The NBA is an odd thing, isn’t it? In every other major North American sport, you build your teams primarily through the draft to win championships.
It’s not any more evident than in the NFL, where championships and dynasties are built in the mid-to-late rounds.
If you follow any of the teams that are rebuilding and looking towards the future, you’re hearing quite a bit of talk about how that team needs to follow the “Oklahoma City” model.
What people are referring to here is building your team through the draft by making smart moves with your picks. Toss in some nice veteran role players, and then you’ve got yourself a team on par with how the Thunder have built their team up.
The problem? That model is vastly overrated. Oklahoma City management even realized that themselves this year when they went out and made a big-time move at the trade deadline.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Look at the teams who are rebuilding right now around one guy, trying to add another via the draft, and to try and improve. Whether it’s the Clippers with Blake Griffin or the Wizards with John Wall, there are plenty of examples to look at.
While building yourself up through the draft is nice and all, it’s simply not good enough to get it done in the Association.
You may ask yourself why that is. It’s really quite simple. If you’ve followed the NBA at all you know that one player can make a huge difference on a team.
Whether it’s the 76ers winning back when they had Allen Iverson and a bunch of role players, Tracy McGrady and the Magic taking them to the playoffs and never winning a series year after year or Vince Carter leading the Raptors to the playoffs for years, one guy can get you there.
The problem you see arise is that while it may be good enough to get you there, one guy simply isn’t good enough to get it done.
So what failed with James in Cleveland? It’s the same thing that’s happened for years now. One guy is good enough to get his team into the playoffs, but while that’s great and all, if you never accomplish your goal of winning even one title, was it all worth it?
The problem with James might have been that he was too good so early. The Cavaliers never really had the opportunity to draft really high after James got there, and never had the opportunity to really pair him with a star.
The problem with the teams like the Magic with McGrady, the Raptors with Carter and Sixers with Iverson back in the day was that they were just good enough to miss the lottery. They’d pick so low that they couldn’t make a splash in the draft and swung and missed.
James was the exception to that rule because he simply was that talented. Both he and Iverson really are the only two guys to single-handedly carry their team to an NBA Finals run in the past decade.
Let’s review where we’re at so far. Drafting good players is definitely a good thing, the problem is when you get such a talented player, your team rises too fast that it levels off and the only way to improve it is by adding contracts nobody wants.
Still don’t believe me? Check out the Orlando Magic. Whether it was overpaying through the roof for Rashard Lewis, or trading and taking on Gilbert Arenas’ salary for the next few years to have one possible final run with Dwight Howard, the Magic know what that’s all about.
Still nothing? What about those same Cleveland Cavaliers that were mentioned before taking on the salary of an overpaid Antawn Jamison last year to try and have one final run with LeBron James?
Check. The Oklahoma City model is overrated because you have to be such a poor team for so long to do so. That simply just doesn’t happen unless you can hit on draft choices consecutive years like they did.
The Thunder had three very high draft selections in the top five the past few years that appear as though they are going to pan out; Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden.
Why were they able to get those picks? They were a really bad team for quite some time. I remember reading one report from a scout a couple years ago that said he thought it was funny the Thunder (then the Sonics) were so bad because if they wanted to they could have been a decent team.
Still think the model isn’t overrated? Look at the teams that have won, and been in the NBA Finals since 2000.
The Lakers from 2000-02 are easy. Kobe was made possible to get via trade which sent out Vlade Divac. The Lakers other key component to that run, Shaquille O’Neal, was brought over via free agency on a seven-year, $121 million contract.
The Sixers were then led by the aforementioned Allen Iverson, who was surrounded by quite a few role players as usual. No other real big contributor to that team. The Pacers? Pretty much the same except you can substitute Reggie Miller in for Allen Iverson.
As for the Nets, they had their own version of the big three, led by Jason Kidd, Kenyon Martin and Richard Jefferson. Jefferson was actually drafted by the Nets as a late lottery pick.
Martin was also a former first-round pick by the Nets. But their key driving component those two years was Jason Kidd, who was acquired via trade for Stephon Marbury, among others.
Then there is the one exception to the rule, the San Antonio Spurs. They’re definitely a team that did it through the model that the Thunder tried and everyone seems to be trying to copy. The difference is “how” the Spurs did it though.
They did it through their scouting department with later picks, as opposed to very high picks. The Spurs won the title in 2003, 2005 and 2007. Each year, the key components to the team were Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili.
Duncan was the Spurs number one overall pick back in 1997. As for Parker, the Spurs got him as a steal, drafting him with the final pick in the first round of the 2001 draft. Ginobili was a second-round pick for the Spurs back in the 1999 draft, another gem that San Antonio managed to get.
The Spurs managed to draft these guys while remaining a very successful team as well, something that doesn’t seem to happen much in the NBA.
Those teams the Spurs defeated were the Nets in 2003, who I touched on before, the Pistons in 2005 who I’ll get to in a minute, and the Cavaliers who were led by LeBron James who I touched on before.
Those Pistons who the Spurs defeated in 2005 were also the NBA champions back in 2004. That team was pieced together with talent that wasn’t primarily drafted by the franchise.
Chauncey Billups, NBA Finals MVP, was signed as a free agent back in 2002. Tayshaun Prince was in fact drafted by the Pistons. Rip Hamilton was acquired via trade for Jerry Stackhouse. Ben Wallace, the anchor of the Pistons defense was acquired as a throw-in in the deal that sent Grant Hill to Orlando.
Their final piece that finally put them over was Rasheed Wallace, who was acquired at the trade deadline. That’s hardly a team that was built through the draft.
The 2006 NBA champion Miami Heat was defined by a trade, specifically one that sent Shaquille O’Neal to South Beach for a plethora of players. While the team was led by Dwyane Wade, a player whom they drafted, Shaq was still the anchor of that team.
They defeated the Dallas Mavericks that year. Pick any Mavericks team the past decade and it’s a team surrounded by overpriced players and Dirk Nowitzki, who was acquired through trade from the Bucks for the late Robert Traylor.
The 2008 Boston Celtics are the complete anti-“Oklahoma City” model. While they are pushed by two players they drafted, Rajon Rondo, and Paul Pierce, the core of that team that put them over the top were two veterans they acquired via trade, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen.
The team the Celtics beat that year was the Los Angeles Lakers, a team that went on to win the next two championships. How did the Lakers get that talented? They added a big playmaker through trade, landing Pau Gasol for the rights to his brother Marc essentially.
Those two years the Lakers won the title, they defeated the Dwight Howard-led Magic, whom I touched on earlier, and the Boston Celtics who remained the same essentially as the 2008 championship team.
Fast-forward to this year’s playoffs. Look at the teams that look like they’re going to be left, or are left playing. Chicago, is built around Derrick Rose, but did not get until the next level until they went out and added a big-time free agent difference maker in Carlos Boozer.
The Heat? They went out and aligned three All-Stars to form a super team. One they drafted, the other two acquired via sign and trade. Essentially you and I could round out their starting five and they’d be the best team in the league.
In the West it’s the Mavericks, who as stated before are Dirk Nowitzki and a bunch of veteran players mostly not drafted by them.
Then we move back on to the Thunder, who appears as though they’re going to be matching up against the Mavericks in the Western Conference Finals.
They couldn’t get the job done in the past with this group of guys, so they went out and made a Detroit Pistons in 2004 type of move by acquiring Kendrick Perkins at the deadline and hoping he could be the difference-maker the team needed.
If even Oklahoma City couldn’t win with this so-called model, who’s to say anyone else can? Look, it’s not that it “can’t” be done, of course it could be done. It’s just the fact that in the NBA it rarely does.