2011/12 Washington Wizards Road Map: In The Footsteps Of The Oklahoma City Thunder God

The only lightning in a bottle I want to start with when it comes to the Oklahoma City Thunder is the cook in the kitchen: Sam Presti.  Much like Danny Ainge of the Boston Celtics, there was a dismantling to be done when Presti came to town.  The then-Seattle Supersonics hadn't been back to the playoffs (or over .500 for that matter) since a 2005 second-round exit at the hands of the Spurs.  Rather than mortgage the team's future in attempt to contend, Presti beat swords into plowshares and while some say luck was a major factor, a closer look shows that fortune wasn't paving the road for a textbook rebuild. Presti wrote it.

Getting a high lottery pick for Ray Allen is good value, although the Rashard Lewis trade seemed more like a salary dump.  That is, until the Suns continued their tradition of front-office excellence and acquired the trade exception for no less than two first round picks and Kurt ThomasRussell Westbrook was a pick that surprised most pundits, but I came across a couple of quotes while researching that should explain the surprise selection:

Coach Gregg Popovich was unimpressed with a young guard, Tony Parker from France, that they had been working out.  "You're wasting my time," said Popovich to Buford and Presti.  "This kid is terrible."
[Presti was] regarded as a salary cap wizard with intuitive scouting skills, plus designed the Spurs scouting database (which relies heavily on quantitative and analytical data to determine a player's worth), and is now used by other NBA teams as well.

I will translate: he didn't invent analytics, he successfully applied them to pull NBA Finals MVP Tony Parker out of the ether.  When you think about the dominance of the Spurs and the reputation of their scouting department, Presti's legacy gets that much more impressive.  Maybe Westbrook's success shouldn't really have surprised anyone.

But this is a Wizards blog, and as well satisfied and heartened as we are by Ernie Grunfeld's recent performance, there isn't really a GM in the NBA I'd feel completely comfortable stacking up against the Thunder god's mythos.  A full resume of his tenure would be Machiavelli meets War and Peace, so I'll hit a few high points:

There's probably plenty I'm missing, but the guy came into a floundering franchise and turned Ray Allen, Rashard Lewis, Johan Petro, the rights to Peter Fehse, several high second rounders and a few low first rounders into a starting frontcourt on a Western Conference Finals squad, two key rotation players, a big man project, and a mid first rounder in likely one of the most stacked rookie classes in years.  Depending on whether or not you count Cole Aldrich, the man's been Chuck Norris with a sniper rifle when drafting in the lottery. 

The Thunder model requires an expert GM, so we have to put Ernie and Sam against a wall and see how they measure up.  I know this is a contentious topic, so hopefully we'll bypass the worst of it and focus on Grunny's work after Ted took over.  And so, a history under the new regime (brief as it is):

Whether you like them or not, his draft holdovers are bearing fruit.  Taken with his recent moves, it's one hell of a beginning, and while he's got some way to go, I have no complaints thus far.  I don't know who could have done more with what he started with.  For those of you who might argue he put himself in that hole, we made our run at contention and it didn't work out.

But it takes more than an expert GM merely putting the pieces together.  Presti repeatedly asserted to other GMs and the media that Green, Durant, and Westbrook were sacrosanct, essential to the future of the franchise.  With the rise of so-called Thunder U, a player culture quickly evolved, guided by coach Scott Brooks.  Quick note on Brooks: after starting 1-12 during the 2008/09 season (the franchise's first in OKC), Presti fired then-head coach P.J. Carlesimo.  The interim promotion of Brooks, a new and rabid fanbase and a young, confident, talented core with bulletproof vests straight from the GM all combined to forge a contender in the extremely competitive Western Conference.

There are a couple things we need to effectively follow this model that will all bear further scrutiny as the lockout drags on.  The two I'm looking for:

1. Team culture fostered via player continuity

  • Presti came out and said Jeff Green, Kevin Durant, and Russell Westbrook were the future of the franchise prior to the 2009 draft.  This was in line with his goals of establishing the identity, character, and style of the team.  He set those three players in stone and the young core of the Thunder delivered.
  • From the Wizard's perspective, John Wall is the only bulletproof player on the roster.  EG highly values Javale McGee, Ted Leonsis hosted a coming out for the new Big 3 in his blog (Andray Blatche, Jordan Crawford, and our resident Golden Boy), but while we've committed to youth and toughness we don't yet know who's going to pan out.
  • As MR pointed out several weeks ago, we could really use a Nick Collison.  A tough-minded veteran who can provide impact without detracting from the young guns.  We're likely about to find out if this is a luxury or a necessity.
  • This year's development is absolutely crucial to following the Thunder model.  The sooner a hierarchy is established, the sooner we can worry about wins instead of pecking order.

2. Evolution of the 4th quarter mentality

You know, I've forgotten who mentioned this first last year, but the comment recurred often enough after halftime to make it a Bullets Forever meme:

Now that we've avoided our usual 1st and 2nd quarter collapses, if we can just avoid our customary 3rd and 4th quarter collapses we might be able to win this game.
  • After he took over from P.J. Carlesimo, Brooks preached a philosophy of staying competitive into the fourth quarter.  He wanted his team to be there late in games, and was less worried about things ended at the start.  In other words, while experience can and will put you over the top when games get tight, until you're in those situations, you won't get the lessons you need to survive in the playoffs.
  • This is where the wild inconsistency we've seen in our youth really starts to stick in our craw. Inconsistency shows up in pressure situations like nobody's business.  At the same time, it should serve as a weather vane indicating who's making progress and who still needs work.  Flip Saunders knows how to win in the playoffs, and now that roster is the most stable it's ever been under his tenure, he has to show these kids how to fight together and earn a W on a consistent basis.
  • Win or die together.  When the season ends, I want to see Gordy LeChance and Chris Chambers grinning at each other in my head while Stand By Me plays in the background when I think of the tenacity of this team.  As Al-Ben Franklin-Pacino said, our guys must play, now, as a team, or be traded as individuals.

In short, the Thunder model is a Disney reality show.  A bunch of talented fun-loving athletes come together in a once-proud franchise moved to a new city under an unproven yet bright young coach taking over from a grizzled and uninspired veteran helmsman while a charming whiz kid GM with new fangled ideas challenges the status quo.  They go from zero to taking the reviled eventual-champion Lakers to seven games in Round One.  The next year they fall in a tight five-game series to the eventual-champion Mavericks in the Western Conference Finals while introducing trouble in paradise with the Westbrook saga.  It's anyone's guess when Season 3 of Disney's Thunder in Presti-dise will kick off.  Can the team overcome their internal strife and emerge better than ever before, finally ready to take the crown?  Tune in next season!

The Wizards get the R-rated HBO version with firearms, confrontations in the locker-room, strip clubs and hurt feelings.  Beginning with strong redemption themes, the plot took a turn for the worst despite/because of the return of the team's major stars.  The season ended on a down note, the owner died, a number of major players traded.  Season 2 starts with a new owner, John Wall, the draft, Summer League, the Gilbert Arenas trade, court struggles, mounting injuries and tragedy in the head coach's family.  Yet having a harder road every step of the way, the Wizards still find themselves in a position to forge a potent contender behind the good fortune of the draft lottery striking at just the proper time.  My tastes have always been a little darker, or perhaps just being a fan of DC sports darkened my tastes.  Whatever the case, I know where I'll be when play resumes.

No matter what model we follow, Flip's got his work cut out for him next season.  Next week, I'll be taking a look at some of the things I'd like to see from him.  Until then, comments are open, the lockout continues, and happy posting.

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