The Thunder model of success in the NBA

Hope is not a plan…unless you’re the Thunder

The Thunder are slicing through the champions of old and may bring some semblance of parity back to the NBA. And as a result they have been used as an example of the right way to build a franchise. Let’s elaborate a bit on what we said yesterday and see why the Thunder have emerged as a powerhouse.

Get Kevin Durant

This is without doubt the biggest factor in the Thunder’s success. The Thunder have cracked the 50 win mark the past three seasons (if we adjust the 2012 lockout season for 82 games) and in that span Durant has been spectacular!

Kevin Durant’s numbers from 50+ win Oklahoma City Thunder seasons through 2012

Season Player Minutes WP48 Wins League Rank Wins
2009-2010 Kevin Durant 3239 0.231 15.6 5
2010-2011 Kevin Durant 3039 0.160 10.1 24
2011-2012 Kevin Durant 2546 0.226 12.0 4

Despite a slightly off season in 2010-2011, Durant has been a top player in the league and a steeple of the Thunder’s success. There’s a nasty bit of truth here that should be used instead of any revisionist history. The Sonics were absolutely lucky to get him.

First, the Sonics were bad in 2007, but at 32 wins they were only the 5th worst team in the league. That had just shy of a 9% chance to nab the #1 pick and just under a 10% chance to nab the #2 pick. Even if you believe they would have picked Durant over Oden, that’s still less than a 1/5 shot at Durant (worse than Jordan’s shot at Anthony Davis!).

The bad part comes here. Jeff Ma was consulting for the Portland Trail Blazers during the 2006 season. He brought with him advanced stats and knowledge of beating the system. What was his advice? Take Kevin Durant! 

If people that use analytics to predict player performance in the NBA, using performance analytics, meaning what they did in college, and they tell you they had Oden ranked higher than Durant, they are full of crap. There are very few statistical measures that would have rated Oden’s numbers in college better than Durant’s. Oden was injured his entire career, that one season at Ohio State. He had to shoot free throws left handed, was not efficient, didn’t have a great statistical season.

Our numbers absolutely said they should pick Durant. It wasn’t even close.

I felt like they should have drafted Durant and said they should have drafted Durant…

Durant wasn’t supposed to be on the board! However, Portland hadn’t learned their lesson with Bowie. They went with the injury prone big man and a similar story ensued. The Sonics and as a result the Thunder lucked into Durant. What’s more, this was a “falling off a log decision.” The consensus #1 and #2 picks were Durant and Oden. With Oden off the board, even the outsider stat heads said to pick Durant.

So the Thunders’ biggest building block to success was a player that wasn’t supposed to be on there, with a pick they weren’t supposed to have. How is this useful?

Let Kevin Durant mature and get him a good team

The Thunder — or Sonics as they were known — weren’t a good team out of the gate. Part of the rebuilding process is to get good players to surround your star. And in the 2009-2010 season the Thunder finally had built a team for Durant. They won 50 games and in the playoffs went toe to toe with the eventual champions.
2009-2010 Oklahoma City Thunder via the NBA Geek

Kevin Durant SF 82 3239 0.231 15.6
Thabo Sefolosha SG 82 2348 0.186 9.1
Russell Westbrook PG 82 2813 0.121 7.1
Serge Ibaka PF 73 1323 0.174 4.8
James Harden SG 76 1738 0.123 4.4
Nick Collison C 75 1557 0.129 4.2

Durant got a great number two player in Thabo Sefolosha, who was acquired by trading the 26th pick in the draft to the Chicago Bulls. On a per-minute basis the Thunder’s next great player was Serge Ibaka. He was selected using a 24th pick. Finally Nick Collison had been on the Thunder/Sonics long before rebuilding had even begun. These players accounted for 18.1 wins to help out Durant. They would have earned even more if the Thunder hadn’t made the choice to give more minutes to Jeff Green instead of Ibaka.

Of course, the Thunder had also acquired two top five picks. Russell Westbrook and James Harden were productive. However, let’s shed a little light there as well.

In the 2008 draft the Sonics held the #4 pick. Kevin Love was still on the board. With their pick the Thunder selected….Russel Westbrook. Westbrook wasn’t even the best available PG on the board according to the numbers. Had the Sonics employed and listened Jeff Ma, they’d have the best two Kevins in the league side by side.

I will give some props to the James Harden pick. Our own Arturo projected him as the fourth best prospect in the 2009 draft. With that said, the supporting cast for Durant wasn’t built primarily of well selected lottery picks. No, it was mostly from players that the Thunder could have had without a poor record.

Summing up

It’s tempting to view the Thunder as the pinnacle of a well managed franchise. That’s simply not the truth. The very key to their success was luck. Picking Durant did not require good management. Every team with the #2 pick in the 2007 draft would have done the same. What’s more, their track record of picking correctly (Westbrook over Love) and playing the right players (Green over Ibaka) is sketch. The Thunder have made some good moves and I will say they have been better than an average franchise. The problem is we are lured by the results and not the decisions themselves. The biggest factor in the Thunder’s success is luck and unfortunately it is neither constructive or reliable advice to tell franchises to luck into a superstar.


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