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Oklahoma City Thunder and the "OKC" Model; Additional Comments

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I have been embarrassingly remiss on the further discussion of the "OKC Thunder model" that has been offered up by SB Nation's very own senior editor, Mike Prada. Unbeknown to me, while I was thinking about SouthPark and dreaming up my gnome underpants theory of team building, he was doing actual reporting on the subject.  

Four Lessons Washington Wizards Can Learn from Oklahoma City Thunder | SB Nation

If my own posting wasn't clear enough, the one thing that stuck in my craw about the story published in the Washington Post  was this idea that OKC represents a "model" that can be "copied." Perhaps I'm being unduly harsh about what some other blokes might chalk up to semantics, but as my original post stated, I take issue with the idea that an NBA franchise can be copied.

The easiest illustration of why I do not think one franchise's successful model can be copied onto another is to examine Knicks coach Mike D`Antoni.  D`antoni was hired in 2003 as the Phoenix Suns' full time coach, and after acquiring Steve Nash, the two made sweet, sweet music together. They re-invigorated the idea of the classic 1980's offense that was fast, free flowing, and inspired a book whose name encapsulates it all - "Seven Seconds or Less." (well worth the read, IMHO)  In 2008, D'Antoni received permission to talk to the Knicks, and soon took his wares to NYC. If ever there was an opportunity to see if a system could in fact be "copied," this would be it. You can see for yourself how the idea has panned out. As much as we would like to think that NBA coaches are like NFL coaches who can imprint a philosophy on an organization, the truth is that the NBA is and always will be a player's league. It is imperative that a franchise  have a good coach; this is true. However, the franchise must also have an intersection between said coach and star player at the right time in both of their careers in order for sustained success to occur. If you can copy that, well, bully for you.  Most of the time though, unless your name is Phil Jackson, it is like capturing lightning in a bottle.

Which brings us back to Mr. Prada's work.

The main thing that you should take away from his analysis of the Washington Wizards, their ownership, and disposition as compared to the Thunder, is that there is a difference between "copying" and "being inspired by." 

Here is the general formula for success for any failing team:

  1. Lose for a while.
  2. Be patient with the acquisition of assets. Don't overspend. 
  3. Build through the draft.
  4. When the blue chipper comes along, lock him up.
  5. Continue to acquire pieces that compliment the blue chipper.
Now, here is the reality check - if your goal is to build a championship team, then this method has only worked maybe four times in the last 30 years: the Chicago Bulls, the San Antonio Spurs, the 1994 Rockets, and the 1980's version of the Boston Celtics. Every other iteration of a championship-build has come through major talent acquisitions and not organic growth. So I think there is a distinction that has to be made between a "winning" build and a "championship" build.

All that said, here is the crux of Prada's (and the Wizards) argument:

"I am not following [the] OKC plan -- I am following my plan as we created -- strategically-- tactically and culturally with the Washington Capitals. I am trying to replicate it in NBA as we did in the NHL. I then point to OKC as an example that it can work in the NBA." - Ted Leonsis, owner of Washington Capitals and Wizards

I think this attitude is critical to the Washington organization if they are to reverse their downward trend. As I stated before, if ownership believes that doing things the "OKC way" or the "Celtics way" or even the "Rockets way" is the best way to turn themselves around, then they are setting themselves up for 1) failure; 2) a delusional fan-base that is about to go from hopeful to disenchanted. No independent business person worth his or her salt transcends the competition by following another's. In the NBA, successfully following another will net you on average about 35 wins in a bad year and 49 in a good year. In other words, your season has just become an annual theater of a 40 degree day. Ask the Atlanta Hawks how that feels.

Consider all of the franchises that have experienced true turnarounds in the past 10 years. If you think on it, you come up with teams like the Thunder (at present), the Sacramento Kings, the Dallas Mavericks, the Miami Heat, and I'd even add the Detroit Pistons. All of those teams went from bad (or what is even worse than bad - mediocre) to good by radically altering how they approached team building. The Kings did it by re-imagining a free-flowing offense through a supremely talented (but passive) power forward. The Mavericks did it by revolving their offense around a seven foot goofy German and opening up the bank account. The Pistons did it by building a true guard-oriented offense. The Heat are trying to do it by building a superteam. For all of them though, the change was not simply "business as usual." The teams realized that their approach was broken and they reversed course to correct it by blending the essence of what made each team comparatively competitive.

There are two things that I cannot do: 1) I cannot analyze where the erstwhile Supersonics went off the rails (because I didn't pay close enough attention) and 2) I cannot tell you what about the Wizards' method is broken and needs to be changed (you should be reading Bullets Forever if you want insight on the latter). What we do know is that 1) the Sonics' method WAS broken and IS changing; and 2) if Leonsis is serious about his own method, then he and the Wizards organization have learned that chasing fading stars like Jaromir Jagr and Michael Jordan will burn bright for a time but burn out fast, where the organization and fanbase are left wondering why they are holding ashes once again. Such tragedies might even inspire an Elton John song if they were not all too frequent.

Here is a hypothetical for the Wizards and teams everywhere that are inspired by the "OKC model." When the draft rolls around and your team is sitting with the #3 pick, will management have the discipline and commitment to its own idea of team building to stay in the hand and pass on Stephen Curry and Tyreke Evans