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The Seattle model revisited: Is Washington's new rebuilding plan working?

The Wizards aren't really following the Oklahoma City model for rebuilding. Instead, they've augmented their best young players with capable veterans, much like the old Oklahoma City franchise did years ago.

Rob Carr

Twenty-three months ago, right when Flip Saunders was fired after a horrid start dealing with the Blatche/McGee/Young Wizards, I threw out a half-baked concept in an post on how the Wizards should attempt to dig themselves out of their self-inflicted hole. I called it "The Seattle model." Here's the explanation:

The blueprint followed by the Thunder is a nice idea, but very hard to execute. It requires a major leap of faith by players, coaches and management to not let losing lead to more losing. It also requires having top-level talent that the Wizards haven't quite been able to secure for various reasons both within and beyond their control. Instead, I want to propose a modification to consider: the "Seattle model."

In the early 1990s, the Sonics were able to find two young franchise cornerstones in back-to-back drafts in Shawn Kemp and Gary Payton. The organization quickly saw their talents and promoted them to starting positions even though they were still both very raw. But instead of surrounding them with other young players, the Sonics chose to devote critical roster spots to veterans who could still play and players already in their primes. They made trades for Ricky Pierce and Eddie Johnson, players on the tail end of their primes who could shoulder the scoring load until Payton and Kemp were ready. They kept Michael Cage, a rugged big man who was the perfect third big, and Nate McMillan, a veteran point guard who could provide stability at both guard spots. Once they got good, they dealt for veterans Sam Perkins and Detlef Schrempf.

The end result was a roster that had only two other key players (Derrick McKey, later traded for Schrempf, and Dana Barros, who was slowly phased out) who were under the age of 23. Payton and Kemp were the core of the team, but they were surrounded with pros who knew how to play and could help bridge the gap as both youngsters developed. It's still a model that promotes the development of young talent, but instead of trying to find six guys to coalesce into a core, the Sonics picked two to develop and poured all their energy into creating an atmosphere of winning so those two could develop properly. Going two for two was better to them than going two for six.

The Wizards are likely to have two future franchise cornerstones: Wall and whoever they pick in the 2012 NBA Draft. Instead of surrounding those players with more youth, why not focus all your development energy on them and look to find any kind of player that can make life easier for them on the court?

I thought back to this piece when I read the latest feature from Mark Deeks at The Score on the Wizards. (Note: Mark also contributes to SB Nation and has a great piece up on when teams should fire their luxury tax bullet).  This line jumped out at me:

However, to get out of the gutter, they have had to get older. Of the top seven Wizards in minutes per game, four are over 28, two are over 30, whilst key role player Martell Webster is now into his ninth season (even if he is only 26). The "youth" Washington tanked for consists of the legitimately good backcourt duo of John Wall and Bradley Beal, plus Otto Porter (yet to take the court due to injury), and a bunch of underwhelming backups. All the other significant contributors are veterans without upside.

Since Saunders' firing 23 months ago, the Wizards have made the following moves:

  • Traded the 26-year-old JaVale McGee and the 24-year-old Nick Young in a deal for a 29-year-old Nene.
  • Acquired a 30-year-old Emeka Okafor and a 27-year-old Trevor Ariza in a trade for Rashard Lewis right before the draft.
  • Used the amnesty clause on a 25-year-old Andray Blatche.
  • Signed a 26-year-old Martell Webster.
  • Trade away a 23-year-old Jordan Crawford for essentially nothing because he didn't fit.
  • Traded a 2014 first-round pick for a 29-year-old Marcin Gortat.
  • And, of course, drafted Bradley Beal and Otto Porter.

Seems like the pattern is very similar to what the Sonics did back in the day. Payton came in much like Wall, which is why I've so often compared the two. Both were high picks with unrefined games that were handed the keys to the most difficult position to learn in the NBA and had/have some growing pains learning how to handle that responsibility. Both are often overlooked because they can be moody, but both are way smarter than the public realize(d), both were capable of making a huge impact defensively and both had unique offensive skills that went well beyond their so-so jumpers. The Wizards don't have a dynamic talent like Kemp, but Beal and (hopefully) Porter are no slouches. They are the young core.

And the other major pieces? Veterans, acquired in different ways. Seattle traded young talent that didn't fit, like Derrick McKey and Doug Christie, to get guys like Sam Perkins and Detlef Schrempf. Like the Wizards, they wasted some picks -- ever heard of Rich King, the Sonics' first-round pick in 1991? Me neither.

The differences between the two teams are clear, no question. Seattle didn't strike out on nearly as many picks as the Wizards have during their rebuild, and that has cost Washington in many ways. (Most notably: it required them to cough up next year's pick to get a credible big man like Gortat because they knew they couldn't depend on the Flotsam). The NBA today also features a tighter salary cap that makes cost control more important; the early 90s saw a boom in revenue, and teams therefore had much more room under the cap. There were potential moves missed out because of the cost of these Wizards veterans, and this summer brings a lot of questions given the success of Gortat and Ariza, both free agents to be.

Still, it's a sharp contrast to the Oklahoma City model, and one that has proven to be much more practical for NBA teams today. By surrounding Wall and Beal with capable veterans, the Wizards, much like the 90s Sonics, are attempting to bridge the gap until their young players reach their primes. Those veterans are often overpaid and come with their own warts, and certainly picking better players in the 2010 and 2011 drafts would have helped, but the cost isn't as big a deal so long as Wall and Beal are on rookie contracts. Ironically, it's after Wall and Beal start to hit their primes that the Wizards need to find good, cheap players -- whether rookies or overlooked vets -- to avoid major luxury-tax payments.

It may seem backwards, but it's starting to work for the Wizards.