English: left to right: Serge Ibaka, Thabo Sef...

English: left to right: Serge Ibaka, Thabo Sefolosha, Kendrick Perkins, and Kevin Durant (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you experience setbacks, change your strategy, then move on.

This week, a young NBA team is going to the NBA finals for the first time.  The Oklahoma City Thunder, deemed to be inexperienced underdogs, overcame the odds to emerge as the best team in the tough Western Conference.  With its low-profile superstar Kevin Durant and a host of key role players in tow, OKC is now four games away from basketball’s biggest prize.

To appreciate how this team has improved and how we can apply what they learned in our everyday lives, let’s take a look at their story.

The team started off as the worst team in the NBA in 2008, coming off a bitter lawsuit between its owners and the city it used to play in.  With no star players, untested young players in Durant and Russell Westbrook, and dwindling revenues, the future looked bleak for OKC.  However, after a coaching change, hope started to surface.  After starting out with just 3 wins in 32 games, they ended up winning 20 of their next 50 games.

The next year, they improved markedly, reaching the playoffs.  But they still lost in the first round to the reigning NBA champions, the Los Angeles Lakers.  In that year, management decided to improve the team step by step, not by adding superstars, but by building from its core of young talent.  In addition to youngsters Durant and Westbrook, they drafted James Harden, who eventually became the NBA’s best sixth man.

Last year, OKC became a team to be reckoned with.  They won their first playoff series by eliminating the Denver Nuggets, then reached the Western Conference finals with a hard-fought 7-game victory over the Memphis Grizzlies.  Although they lost to the eventual champion Dallas Mavericks in five games, it was clear that OKC was destined to win an NBA title in the near future – maybe 3 to 4 years.   Last year, OKC decided to plug its “soft” center spot and traded for Kendrick Perkins, another young and rugged no-nonsense defender who had won a championship with the Boston Celtics.

Finally this year, OKC’s script has been something like a fairy tale.  First, they avenged last year’s loss by sweeping the defending champion Dallas Mavericks.  Next up for the team was the Los Angeles Lakers starring Kobe Bryant,  the NBA Champions 2 years before.  They eliminated the favored Lakers in five games, but they still were not getting noticed as potential title contenders because of their perceived immaturity.  For their next opponent, the Thunder came face to face with the mighty San Antonio Spurs, who have the best record in the NBA this year.  San Antonio boasts of a lot of championship experience with tested veterans in four-time NBA Champion Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, and 2012 Coach of the Year Gregg Popovich.  Durant, Westbrook, Harden, and another young defensive menace Serge Ibaka showed maturity beyond their years, booting out the Spurs in six games after losing the first 2 games.  This year, OKC also added veteran Derek Fisher, a heady point guard armed with five NBA titles won with the Los Angeles Lakers.

Let’s list down the steps OKC took to reach new heights in such a short span:

1.  Resolve leadership problems.  They started out in management turmoil with a lawsuit in tow.  But they resolved this first.  They also fired their coach, and elevated assistant Scott Brooks to the top bench post.  Two years ago, Brooks was adjudged the NBA’s Coach of the Year.  Lesson: Iron out any leadership concerns as a priority in order to carry out improvements.

2.  Build with young talent.  Train the young guys and guide them through the process.  Today, OKC’s young starting five of Perkins, Ibaka, Durant, Harden, and Westbrook are deemed a powerhouse.  This was not the case a few years ago, when other teams were counting wins the moment they saw the name OKC on their schedule.  Lesson: If the old guard is not giving you results, give the hungry young turks your trust and confidence.  They may be the ones who could turn your organization around.

3.  Sprinkle some winning experience into the mix.  The addition of previous championship winners in Perkins and Fisher no doubt had an impact in the OKC locker room.  They presented actual experiences of winning, and this rubbed off on the young guns.  Perkins learned defense from former Defensive Player of the Year Kevin Garnett, his teammate at Boston, and his defensive toughness has rubbed off on the young Serge Ibaka, now the league’s best shot-blocker.  Fisher has knocked in a lot of sense to young Westbrook, and Westbrook has responded with less turnovers and better decision-making.  Lesson: When hiring from outside the organization, look for people with proven track records of success.

4.  Get social support and give back.  OKC fans are some of the most rabid and loyal fans in the league.  Players visit youth camps, and the owners have dedicated their success to the fans.  The Thunder have united the City and given them hope.  Lesson:  Never forget to give back to the community when aiming for success.

Are you looking for sustained improvement in a short period of time?  Just think of the OKC.  They have laid out the template for all of us to emulate.