It began almost immediately after the Miami Heat closed out the Boston Celtics in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals on Saturday: the 2012 NBA Finals between the Heat and the Oklahoma City Thunder were cast as a battle between good and evil. Lee Jenkins of Sports Illustrated -- an incredible writer and basketball thinker -- fired a highly shared first blow.
OKC-Mia, home-grown vs. store-bought— Lee Jenkins (@SI_LeeJenkins) June 10, 2012
In fairness to Lee, he also shared any number of retorts, most of them about the creation story of the Thunder itself, that being a highly controversial flight from Seattle. But this narrative won't end with Jenkins: expect to hear it repeated again and again as the Finals approach and begin. It's easy to swallow because the narratives of the Thunder and Heat, and of their stars Kevin Durant and LeBron James, are so ingrained in current sports commentary.
But it's really not that easy to cast this as good vs. evil. It's more a contrast of styles.
Look at the way in which each team got to this point. Miami has missed the postseason just once since 2003: in 2007-08, thanks to injuries to Dwyane Wade and Shaquille O'Neal and a wondrous embrace of the D-League. Shaq was traded for Shawn Marion, and the Heat had fallen so far back that much of the campaign was legitimately tanked. But Miami bounced back and has made each postseason since (including in the two seasons prior to the arrival of LeBron and Chris Bosh).
In that 2007-08 season, Miami had the worst record in the NBA. The second worst record belonged to the Seattle SuperSonics, who were in the second of what would be a four-year rebuild. The Sonics were legitimately bad on purpose: the team had been stripped of all veterans of value. Rashard Lewis had left for the Magic, Ray Allen was traded for the draft rights of Jeff Green. The strategy was to be terrible for two more seasons to collect more high draft picks. In the process, new team owner Clay Bennett was busy lying to the public and to David Stern about his naked intentions to bail on the process of getting a new arena in Seattle (which admittedly had trouble due to a difficult political scene) and move to Oklahoma City.
The Sonics left Seattle after the 2008 season, with two years of awful product down and two more to go.
Whether the Sonics were stripped precisely to strip the team of all Seattle support before the relocation is a mystery. It could have just been GM Sam Presti's rebuild strategy -- then-assistant GM Rich Cho, who now runs the Bobcats, has indicated that earning multiple high picks was a desire of the regime. Regardless, fans in both cities suffered awful basketball and awful records for multiple seasons each.
So when we talk about a "home-grown" team, let's be real: we're talking about a team built via institutional tanking. This is the very strategy that had everyone so riled up as the Bobcats were fielding the least competitive team in NBA history this season.
The Sonics/Thunder just did it better than anyone had ever done it before, and perhaps better than anyone will ever do it.
The Thunder landed the No. 2, No. 4 and No. 3 picks in successive years. (They'd also traded Allen for a No. 5, and earned a couple of other first-round picks for being a cap mule for competitive teams like the Suns.) This franchise stripped itself bare, tried not to be competitive for three full seasons to pick up the most valuable assets in the game (young stars), and then and only then began filling out the roster with more talent.
Miami spent just one season in the dumps: the Heat bounced back to land the No. 5 seed in the East in 2008-09, despite picking the underwhelming Michael Beasley in the draft. The Heat settled at No. 5 in the following season as well, while the Thunder finally had a strong season, going 50-32.
The Thunder looked set for a decade with a core of Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden. The four-year tank job had worked. The rebuild was complete. Things were far less certain in Miami, as Dwyane Wade looked to explore his options in free agency, with the Chicago Bulls appearing to be a major threat to grab him.
In the end, Pat Riley convinced Wade to stay, recruited Chris Bosh to join him and, in the coup de grace, landed the biggest fish of all in LeBron James. Riley had the greatest free agent haul in NBA history, and he did it coming off of a playoff season. Store-bought? Sure, Riley "bought" the rights to the three top free agents of 2010. But he didn't have to make his fans suffer to get there. He didn't have to rack up non-competitive seasons to clear the decks. He did it while putting a compelling product on the floor. He did it about as legitimately as one can rebuild.
Both strategies are perfectly legal and plenty of teams try to do either one. (Actually executing the Riley plan is pretty much impossible. Ask the Knicks.) But if we're casting Thunder Vs. Heat as Good Vs. Evil, consider how they got here. Consider whether there's actually less honor in rebuilding through free agency or trying to use the draft. Consider what it actually means to be "home-grown" in today's NBA.
I think you'll find that it's not what it seems to be on the surface.
The Hook is an NBA column by Tom Ziller. See the archives.