Thunder Rebuild a Process to Follow but Comparable Results Unlikely

Among NBA media and fans, the Oklahoma City Thunder have been the popular model for building a successful franchise for years now.  With the Thunder visiting the Q tonight, fans and media alike hope that watching this team gives Cavs fans a light at the end of the tunnel to believe in.  It’s common knowledge that, in a small NBA market, you build through the draft and you do so over multiple years – not one quick strike – unless, of course, you have a once-in-a-generation superstar holding your team hostage, demanding immediate moves for the present, and threatening free agency departure.

It’s easy to say the Cavs should just do what the Sonics/Thunder did.  And, yes, in an ideal world they should take that approach.  But it strains credulity to think, based upon the half century history and movements of this league, that in 5 years the Cavs are going to be in a position comparable to the present day Thunder.

Kevin Durant is a unique superstar.  He is committed to Oklahoma City and that sense of commitment, we think, is matched by his teammates.  But the chances of the Cavs, or anyone else, getting a player that comes close to Durant’s a) talent/ability and b) commitment to a small market, are slim and none.  In this way, following the Thunder model is a fool’s errand.  But in today’s NBA, how else should a small market team build towards contention?  Maybe rooting for a small market NBA team is a fool’s errand.

Of course, points a and b above notwithstanding, you also have to hit on subsequent draft picks – acquiring talent that approaches that of your Durant level superstar.  This likelihood of acquiring more than one all-star in back-to-back drafts is another longshot.  The second all star has to come along within the “window of commitment” that the first has to your small market.  As noted above, Durant is unique in that he remains committed long term.  Chris Paul, Dwight Howard, Carmelo Anthony, Deron Williams are guys that either left their small markets or have their small markets feeling pretty uneasy about their ability to build around them stretching into the future.

I hate to be so pessimistic.  Again, the Cavs are taking the right approach and, starting this June, are going to build through draft picks, a la OKC.  But the reality is that there is a much greater chance your picks end up building a team with drafted  pieces that looks like the Andrew Bogut-Brandon Jennings Bucks, or the Rudy Gay-OJ Mayo Grizzlies.

It took the Thunder several years of growing pains and a fair amount of luck – no doubt expert moves and skill were involved, but luck plays a huge role.  I think Dan Gilbert will do everything in his power to make sure comparable skill and expertise are in place – in that way, we are lucky.  But the challenges of building a contender in the small market are immense.  Significant time is required, and more and more, young superstars are willing to give less and less time.

It’s fine to say the Cavs should follow the Thunder model.  Let’s just not get carried away and convince ourselves that the Cavs will duplicate that model.

(AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

  • Lyon

    well said

  • Roosevelt

    It’s not just the Thunder. Look at the Bulls – sure they got Boozer now, but he wasn’t the level of player who could decide to join a superteam anyway. They drafted Deng, Noah, and Rose, and they even had enough going to let serviceable players Hinrich and Ben Gordon (well, used to be serviceable) walk. Add one borderline all-star to the home-grown mix, and hey-presto, a contender.

  • Shamrock

    You are right there isn’t a Kevin Durant anywhere in sight as far as talent goes, draftable talent. The part about him signing an extension was probably more do to his family rearing more then anything. For me the key to OKC is Russell Westbrook. The kid is a beast. Westbrook has improved so much from UCLA days that it’s not funny. I don’t see Kyle Irving even remotely close to a Westbrook at any stage.

  • Mark

    You don’t see Irving being Westbrook but did you ever see Westbrook becoming who he is now? By your own admission Westbrook has impoved tons. Why can’t Irving be that guy?

  • Scott

    “I don’t see Kyle Irving even remotely close to a Westbrook at any stage.”

    Probably because his name is Kyrie.

    Irving has a better jump shot; his long-range game is far better than that of Westbrook’s now let alone at comparable age. His ability to hit a mid-range or even long-distance shot should ultimately make him a better pick-and-roll pg than Westbrook. His only knock, that I see, is his quickness a la Derrick Rose. Everything else is golden.

  • 5KMD


    The Bulls were very lucky to get Rose in that they “won” the lottery that year. If the Bulls had ended up in the draft spot they should have been at, no way are they this good now. I’m not saying it can’t happen again, but it’s hard to plan for that kind of luck and have it work out in your favor.

  • Narm

    I agree that the Cavs should follow the OKC model but no one talks about the fact they are pretty far into the rebuild (already having to ship off Jeff Green because they won’t be able to re-sign him) and aren’t legitimate contenders.

    They are a good team, but I would pick the Celtics, Lakers, Bulls, Spurs, Heat and possibly the Mavs ahead of them in a playoff series.