Winning an NBA championship is hard. This isn’t news to anyone, especially when you consider that the past 32 championships have been divided among just nine franchises. It’s also extremely hard to just make the NBA Finals — nine teams have participated in the Finals over the past 10 seasons, including this one. This means that over two-thirds of the 30 teams in this league haven’t even been in the vicinity of the Larry O’Brien trophy within the past decade.
Whether or not the Oklahoma City Thunder emerge triumphant from their championship series with the Miami Heat starting on Tuesday, it’s a tremendous accomplishment that they’ve made it this far just three seasons removed from finishing with a .280 winning percentage and the fourth-worst record in the 2008-09 season. But the meteoric rise of this youthful roster — the top four Thunder players in minutes played this season are all 23 years old or younger — could not have happened if a number of events didn’t play out in a very specific and incredibly fortunate way for Oklahoma City.
To put the Thunder’s rapid rise into perspective, the last NBA team to make the Finals within three years of a season with a winning percentage of .280 or worse was the 1994-95 Orlando Magic, who ascended from a .256 winning percentage (21-61) in 1991-92 thanks in large part to the additions of Shaquille O’Neal and Penny Hardaway through the draft and Horace Grant through free agency. While the Thunder didn’t win back-to-back draft lotteries like the Magic did in ’92 and ’93, they did have a second overall pick in 2007, a fourth overall pick in 2008, and a third overall pick in 2009. As you’re likely well aware, they used those picks on Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden, respectively.
It’s easy to see why so many fan bases of struggling NBA franchises look at the Thunder’s ascension through acquiring young stars via the draft and want their own team to follow that model. In a nutshell, they want their teams to tank for three seasons in a row and stock their roster with potential superstars through the draft. This seems like a fairly sensible plan on the surface, but there are real-world complications that can make carrying out this plan successfully next to impossible.
For starters, how many franchises are truly willing to commit to finishing at or near the bottom of the standings for three straight seasons? Even if a coach is assured that he’ll be able to keep his job throughout this process, what self-respecting coach wants to have his résumé marred with a sub-.300 record over 246 games? Tanking isn’t as easy as you think if you have a competent coach who is committed to getting the most of his talent-deprived roster — the Toronto Raptors arguably didn’t have much more talent than the Charlotte Bobcats this season, but they won 23 games (compared to the Bobcats’ seven wins) because new coach Dwane Casey insisted on maximum defensive effort from his players. As the editor of RaptorBlog, I can assure you that there are a number of Raptors fans who are very displeased with their team’s inability to “tank properly”.
In the specific example of the Thunder, it’s highly debatable that they should be labelled as “tankers” over the three-season period when they secured those high draft picks. Sonics coach Bob Hill was fired after the 2006-07 season when they finished 31-51 and landed the second overall pick for Durant, and his replacement, P.J. Carlesimo, was sacked early in the 2008-09 season (so General Manager Sam Presti could hand the job to Scott Brooks) after he led the 2007-08 Sonics and the following season’s Thunder squad to a dismal 21-74 record. If the franchise was really losing on purpose, why would they can Carlesimo when he was doing it so effectively?
In reality, the Sonics/Thunder weren’t tanking at all, they were just poorly-coached, undisciplined and giving a ton of minutes to young players like Durant, Westbrook and Jeff Green that were not yet equipped to compete effectively at the NBA level. It’s easy to forget this now, but Durant had the “overrated” label hurled at him in his rookie season when he jacked up a ton of shots at a very inefficient success rate. His shooting percentages skyrocketed in his sophomore year in 2008-09, but then it was rookie point guard Russell Westbrook (more like “West-brick”, am I right?) who was holding the team back. Regardless of their youthfulness, it still seems improbable that any team featuring Durant and Westbrook could have the second-worst offense (in points scored per 100 possessions) in the league, but they managed to pull it off.
So far, the keys to the Thunders’ “success through failure” appear to be poor coaching, a commitment to giving playing time to young prospects no matter what, and smart drafting. This latter factor can’t be overemphasized, since only Durant was the completely obvious Thunder pick in those three drafts. Westbrook was selected ahead of Kevin Love, James Harden was chosen in the 2009 draft instead of Tyreke Evans, Ricky Rubio and Stephen Curry, and as for Serge Ibaka… well he’s the real wild card in this scenario.
On July 20, 2007, the Phoenix Suns traded Kurt Thomas and first round picks in 2008 and 2010 to the Sonics in exchange for a conditional second round pick in 2009 and an $8 million trade exception. This was the third bold move made by Presti after he took over as the Sonics’ GM in June. On the night he selected Durant in the 2007 draft, he shipped Ray Allen and the rights to Glen Davis to the Boston Celtics for Wally Szczerbiak, Delonte West and the rights to Jeff Green. On July 11, Presti executed a sign-and-trade of Rashard Lewis to the Orlando Magic and got a $9 million trade exception and a protected second round pick in return. He subsequently used $8 million of that exception in the Thomas trade, and Presti used the Suns’ 2008 first rounder to draft Ibaka — who led the NBA in blocks by a wide margin this season.
For that incredibly unlikely series of events to take place, Presti needed the cooperation of Celtics GM Danny Ainge and his “Plan B” after the Celtics failed to secure a top two draft pick in the 2007 draft lottery, thoroughly incompetent Magic GM Otis Smith and his inexplicable belief that Lewis was worth $126 million, and Suns’ skinflint owner Robert Sarver with his willingness to hand over a pair of future first rounders to the Sonics if it meant that he didn’t have to cover the remaining $8 million of Thomas’ contract. (Side note: Presti later flipped Thomas to the Spurs in a package that netted him another future first rounder, which he used to draft Rodrigue Beaubois. Unfortunately, Presti swapped Beaubois’ rights to the Mavericks for the rights to B.J. Mullens. Hey, you can’t get ‘em all right. He isn’t literally a wizard, you know.)
Only an elite General Manager could pull off all these moves and have them work out so clearly in his favor, and there’s no question at this point that Presti is a top three NBA executive. But beyond the cunning required in all these transactions, Presti also needed the fortune of being able to draft a true franchise player in Durant, followed by two more players in Westbrook and Harden who have developed into top-five players at their positions. What if Grizzlies’ GM Chris Wallace hadn’t inspired facepalms across the NBA landscape when he made the highly questionable decision to draft Hasheem Thabeet with the second overall pick in 2009, thus leaving Harden on the table for OKC?
You see, it wasn’t enough for Presti to be really, really smart, Smith and Wallace had to be really, really dumb and Sarver had to be really, really cheap. That’s a lot of reallys, which is why it’s really unlikely that the GM of your favorite team will be able replicate Presti’s success anytime soon. But if you still believe that “the way of the Thunder” is the one true path to long-term success, I wish you good luck with that strategy — and I really mean I wish you lots of luck, because you and your team are going to need it.