Taking “The OKC Model” with a Grain of Salt

Image via wscullin on Flickr

“You guys, our team sucks. We should just do the OKC Model.”

“Hey, if we had done the OKC Model instead of what we’re doing now, we would have won a championship already.”

“You know, the best way to rebuild is through the OKC Model.”

“It’s the best way. Teams like Indiana and Philly that are good this year had to wait forever. Tanking and building piece-by-piece is the way to go.”

“It’s the only viable option for small markets to rebuild.”

Wait wait wait… Slow down, and think about this for a second, OK?

There’s a common attitude in sports that winning makes bad memories go away. Oh, your team used to suck and it’s a playoff team now? Well we’ll just forget the 7 straight years of horrible, horrible play. And that’s fine, and really, as a fan, you take losing as long as you know there’s a chance that winning is coming over the horizon soon. If your team is stuck in a grind of terrible play, or if your team is stuck in purgatory (in the NBA, this is being a perennial 7-11 seed), then some sort of  “rebuild” has to enter the picture. Usually the rebuild takes the form of acquiring talent, jettisoning players for more talent, jettisoning players for flexibility, somehow-or-other picking up a couple of draft picks, or any and all combinations of the above. All of these options have the same goal in mind: Our team is bad, and to get better, we need to shake things up.

It seems that no other team has better exemplified this strategy over the past few season as the Oklahoma City Thunder, nee Seattle SuperSonics. In the past 15 years, this team went from bad to meh to winning their division to meh to bad to awful . . . then came the 2007 draft and the 07-08 and 08-09 seasons.

With the 5th worst record, the Sonics picked 2nd, and with that pick came a franchise player and a bright new future. The team took part in the offseason deal that turned the 2008 Celtics into NBA Champions by sending Ray Allen and the pick that became Big Baby to the Celtics for the 5th pick (Jeff Green), Wally Szczerbiak, and Delonte West (Boston would also acquire Kevin Garnett from the Timberwolves in exchange for a package that included Al Jefferson as the centerpiece. Jefferson would later be traded to Utah.). The Sonics also completed a second massive offseason deal to jettison Rashard Lewis on a sign-and-trade to Orlando in exchange for a future 2nd-rounder a hefty trade exception, which they flipped for Kurt Thomas and two first-rounders from Phoenix. The next season saw Seattle flipping Wally and Delonte to Cleveland in another blockbuster trade to help a third team in the East vie for an NBA championship.

So after all of this, GM Sam Presti was seen as a genius for turning a bunch of enormous contracts into a bajillion first and second round draft picks plus a ton of cap space.Those picks turned into Jeff Green, Russel Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, Carl Landry, DJ White, James Harden, Rodrigue Beaubois, and Bryon Mullens (to name a few). A handful of draft-day trades have happened since (Mullens to Charlotte, Landry to Houston, Beaubois to Dallas), but this is where SEA/OKC began to assemble the core you see today.

I believe Presti absolutely did a great job in turning some stagnating assets into lots of cap space and draft picks. Before him, Seattle’s history was basically a championship in the 1970s, a few deep playoff runs (including a Finals appearance in the 1990s), and lots of fans devoted to a fun-yet-average team. And luckily for Presti, he was able to prey on teams like Cleveland, Boston, Orlando, and Phoenix who were willing to give up those things in exchange for title contention. So far, it looks like only Boston has been able to say their trade paid dividends.

PJ Carlesimo was the head coach of the team during this time (you may remember PJ as the guy that Latrell Sprewell choked), and boy were his teams bad. Maybe they were supposed to be bad, but boy were they bad regardless. So bad that PJ got fired during his first season in OKC. The team started turning around the following season once Scott Brooks took over head coaching duties, and once the young guys started playing together more. More time with Brooks, a few more trades for Presti, and this Thunder team has really turned into something special.

But during that time where the team was faltering, then hitting bottom, then climbing up to the top, the team was going through some massive franchise changes that had nothing to do with coaching and personnel. You may remember this, and this, and this, and this, and this.

 

[blackbirdpie url=”https://twitter.com/suga_shane/status/176944020776435712″]

 

There is a risk to perpetual basketball mediocrity. That risk lies in an owner no longer wanting to own a team (which has happened in dozens of cities over the entire course of the history of professional hoops). There exists another risk in an owner caring substantially more about making money than making a competitive ball club. Then there’s another risk: the owner could be so disconnected from the city where the team resides that he has no qualms about moving it. There’s not much more of a betrayal to a sports fanbase than having your team taken away. Even the most jilted Cleveland fans (and I used to be one of these) would rather have their franchise player leave them on live television than to have their team taken away from them. Just ask which name is more reviled in Cleveland: LeBron James or Art Modell? Chances are, you’re going to get the same answer over and over.

In our revisionist times, people seem to miss the fact that OKC’s very recent history involves a massive franchise upheaval that happened at the same time the team was shedding assets to acquire picks and flexibility. The two may seem like different processes happening at different levels, but they will always be interrelated. With Presti on board, Bennett and the ownership were able to shed some bulky contracts of good or once-good players (Allen, Lewis, Szczerbiak) to lower the payroll. After Nate MacMillan left Seattle for a gig in Portland, the management brought in a coach without a proven track-record for winning who basically allowed the team to perform at a level that could only be seen as tanking, and he was sacked about a month into the franchise’s move to Oklahoma City. What are we left with now? A team full of players on rookie contracts, an interim coach, and a fresh start in OKC.

Presti’s contribution to “The OKC Model” is clear: acquire picks, acquire tradeable and expiring contracts, and if you can find a team that thinks they are 1-2 pieces away from contending, milk them for everything they’ve got. Then you draft young studs, build up, and try not to panic and make any hasty moves will the walls are crumbling around you.

The rest of the model, though, is cloudy. Presti’s stoicism was an important factor in Seattle/OKC’s restructuring, but the rest of the model cannot be dissociated from its more volatile and unpredictable context. Let’s not forget some of these draft picks wouldn’t have been as high had the owner not hired a coach that was bad enough to keep this team in the lottery for two seasons. And what about drafting Durant? Statistically, they were slotted to get the 5th pick. Had they lucked into the first pick, they would have picked Greg Oden (the then-consensus number one overall pick). The top 5 in that draft in order? Oden, Durant, Horford, Mike Conley Jr, and Jeff Green. At their peaks, all of these players are great contributions to teams. Only one is a franchise player: KD. So, how do you model ping-pong balls? How do you project that the number one overall pick is going to have recurring health issues? How are you to know that Jeff Green, who you also took then traded for an excellent defensive center in Kendrick Perkins, would have a health issue that sidelines him as well?

So luck into drafting a superstar that isn’t the consensus superstar that everyone else agrees upon, hire a bad coach to ensure your team is bad, jettison large contracts to four teams desperate to keep their franchise players in hopes that they can contend for a championship in exchange for expiring contracts and draft picks, and then draft complements to the superstar with all these new-found picks. And to ensure you keep the core together, give all of the players you drafted early extensions.

With the aftermath of the lockout being a stricter salary cap (that the owners wanted) coming down the pike, we now see this successful project being threatened. Can they afford to keep their core together to contend for multiple championships? Will it be financially possible in the scope of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement? Are their pieces set, or are there more moves to make it perfect? Are any of the pieces interchangeable parts? Will the model win them even one championship? If not, is the model a failure? Is it a failure if it wins them no more than one championship? How narrow is this title window?

So when we say “The OKC Model,” we have to be careful to define what we’re talking about. Are we talking about a GM that was able to flip veteran assets for picks and luck into some great spots in the lottery, but also had a good head on his shoulders to complete a roster? Or a core of young players that is being confined by the new CBA? Or maybe an owner that flushed assets to run out of town? Can any of these really be isolated from the others?

Amin Vafa

Amin grew up in Cleveland, lives in DC, and somehow still manages to love watching professional basketball.