When one Googles the words “Oklahoma City Thunder model”, 9 of the first 10 results are NBA lottery level teams claiming they are going to follow the Thunder’s recipe for recent success. But what is this formula? And is it actually possible for other teams to follow it?
It seems overly kind to the Thunder’s brass to say that Oklahoma City’s success is based solely off making good basketball and financial decisions. After all…the whole franchise at the moment is built off a twice-lucky draft pick in 2007, lucky once because they were able to draft a franchise superstar like Kevin Durant, and lucky again because instead of winning the lottery and picking Greg Oden (the consensus number one at the time), they got the second pick…which turned out to be the real winner.
Not only did the Thunder score on Durant, they somehow won a superstar who was uninterested in the bright lights of Broadway or Hollywood. In the Summer of LeBron, of loud Decisions, documentaries, and even louder commentary, Durant quietly signed a 5 year extension on his current deal with the Thunder. Instead of announcing it on a one hour special on ESPN, Durant announced it on his Twitter feed, informing the basketball world that he was committed to winning a championship for Oklahoma City. No GM in the world could have seen a superstar like that coming.
Likewise, this current Thunder squad wasn’t going to be a true contender to defeat the Lakers or Mavericks out West without GM Sam Presti somehow encountering Boston GM Danny Ainge, the only executive in the league willing trade Kendrick Perkins, a defensive specialist against the biggest, baddest bodies in the NBA, for two players who are currently buried in the bench rotation in Boston. (Ugh.)
So…it’s partially luck, just as Jonah noted when commenting on the league’s bottom-dwelling, small-market squads, who are looking to break the ice just as OKC did. Just ask the Knicks, Clippers, Grizzlies, Timberwolves, Bobcats, or any of the other 8 teams who sucked worse than the 2008 Chicago Bulls, who somehow won the lottery and snapped up current MVP Derrick Rose.
Still, while it may be a bit implausible to ask small market teams to fully follow the Oklahoma City model, given the whole “Kevin Durant, the best scorer in the freaking NBA, totally fell into their laps” thing and all, the Thunder have certainly made many wise decisions, shattering common belief that it was all just luck.
Russell Westbrook was pegged to struggle at the point guard position coming out of the draft in 2008, and Presti was widely criticized for taking him 4th. But while recent accusations about his shot selection are fully factual, nobody can deny that he has been an instrumental part of this OKC team, as well as a deserving All Star this season. His continued development is one of the biggest keys behind the Thunder’s current status as a legitimate championship contender.
Also, allowing Serge Ibaka to develop made the Thunder frontline of Perkins and Ibaka a dangerous combination of athletic and strong. Not only that, but trading Jeff Green and giving Ibaka more minutes at the 4, by far his more natural position, has worked wonders defensively for the Thunder.
So what does this mean for Minnesota? It’s tough to tell. It certainly means some hard questions need to be asked if this team is going to truly contend in the future. The hardest question of all might be this one: can a contender be built around Kevin Love? Let’s be honest: Kevin Love’s free agency is approaching, and he is going to get paid handsomely by someone. Which, of course, he deserves; he had a great season, winning the MIP, becoming an All Star, and significantly developing his offensive game. There is no reason to believe that next year won’t be equally successful. But he’s not a go-to scorer in crunch time. Minnesota still doesn’t have one, as much as we all love Beasley. And given that Love can also be abused on defense, Minnesota will be forced to ask themselves this: How much are rebounds and hustle worth in dollar bills?
Ultimately, it appears the formula for success as a small market team in the NBA is a strange, difficult to define combination of foresight, luck and losing. One needs the wits to realize what will work in the NBA, the luck to acquire it, and the patience to see it through.
But losses in the standings mean losses in the stands, which in turn leads to losses in the checkbook. And ultimately, money runs (and ruins) everything. One can preach about teams needing to lose to rebuild, but in these volatile NBA times, with the lockout looming, the horrifying word “contraction” being thrown around, and small market teams constantly in danger of bouncing from city to city (Sacramento is just the start of things, folks), the biggest question for small market teams actually becomes a bit frightening.
How many franchises can actually afford to improve?