For most NBA fans, it’s no secret that the Oklahoma City franchise will likely be forced to endure another losing season and trip to the lottery after the 2008-09 season.
Perhaps less widely acknowledged is that it will probably be their fourth consecutive losing season, and their sixth losing season in the last seven.
In other words, this franchise’s struggles pre-date Clay Bennett, the somewhat unexpected departures of Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis last summer, and ex-coach Bob Hill’s stagnant offensive sets. This team has been struggling for a while, and they can’t be expected to recapture the magic of the 90s, when they were a playoff team for eight consecutive seasons.
So this situation inherited by Oklahoma City raises a question of interest to many teams stuck in mediocrity around the league—what is the most effective way to rebuild a franchise? And barring any further major offseason transactions, how do we evaluate Oklahoma City’s front office entering the second year of Sam Presti’s tenure?
Given that they’ve been particularly difficult to watch over the last three seasons, some people might be a little bewildered by their recent approach of purging productive veterans from the roster and accumulating future draft picks.
Since most reasonable people evaluate the success of a professional sports team based on the number of wins they accumulate, this franchise might appear to be profoundly confused. In fact, with such dramatic changes, it sometimes appears that they are trying not to win.
Thus far, what we can say for sure is that OKC’s approach is to accumulate young talent to build around while clearing out as many veteran contracts as possible.
What we can infer is that they not only have faith in rebuilding through the draft, but they also have faith in their ability to clear out enough cap room by 2010 to sign a significant free agent.
What is the value of salary cap room?
Looking at their current contracts -- including the future first-round draft choices they currently hold -- OKC only has around $25 million in salary committed to the 2010-11 season right now.
So if they were only to sign short-term contracts between now and 2010—and that seems to be the way they’re going—they would obviously have enough to sign more than one impact free agent, and keep Kevin Durant and Jeff Green around, if they so please.
Of course, cap room is only a means, although some fans seem to considerate an end. In his recent evaluation of the three-way trade between OKC, Cleveland, and Milwaukee, economist Dave Berri wrote the following about their cap-clearing strategy:
"Oklahoma City does get cap relief from this move. Cap relief, though, by itself, doesn’t win games. Games are won because you acquire productive players. You can do this via draft choices and/or free agency. But just having the opportunity to select players—as we see if we review past draft choices and free agent selections that failed—is not good enough."
Berri makes an excellent point that is often lost on fans of struggling teams, who hope that cap room will change their team’s fortunes sometime in the future. In fact, in economic terms, it could be considered irrational to forgo the opportunity to acquire and retain productive players in pursuit of a player(s) who may or may not want to come to a struggling team anyway.
However, I think there’s another perspective on Oklahoma’s rebuilding process worth exploring, that does not involve an assessment strictly on short-term wins.
Certainly, I would agree that just creating cap room for the sake of cap room is unwise. But instead of just praying for a savior to fall into their laps, what if a team created cap room with a specific direction and specific targets in mind?
What if a franchise actually had a long-term vision, and laid out a realistic plan for realizing that specific vision?
A developmental approach to rebuilding
As I look at Oklahoma City’s “progress” over the past year, what I see is a franchise with a vision, a young core to serve as the foundation for the vision, and the opportunity to bring that vision to fruition in 2010 with the acquisition of the right free agents—but not necessarily a team chasing a savior.
Oklahoma City is taking a developmental approach to rebuilding their team, in contrast to the Celtics’ rapid turnaround approach. But how do we assess this team from a developmental perspective when it looks like they won’t be winning much? Perhaps by refining the two questions asked above:
First, what type of foundation are they building around their current centerpiece of Kevin Durant?
Second, how might they be able to transform their salary cap room into productive players that complement that vision in 2010?
A foundation built around Kevin Durant
Kevin Durant was one of the most highly-rated prospects coming out of college in years, according to John Hollinger’s draft rater—so it makes sense that OKC would make him the centerpiece of their franchise.
However, Berri and others have written extensively about how Durant is overrated because he’s a one-dimensional scorer right now. While there’s no disputing that, having a pure scorer is not a bad thing if you surround him with players that can do other things—and that looks to be what OKC is doing.
Jeff Green was drafted as Durant’s sidekick and figured to be the perfect utility player to complement Durant—he’s a heady player that can do a little of everything on the floor at either forward position.
However, if we look at the Arbitrarian’s NBA playing styles spectrum, it’s interesting that statistically Green ended up being more of an scoring interior player—meaning he did more scoring and rebounding than assisting or stealing.
The problem with having an interior scorer next to a pure scorer (Durant) is that you end up with an imbalanced roster—players are scoring for themselves at various levels of efficiency, but nobody is out there focusing on the little things like making the extra pass or setting screens.
OKC needs to Green to be that utility player or “glue guy” in order to become a more cohesive team. In looking at Green’s skill set that seems very possible—it’s probably a matter of both players developing individually, and establishing chemistry with one other.
There was another problem that the team faced in Seattle. Durant is a great scorer and Green can be a great utility player, but they did not have anyone on the team last year who could create baskets off the dribble—and that is a must for any successful basketball team at any level.
Durant gets the majority of his points by shooting over his defenders at shooting guard—which is why his field goal percentage is so low—and Green got a lot of points by making smart cuts to the basket, and doing the little things inside to college garbage points.
However, their offense often became stagnant because a) Durant was the only player on the team who could get shots consistently and b) they didn’t put very much pressure on the defense, because for the most part their offense involved getting the ball to Durant and watching him shoot.
Enter Russell Westbrook
What Westbrook brings is the ability to drive to the basket and hopefully force the defense to collapse, leaving Durant and Green in better position to score more often. With a different type of weapon on offense, suddenly the defense has pressure on them to respond to multiple options rather than focusing entirely on Durant.
In fact, this is similar to what Maurice Williams brings to Cavaliers, though to a lesser extent—Durant is no LeBron and Westbrook is (not yet) Williams.
Although Westbrook did not play the point guard position full-time at UCLA, he is an unselfish player. If he can develop his play-making skills, this could be a deadly trio for years to come.
This is why I thought that Jerryd Bayless was such a good fit for OKC—he’s not only a better shooter, which would be useful to take some of the scoring burden off Durant, but he also has more experience as a playmaker.
But OKC is hoping that, over time, Westbrook’s ability to fly up and down the court and relentlessly attack the basket will be enough to add a new dimension to their offense and relieve some of the pressure on Durant—hopefully allowing him to take higher percentage shots.
Of course, this is all speculation—because a lot depends on the development of the players and their chemistry. But from what we know right now, this is a great foundation for the future, assuming each player develops as expected.
And with a solid foundation, they can look to fill in the holes via free agency.
Click here to see Part 2: Forecasting 2010 for OKC.