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.
Brendan is a weekend editor at WaitingForNextYear. He has been writing for the site since March of 2009. He went to college in Boston during a run of insufferable Beantown championships that only served to reinforce his Cleveland allegiance and fandom which he transcribes to you here at WFNY.