Sorry, Sonics fans. Trey insisted that I use this photo.

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.

Serge Ibaka

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.

Comments (32)

  1. please less of trey kirbys trying to be funny stuff and more of this.

    thanks

    • I like trey.

      But… BOOM. Roasted.

    • NO.
      The reasons I love TBJ is because of “The Big Three”- Melas, Skeets and Kerby FTW!

      Though I don’t mind more serious stuff, like this article- GJ Mr. Carefoot!

    • Nah, Trey’s great.

      I dislike Scott from that over the top video he posted. I can no longer remember what it was, so this dislike it probs unnecessary.

      Loving the Durant, Westbrook, Ibaka Seattle pics popping up on TBJ and BDL.

    • so true, david. i read this site a lot and taco treys all ironic but unfortunately no longer funny articles are starting to wear on me….

    • Or… the exact opposite of what this commenter said. We love Trey.

  2. Scott, i must say, most “great” players are drafted. IF you scout and put effort in to studing every draft class, you can come away with a good player. I think the reason teams CANNOT be like OKC is because of development. I believe if teams had a 2 tier system like the NHL, they would be able to “Develop” their players, watch them closly and call them up if needed.

    The NBA didnt need it before because players stayed 3-4 years in College. Now its one and done, or 2 years and done. Imagine the bulls stashed eddie curry on a development team or kwame brown? I think players would benefit from that. that would also create more jobs for basketball players and make teams more competitive.

    There is NOTHING wrong with drafting players high. especially in THIS years draft. The crop is so thick with great players, yet ppl think its ok for BC to trade the pick. I say he get another 1st rounder. The raptors are no where near ready to make the playoffs. You bring in 3-4 draft picks and create a strong team and develop them.

    Looking forward to a future is a better then see a team with no hope barely making playoffs… thats why OKC could wait- they had hope!

    • Of course acquiring high draft picks in consecutive years is a good thing, but how are you going to get those high picks unless your team finishes in the bottom five in the league standings over and over again? Even with Bargnani missing most of the season, Dwane Casey was too good of a coach for the Raptors to finish with a record that matched their true talent level.

      If they kept Triano around as coach for another season, maybe the Raptors would have finished where the Hornets did and secured the number one pick. Does that mean we should chastise Bryan Colangelo for hiring a good coach or criticize Casey for “over-coaching” his team? Real life isn’t NBA 2K12 in franchise mode. It’s more complicated than simply tanking for tanking’s sake.

    • Don’t discount stupidity here, either. Luck, too. Straight up skill is hard to come by, and seldom operates in a vacuum. On the stupidity front, keep in mind that Thabeet played three years in college. The most memorable moment of his college carrer when Dejuan Blair flipped him over his back.

      And every draft is littered with picks that didn’t pan out — some because of avoidable mistakes, some that aren’t. Darko goes high, Rondo goes low. But any given team probably has a better chance of building like the Heat did,instead of through the Thunder model. Both basically have a zero chance of happening. If you’re a fan of a terrible team, they will likely be terrible for a while. I’m a Wizards fan, BTW, I know the pain.

      OKC got lucky that they didn’t get the #1 pick and potentially pick Oden. They got lucky that Memphis thought all of Hasheem’s upside over powered the fact that he was/is terrible, and gave them Harden on a beard covered platter.

      In some alternate universe, Portland is about to start the finals, with a team built around Oden, Roy, and Aldridge. In that bizzaro world, we say the same thing about how savvy they are, but what separates that world from this one is just four healthy knees.

  3. Seeing KD and Westbrook in those Sonics hats and Ibaka holding up the jersey… Poor Seattle fans…

    • Seattle claims Westbrook and Ibaka now but that’s as close as they ever got to Green and Gold… Poor Seattle? Seattle isn’t poor… just cheap… while some were doing everything they could to Save the Sonics they were being undermined and outvoted by “Citizens for More Important Things”.

      • Do you even have any idea what happened? The people of Seattle were cheap? How can everyday people do much to prevent a deceiving owner like Clay Bennett from moving the team?

        The only person that is “cheap” is Howard Schultz, who sold the team to Bennett, but on the terms that he wouldn’t move it to OKC, then later regretted and sued to try to get the team back. This was a battle of billionaires and nothing to do with the people of Seattle.

        Next time read the news before you talk.

  4. You bring up great points, but how are teams like the Raptors, Cavs and Bobcats supposed to get good without a little bit of luck and high picks?

    Saying that the OKC method doesn’t work is fine and dandy, but an alternative should be presented. If that doesn’t work most of the time, what does work?

    • I think he’s saying that you need good fortune and that’s not something you can ensure. And you need smarts to put yourself in position to take advantage when good fortune comes your way. In other words, Portland did absolutely nothing wrong in their rebuilding process. But bad luck spoiled it all.

    • I’m not saying there’s a better way to rebuild. I’m saying that “the OKC model” is very difficult to replicate for all the reasons I listed. Yes, you need luck, but you also need to be willing and able to be one of the worst teams in the league for multiple seasons in a row, and what respectable coach is going to go along with losing on purpose?

      Then, if you do manage to get three top-five picks in a row, what are the odds that players like Durant, Westbrook and Harden are even going to be available to you? In most drafts, Durant would be a first overall pick, so even if you finish dead last in the season before that draft, you only have a 25 percent chance of landing that pick. The Bobcats tanked as hard as they could have possibly tanked, and their consolation prize might be Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.

  5. Hit the head on the nail with this article. Success in the NBA is found through failure and luck. Those mid 2000′s Sonics teams were rough after Nate McMillan went to Portland and never recovered after he left really. Propelling the team to one of the worst records was only half the battle. Coming up with the 2nd, 4th, and 3rd pick and hitting a grand slam (KD) and two home runs (Russ and Beard) is luck.
    Success can also be found through excelence, a.k.a. Sam Presti. He’s a star in his own right and arguably with RC Bufford, the most respected GM in not just basketball, but all sports. He picked on those other GM’s like a bully on the playground. That’s why OKC is the favorite for the title, just years removed from being a bottom dweller.

  6. Great article.

    I for one hope that the Rockets tank at some point. Trying to appeal to big name players like Stat, Melo, Bosh, Gasols and so forth is not working for Houston. Maybe players associate the Rockets like they do the Blazers, injury town. Too bad tanking killed the Bobcats even more. If it the Bobcats are any indication of what can happen with terrible ownership and bad luck, the same could happen to any team. It is with that sentiment that at I am glad that least I am not the Bobcats, Raptors or Wizards.

  7. Scott, you missed an equally important and especially unique piece of this puzzle.

    If they hadn’t moved to OKC, Presti might not have been able to see this through. Moving part-way through their tanking let them continue tanking longer without pressure – both from Durant and his wanting to win internal clock – and from the fanbase. They came to a place that loved them from the start and would have endured more losing in the name of ultimately winning.

    No other team and GM have had that opportunity, where you draft your MVP-calibre talent and then get bonus time to build around him before you have to win.

    And I’ll raise you one more on the luck side. The Grizzlies picked 4th, 3rd and 2nd in the Durant-Westbrook-Harden drafts, and ended up with:

    Conley
    Mayo
    Thabeet

    How about another 3 year stretch of 2/5/3 for the Hawks:
    Marvin Williams
    Shelden Williams
    Al Horford

    • Yeah, you can’t emphasize enough how inexact a science drafting is.

      • If the Hawks had drafted Chris Paul or Deron Williams in 2005, like they should have, they almost certainly wouldn’t have had a top-five pick in the next draft — which is part of the problem. The Jazz and Hornets took Deron Williams and Chris Paul after the Hawks took Marvin, and the Hornets picked 12th in the next draft while the Jazz picked 14th.

        How do you draft great players in the top five in three consecutive drafts? The Thunder managed to do it, but I’ll be surprised if we see that again anytime soon. The Raptors may have been on to something when they took Valanciunas in the last draft, because he played overseas this season instead of potentially adding a few more wins on to the Raptors’ record.

  8. There will always be dumb executives. If you are smart enough, you’ll be able to take advantage of their mistakes. Those dumb moves were not luck, they happen all the time.

  9. This left me feeling more depressed about being a Raptors fan.

  10. Another shrewd Presti move and piece of luck that’s being overlooked is the acquisition of Eric Maynor one of the better backup/change of pace PG’s in the league from Utah for nothing more than renting a years worth of cap space.

    Maynor was huge for OKC last year in making the Western Conference Finals.

    This year Maynor tore his ACL, couldn’t find a better option before the trade deadline but were lucky enough to find a veteren Derek Fisher after LA panicked.

    OKC doesn’t make the Finals this year with rookie Reggie Jackson playing meaningful playoff minutes.

  11. How do you people forget about the debate about picking Harden over Curry? Before all the ankle injuries people couldn’t grasp how OKC could have picked Harden.

  12. Another great Presti move, Nick Collision’s “signing bonus” explained over at BDL…

    http://sports.yahoo.com/nba/blog/ball_dont_lie/post/Nick-Collison-s-goofball-contract-extension?urn=nba-288906

  13. Scott — still think OKC would have been a ridiculous place for Bosh to target in his free agency summer??

    As for replicating their model — they got lucky with the Durant draft, and they focused on developing youth. The Raptors have never committed either way until this year, and even in our “tank year”, the raptors stuck with Calderon at the point at the expense of losses and development of our best PG prospect/

    • best PG prospect = bayless?

      lol a 50 year-old calderon is a better floor general than this clown

      • Exactly why we can’t properly tank….calderon guarantees we won’t be shit. Need to invest time and lost-wins in younger guys to let them develop, and have the bonus of high draft picks waiting for you at end of season.

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