but like Collison said, they have something to be proud of.