There's no completely objective way to measure this, of course, but one can make a strong argument that the Oklahoma City Thunder are in the midst of the greatest draft-based rebuilding project in the salary cap era of the NBA.
Consider this: in 2006-2007, the Seattle SuperSonics were 31-51 with a roster that included All-Stars Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis. During the offseason, Seattle hired Sam Presti (formerly an assistant general manager in San Antonio) and began the rebuilding process. Lewis was allowed to leave via free agency (technically, it was a sign-and-trade for a second-round pick, but essentially they let him walk) and Allen was traded to Boston for the fifth pick in the 2007 draft.
Since then, the Sonics/Thunder (they moved to Oklahoma in 2008) have undertaken the exact trajectory that every team promises to every fan base during every rebuild -- they got really bad, and soon thereafter they got really good. In the five seasons after that 31-51 season and Presti's arrival, the team has done the following:
- 2007-08 - 20-62 - 29th in the league
- 2008-09 - 23-59 - 27th
- 2009-10 - 50-32 - tied for 10th-best record -- lost in first round of playoffs
- 2010-11 - 55-27 - seventh-best record -- lost in conference finals
- 2011-12 - 47-19 (equivalent of 58 wins in 82-game season) -- third-best record, now entering conference finals
Even if the Thunder are unable to progress further in the playoffs (their next opponent, the Spurs, are the hottest team in the NBA right now), a steadily increasing winning percentage and back-to-back trips to the Western Conference Finals is no mean feat in just five seasons.
The team has accomplished all of this primarily through the draft (or as much through the draft as any team in this era is ever likely too). Certainly Kendrick Perkins, Thabo Sefolosha and others acquired via trade or free agency have contributed to the team's success, but its four most productive players (with productivity measured by pretty much any measure one prefers) have all been acquired via the draft since 2007. Name another team that drafted its four best players.
Beginning with Kevin Durant with the second pick in 2007, the team went on a roll. It drafted Russell Westbrook with the fourth pick in 2008, and it followed that pick with Serge Ibaka at No. 24. Next it drafted James Harden with the third pick in 2009. In the course of three drafts, Oklahoma City landed two All-NBA performers, the current Sixth Man of the Year (and likely future All-Star), and the player second in the voting for Defensive Player of the Year. That's quite a haul.
So every team should do this, right? Just clear the decks, draft some stars and clear your May and June calendar for those deep playoff runs three or four seasons hence. Just follow the "OKC Model."
Of course, it's not that easy. Here's a partial list of what happened as OKC executed the OKC Model.
They were terrible for two more seasons. This is the high-wire act of the rebuild. Even after drafting Kevin Durant, the Thunder managed just 20 and 23 wins in the next two seasons, ensuring they'd receive additional high lottery picks. In LeBron James' first season in Cleveland, the Cavs went from 17 wins to 35 wins, quickly moving down in the draft and soon out of the lottery completely. So the trick is to draft a difference-maker, but one that won't make too much of a difference right away -- a delicate balance. Not to mention that if the losing goes on too long, say for a third or fourth season, the fan base will become disillusioned and the pressure will mount to start over yet again. Losing big for two more seasons after beginning the rebuild is probably the perfect plan -- but it's threading the needle to get there. Did the Sonics/Thunder have a specific strategy to continue to be terrible for a couple more seasons? It seems unlikely -- it just worked out that way.
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They got a little lucky. Presti's good, there's no question about that, but you have to get lucky also, which they did. And not just ping pong ball lucky, either. Heading into the 2007 draft, Presti should have had the fifth pick in the draft, based on the Sonics' record. A little lottery luck landed them at the second spot -- which, as it happens, was the perfect place to be in 2007. Had they gotten the first overall pick, they would have taken Greg Oden (as every other GM would have done at the time). Had they gotten the third overall pick, they would have been choosing between Al Horford, Mike Conley and Jeff Green (whom they took with the pick they received from the Celtics). With the second pick, they got Kevin Durant, the one and only franchise player in the 2007 draft.
In 2008, they were unlucky with the ping-pong balls when they fell out of the top three and drafted fourth. But they were lucky in that the players drafted second and third (Michael Beasley and O.J. Mayo) were significantly worse choices than Westbrook ended up being. Presti still gets a ton of credit for this pick -- Westbrook's college numbers (as a late bloomer playing out of position at UCLA) were underwhelming, and he was projected anywhere from third to 10th heading into draft day. But with Westbrook and Kevin Love still on the board when he was picking, Presti had two future superstars to choose from.
As for Ibaka at No. 24 in 2008 and Harden at No. 3 in 2009, hats off to the Thunder on those picks. Excellent picks, there's no two ways about it.
They hoarded picks. In nature, there are a couple of different survival strategies at birth. Big predators like lions have small litters, because the pride will protect the young cubs. Sea turtles, which make helpless and delicious snacks for any number of enemies when they are born, hatch in the hundreds. Top-five draft picks are lions -- odds are pretty good they're going to flourish in the NBA jungle. As you move down the draft, the picks become sea turtles, and you need a lot of them if you want any of them to survive. In the four drafts from 2007 through 2010, fully 24 draft picks passed through Presti's hands in Oklahoma either prior to or on draft day -- 20 of the 24 of those were outside of the top 10. Most of his top five picks and Ibaka at 24 were home runs, but Presti's record with the rest of those picks is more spotty. Among the draftees the Thunder traded away are Carl Landry, Rodrigue Beaubois, Taj Gibson and Eric Bledsoe. Meanwhile, neither B.J. Mullens (picked 24th in 2009) nor Cole Aldrich (11th in 2010) have provided much as the Thunder searched for a center, though Aldrich is still there and still young.
Still, it must be noted that Presti has been a master at manipulating the system in order to accumulate all of those picks. When he cleared the books in 2007, he put himself in a position to take on unwanted contracts, which came with draft picks as sweeteners. In the course of seven months during the 2007-08 season, he somehow managed to get two first-round draft picks from the Suns for taking on Kurt Thomas' contract, and then got a third from the Spurs for relinquishing Thomas -- effectively turning air into three first-round draft picks. Bravo, Monsieur Presti, bravo.
So if you're an NBA GM with an expensive roster that is going nowhere, just follow the Oklahoma City model. Nothing could be simpler, right?
Is it the greatest draft-based rebuild ever? Probably. Other teams have certainly done a good job of building through the draft, including two that are still alive in the East in Indiana and Philadelphia. But while Miami and Boston went the super-team route, and the Clippers and Knicks traded for superstars who wanted to play in larger markets, there are fewer options for small market teams, which is why we see Minnesota and Sacramento and others trying to follow in OKC's footsteps.
As it happens, the Thunder's next opponent is perhaps the only team that can best them for pure draft success. Spanning at least 25 years from David Robinson (1987), through Sean Elliott (1989), Tim Duncan (1997), Manu Ginobili (1999), Tony Parker (2001) and now Kawhi Leonard (2011), the Spurs have been a model of excellence through the draft, but more a story of sustained excellence than a rebuild.
It's no coincidence that Sam Presti came from the Spurs organization.