At any given time over the course of NBA history, you could probably state that a significant portion of the teams were “building through the draft.” Or at least trying to. Pick the team with the best collection of young talent and you can bet that team would be classified as The Model for that time.
Over the past few years we have seen the Portland Trail Blazers be that team. As many factors, primarily injuries, appear to have dampened Portland’s promise, the Oklahoma City Thunder have supplanted them as the one that most others hope to emulate. It’s a nice idea, one that hopeful up-and-comers can sell to their fan bases and general managers and writers alike can use to contextualize the moves that are made, the directions in which the franchises they work for or cover are moving.
What separates most teams from ultimately saying or eventually reaching this goal of winning a championship this way in earnest is the absence of true homegrown superstars or difference-makers, but also the moves needed to support these players. The Cavaliers, Raptors, and Bobcats are all building through the draft, but it would be difficult to suggest that any of them will be perennial 50-game winners within two years, like the Thunder became after the 2007 draft in which they landed Kevin Durant and Jeff Green. Even teams like Golden State and Milwaukee — teams with real talent — still figure to look much different if they do, indeed, wind up as serious playoff fixtures. As Nick wrote, team building is hard.
So what makes it different when we talk about the Clippers this way? Neil Olshey has openly stated his desire to follow the Thunder Template, but which teams that aren’t already “there” wouldn’t aspire to this goal? Over the next few days, I’m going to take a closer look at these two situations and attempt to parse hope from reality, to figure out what actually compares and how they differ, because there is no one thing and no easy answer to the question of “can the Clippers become the Thunder?”
In fact, putting aside the current discrepancy in actual success achieved, we may not even find that becoming the Thunder would accomplish the ultimate goal of consistently contending for NBA titles. But it has been a year since D.J Foster first posed the question, and it’s time to check back in and take inventory on The Process.
First disclaimer of what is sure to be many: this is written from the perspective of a rough timetable based on the years Durant and Griffin were drafted. It can be difficult for us to isolate endpoints of franchise development because while every season is unique, they tend to blend into each other, so my hope is to keep in mind that the Thunder are essentially two years ahead in their development.
Part 1: The Cornerstones
Before the two teams met at Staples on November 3, Ramona Shelburne wrote another piece comparing the two franchises. In it she had quotes from Olshey in which he admitted to following a similar direction as the Thunder (and the Blazers before them), but he also made no effort to hide what he knew was the common thread that tied the two organizations together: true franchise players.
“Sam [Presti]’s done a great job in Oklahoma City,” Clippers GM Neil Olshey said. “But first of all, how do you build a team around Kevin Durant? First, get Kevin Durant. It’s like the question of, how do you become a millionaire? First get a million dollars.”
What Shelburne had when she wrote that D.J. didn’t, of course, was the benefit of having seen Blake Griffin play in an NBA game. With that came the knowledge that he was as good — probably better — than any of us could have expected last summer. If not on the level of Kevin Durant as a player at the time, then certainly in the same conversation and worthy of being considered a franchise cornerstone. Considering the scarcity of such players around the league, especially ones so young (Durant will turn 23 in September, Griffin in March), comparing the two franchises becomes legitimate. The process that Olshey alluded to of building a team around the star is no small task, but to be able to boast one of the, conservatively, 10 most valuable players in the league does put these two teams into a similarly advantaged class.
Although the two are nothing alike in terms of playing style, they both feature the kind of ability to dominate that puts tremendous pressure on opponents and has the opposite effect for teammates. Durant is perhaps the most gifted perimeter scorer in the league, with length that allows him to get off his shot against any defender and the touch to convert on almost half of those looks.
Where you could say Griffin actually has an advantage over Durant is his ability to get the ball in better position to score. His superior strength is a major contrast to Durant, who often settles for post ups around the three point line. This gives Griffin the ability to create offense closer to the hoop, as well as an advantage in getting to the line, which is evidenced by Griffin’s advantage in Free Throw Rate (.51 to .44, free throws attempted divided by field goals attempted). Durant is a significantly better free throw shooter, 88 percent compared to 64 percent for Griffin, and that figures to be the case even if we account for some improvement as Griffin continues to develop.
They are both humble, hard workers with tremendous drives to get better. These qualities are ones that both Presti and Olshey have cited as reasons for their optimism, not only for Griffin and Durant individually, but also as leaders for their respective clubs. While the two GMs inherited starkly dissimilar situations (Presti had an obvious rebuilding situation with big contracts to move as opposed to Olshey’s half-built foundation that included Chris Kaman, Baron Davis and Eric Gordon), both made a point to emphasize “character” in assembling supplementary pieces, both in free agency and through the draft.
As Olshey told Ramona: “So he supported his two most talented people by putting the right people around them. That’s what we’re trying to do. Eric Gordon is a quality person. Blake Griffin is a quality person. It’s very important the influences you put around them. That’s why you look at guys like Ryan Gomes, who’s a team guy, a culture guy, and Randy Foye who is an impeccable character guy.”
If you will accept the idea that the Thunder are a couple years ahead of the Clippers in their development as a team, then you can easily buy into this concept, but the Clippers are probably behind Oklahoma City in this regard. DeAndre Jordan has been an asset to the locker room as Griffin’s de facto sidekick and Craig Smith, Ike Diogu and Mo Williams have embraced their supporting roles, but only DeAndre seems like a near-certain bet to be around for the long haul. Both Eric Bledsoe and Al-Farouq Aminu showed glimpses of immaturity, particularly down the stretch last season when playing time became inconsistent, and it is yet to be seen how Kaman adjusts to his role next season if he is even back with the team.
Presti, on the other hand, has a roster that has become famously close and showed the ability to fight through adversity on a playoff run that ended with a loss in the Western Conference Finals to the eventual champion Mavericks. They did begin to show some cracks related to the postseason trials and tribulations of their point guard Russell Westbrook. It should be noted that the Clippers would gladly accept a little strife if it meant getting that close to a championship, but for the Thunder, it will be worth watching what happens with what became a minor distraction from their second-best player. This question of stability and the outlook of the two backcourts will be the subject of the next part of our series.