The Oklahoma City Thunder made it to the NBA Finals this year, prompting analysts to praise their front office’s decisionmaking process and trump “the Oklahoma City Model” for a rebuilding franchise. But for teams hoping to go from the bottom of the barrel to the top of the ladder, this isn’t necessarily a wise move.
The Oklahoma City Model, in a nutshell, is to be patient, stockpile and use draft picks, bottom out for a few years, then let a franchise’s young talent mature together to become a well-oiled unit capable of going far into the playoffs.
The problem? As Beckley Mason pointed out on ESPN, the reason that Oklahoma City could be a perennial contender now is that they have Kevin Durant, one of the league’s top talents. In a counterfactual history where OKC (then in Seattle) gets the first pick rather than the second pick, they might have drafted injury-prone Greg Oden and struggle to scrape by in 2012 while Kevin Durant leads a Portland Trailblazers team to the playoffs.
We can see how much luck played into the Oklahoma City Model by looking at other struggling teams — the Minnesota Timberwolves, say. Minnesota had five top-six draft picks from 2008-2011, including the #2 overall pick in 2011. They also were able to trade for 2008′s second overall pick.
Using those picks, Minnesota acquired Kevin Love, Ricky Rubio, Jonny Flynn, Wesley Johnson, and Derrick Williams. The Timberwolves have an exciting young team, but they don’t look like a dynasty in the making. They might make the playoffs a few times, but even with some seasoning, that doesn’t look like a championship-caliber core.
Or consider the Washington Wizards. In successive drafts, they were able to secure John Wall (#1 overall), Jan Veseley (#6) and Bradley Beal (#3). They could yet turn into a very, very good team, but they look to be a far cry from Durant-Westbrook-Harden.
Simply put, the Thunder are a Finals team because they lucked into drafting one of the five best players in the NBA. No other player in the last half-decade of NBA drafts projects as good as Kevin Durant is, and the next cellar-dwelling team that successfully follows “the Oklahoma City Model” will do so mostly because of luck, not because it’s a consistently replicable model for success in the NBA.