After securing their second consecutive berth in the Western Conference Finals on Monday, the Oklahoma City Thunder is looking like a legitimate title contender more than ever. A team that was quite literally built from the ashes of a formerly great franchise, their formula is difficult to follow. However, it can yield amazing results if any other teams can successfully follow it.
For the moment, no teams have successfully replicated what the Thunder has done in the past five years. The Thunder formula is built upon three basic fundamentals: making solid personnel decisions, making defense a priority early and always valuing the long-term above all else.
Those three tenets have made the Thunder one of the best organizations in the NBA, which has, in turn, made the Thunder one of the best teams in the NBA. They’ve never strayed from those three goals, and that’s why they rank near the top of their league.
But what teams have the potential to build the next “Thunder?” I’ll break down some of those squads now and tell you what they’ve done so far.
The one thing the Pacers have done is value the long term. Unlike other squads who strive to win immediately, Indiana valued the journey. GM Larry Bird took his time building a winning unit until he had all the pieces he needed to truly compete. It has taken years, but finally they are there, pushing the Miami Heat in the Eastern Semifinals.
It appears the Pacers also strove to make smart personnel decisions as much as possible. The one very un-Thunder thing they’ve done was their signing of David West in free agency this past year. While it wasn’t a bad contract (West has two years at just $10 million per), it just isn’t something the Thunder would have done.
The Pacers have also done a good job of making the defense a priority early in the process. This season, they ranked in the top 10 in point allowed per game.
Of all the teams in the NBA, the Pacers appear the best-poised to be the next OKC Thunder.
Cleveland is still very early in the rebuilding process. However, that process is already starting to look like a success, especially with the emergence of Kyrie Irving as the Rookie of the Year. The young Duke product averaged 18.5 points and 5.4 assists per game, proving himself to be a capable scorer and distributor at the point guard position.
Fellow 2011 lottery pick Tristan Thompson showed some potential this season, averaging 8.2 points and 6.5 rebounds per game primarily off the bench. The team was also able to secure another first-round draft pick by trading Ramon Sessions to the Los Angeles Lakers, which will continue to help in the rebuilding process.
Anderson Varejao helps the Cavs with the defensive aspect of the process, while Antawn Jamison gives them a talented veteran to either build around or ship out for resources and cap space.
It is still too early to tell if this team can be the next Thunder, but it would be foolish to say they cannot.
This is the team that could have been and probably should have been the next Thunder-like team. However, despite the young talent on this roster, it won’t become that team.
The biggest problem with the Kings is the personnel decisions the team’s management has made over the past four or five seasons. DeMarcus Cousins, Tyreke Evans, Marcus Thornton and company are loaded with impressive young talent.
However, they absolutely cannot play together, especially on the defensive end of the floor. Defense must be emphasized in the beginning.
Instead, the Kings have assembled a group of players who can all score on their own, but struggle sharing the ball and playing defense. Sacramento gave up 104.4 points per game (dead last in the league) and dished 19.3 assists per game (26th in the league).
It’s sad, but whoever assembled this team has an eye for talent, but none for how talent must fit together to win.
Ultimately, very few teams in the league have anywhere near the foundation to follow the Thunder formula to win. Solid personnel decisions, an early emphasis on defense and a focus on the long-term are rarer in the NBA than they should be.
Cleveland is on the right track, but is still a long way off. Sacramento could have been that team, but made terrible decisions. Indiana has the best shot at becoming the next Thunder, hands down.