Sunday, December 2, 2012
The Thunder Model
With Carmelo and Deron Williams now playing in the NY metropolitan area, a new narrative about the NBA has steadily gained steam: How can small markets survive in an NBA where star players control their own destiny? Putting aside whether that should even matter to the average basketball fan, this tiresome concern trolling has one glaring flaw: the Oklahoma City Thunder.
With the signing of Kendrick Perkins to a four-year extension, the Thunder have locked down an excellent young player — Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka and Perkins — at each position. And with the Lakers, Mavericks and Spurs advancing in age, there aren’t many long-term obstacles to the Thunder in the West.
Durant, who grew up near Washington DC, and Perkins, who grew up in Houston and played the first part of his career in Boston, had no problem staying in the 44th biggest media market in the US. While the easy answer is that Durant has more character than LeBron and Carmelo, the reality is he would have made the same decision if their situations were reversed.
Mismanagement, not market-size, cost Denver and Cleveland their franchise players. While Sam Presti (the Thunder’s GM) and Danny Ferry (the Cavaliers’ former president of basketball operations) were both disciples of Gregg Poppovich and RC Buford in San Antonio, only Presti took their lessons to heart. He tweaked the Spurs blueprint a bit in Oklahoma City, but the core principles remain the same, and they should give hope to fans in small markets throughout the NBA.
#1: Commit fully to rebuilding.
When Presti was hired by the Seattle Supersonics in 2007, the team had won 31 games and missed the playoffs the last two seasons. Their best two players, Rashard Lewis and Ray Allen, were 27 and 31 respectively.
They were stuck on the “mediocrity treadmill” — too good to get a high draft pick and too bad to make any noise in the playoffs. At that point, Seattle had nothing too lose.
So Presti made the unpopular decision to start a fire-sale, one that would drastically change the balance of power in the NBA. He sent Allen, a future HOF, to Boston for Jeff Green, Wally Szczerbiak and Delonte West. He signed-and-traded Lewis, a former All-Star, to Orlando for a second-round pick and a $9 million trade exception.
From a talent perspective, he got fleeced. But that wasn’t the point. Lewis and Allen wouldn’t be around when the Sonics were good again; all their presence would do is hurt Seattle’s ability to get ping-pong balls in the draft.
#2: Get a franchise player in the draft.
Some years the #2 pick in the draft is Kevin Durant … and some years the #2 pick is Hasheem Thabeet. For all of Presti’s brilliance, if Portland takes Durant first, none of it really would have mattered. But that’s life in the NBA, where superstars are essential to winning anything. But getting an All-NBA player is only the beginning, not the end, of the journey towards a championship.
3) Draft guys who “fit” around your franchise player.
The other benefit of stripping your roster bare is how many chances it gives you in the lottery. The Thunder won 20 games in Durant’s rookie season, “earning” the #4 pick in the 2008 Draft. In contrast, the Nuggets made the playoffs Carmelo’s rookie season and never had another lottery pick during his tenure, while the Cavaliers had only more during the LeBron era — Luke Jackson.
The second you select a franchise player, the clock is ticking on building a team around him. You have his rights for four years no matter what, so your best option might be to strip down your team immediately. Unless you have an under-25 All-Star, everyone on your roster should be on the market. Worst case, you get three lottery picks to find another All-Star.
Russell Westbrook averaged only 13 points / 4 rebounds / 4 assists playing off of Darren Collison at UCLA, but the Thunder saw the 6’3 190 guard as the perfect slasher to exploit Durant’s ability to open up the lane with his jumper. They realized that Durant’s ability to create an efficient shot at will made a “true” point guard somewhat superfluous.
With the #24 pick, they took a flier on Serge Ibaka, a raw and athletic 6’10 forward playing on a second-league Spanish team.
The Thunder made incremental progress the next season, winning 23 games and replacing PJ Carlesimo with Scott Brooks in mid-season. But with a young core of Durant, Westbrook and Green, everyone recognized they were a team on the rise. The #3 selection in the 2009 Draft would probably be their last lottery pick.
They picked James Harden, an athletic 6’5 220 shooting guard out of Arizona State. He wasn’t the most talented player available, but he was the best “fit” around the Thunder’s core. Tyreke Evans and Ricky Rubio, the #4 and #5 selections, were sub-par shooters who need the ball in their hands to be effective; their games wouldn’t complement Durant and Westbrook. Stephen Curry is a more natural scorer than Harden, but a back-court of him and Westbrook would be severely undersized defensively. And while the Thunder desperately needed a defensive-minded big man, none of the available options — Jordan Hill, Tyler Hansbrough or Earl Clark — would have helped them.
4) Use the cap space window shrewdly
Under the current soft-cap system, teams have a small window to add talent around their franchise player. Once he gets a max-deal after his fourth season, the salary cap space is gone, and the window is closed. Presti recognized that top talent wouldn’t flock to a rebuilding team in a small market, so he avoided the free agency sweepstakes. In contrast, Ferry gave Larry Hughes a cap-crippling 5-year $70 million contract. Instead, Presti began “renting” his cap space to teams looking to avoid paying the luxury tax.
He turned the trade exception he got from the Rashard Lewis deal into Kurt Thomas, with the Suns giving him two first-round picks (which became Serge Ibaka and Cole Aldrich) in exchange for absorbing Thomas’ salary. The next season, he flipped Thomas to the San Antonio Spurs, who were looking for an extra post defender to match-up with the Lakers in the playoffs. In return, he got a first-round pick which he used to take a chance on Byron Mullens, a raw seven-footer out of Ohio State.
In 2009, the Utah Jazz were shopping Matt Harpring, who had suffered a career-ending injury, and his insured $6.5 million salary in order to get under the luxury tax. Presti once again rented his cap space to Utah, grabbing a promising young point guard — VCU’s Eric Maynor — in return.
#5: Identify the missing piece
For all the Thunder’s young talent, they weren’t going anywhere with a front-line of Nenad Krstic and Jeff Green, jump-shooting big men who couldn’t rebound or block shots. Presti gambled on size in the draft — getting Kansas center Cole Aldrich last season — but he refused to trade for an aging big man like Marcus Camby, who wouldn’t be a long-term solution for the Thunder.
So when Boston began making the 26-year old Kendrick Perkins, a 6’10 280 brick wall of a center, available, Presti was ready. He offered them two young pieces — Green, a talented power forward that the Thunder weren’t willing to pay long-term, and a future #1 from the LA Clippers — and a deal was struck.
The Clippers sent that pick to Oklahoma for Eric Bledsoe, who was originally drafted by Miami and sent to the Thunder (along with Daequan Cook) in order to clear cap space for “The Decision”.
When he started in Seattle in 2007, Presti had an aging capped out team going nowhere. Five years later, the Thunder have a perfectly complementary starting five of Westbrook / Sefolosha / Durant / Ibaka / Perkins with solid players coming off the bench in Maynor, Harden, Nick Collison and Nazr Mohammed.
Collison’s contract was one more brilliant piece of cap management: a five-year $25 million deal which gave him $13 million up-front. So they paid Collison his money before Durant’s extension kicked-in and shredded their cap room, and now are paying him less than $3 million each of the next four seasons.
Most importantly for a small-market team like the Thunder, their long-term fiscal outlook is good despite committing over $160 million to Westbrook and Durant (assuming max deals under the new CBA will be fairly similar). Perkins just signed to a reasonable four-year $35 million extension, while Harden and Ibaka’s (relatively) limited roles in Oklahoma City should depress their market value. The future in Oklahoma couldn’t be brighter, despite the size of their market.
And short-term, the Thunder are going to be a very tough out in the playoffs. The way the Western playoff bracket is shaking out, Oklahoma looks locked into the #4 seed and a match-up with San Antonio in the second round. They’ve got the size to contain Duncan down-low in Perkins and Mohammed, while San Antonio’s aging back-court doesn’t have the athleticism to handle Durant and Westbrook on the perimeter.
Their Western Conference Finals opponent would be either Dallas or LA. The Thunder now have the size to at least contain LA’s big men; that series would come down to Durant’s ability to score on Ron Artest, Harden’s ability to defend Kobe Bryant and Westbrook’s ability to score on Kobe when LA switches Derek Fisher off of him. Against Dallas, Durant and Westbrook would have an athletic advantage on the perimeter, but their chances to advance to the NBA Finals would depend on Ibaka’s ability to defend Dirk Nowitzki.
So at first glance, I’d say the Thunder have a great chance at making the WCF and a puncher’s chance of reaching the NBA Finals. And if a championship comes to Oklahoma, Durant, Westbrook and Perkins will get the majority of the credit, but the man behind the curtains — Presti — shouldn’t be overlooked.
Building a championship-level team in a small-market isn’t easy, but it can be done.