Much has been made of the plan the Oklahoma City Thunder followed in building a title contender. Here are the basic steps the Thunder supposedly followed:
- Lose a bunch of games across a few seasons, which allows a team to accumulate lottery picks
- Draft "stars" with lottery picks
- Sign "stars" to long-term contracts
- Win a title (or more)
The Thunder did well with step one. Starting with their last two seasons in Seattle in 2006-07, this franchise had three seasons where it won 31 games, 20 games, and 23 games.
These performances primarily led to the following four high picks in the draft:
- 2007: Kevin Durant (2nd pick overall), Jeff Green (5th pick overall, a pick acquired in the trade of Ray Allen)
- 2008: Russell Westbrook (4th pick overall)
- 2009: James Harden (3rd pick overall)
The next step was to sign each "productive" player to a long-term contract.
- Durant signed a maximum contract in 2010.
- Green was apparently not deemed worthy of a significant long-term contract (and this conclusion is consistent with the statistical evidence), so he was traded to Boston in February of 2011.
- In January of 2012, Westbrook also signed a maximum contract.
And then this past week... Harden wasn't offered a maximum contract. And Harden refused to sign the offer the Thunder made. So now Harden has been traded to the Rockets.
Oops! Apparently the Thunder didn't have the money to sign all three "productive" players to maximum contract. And given this constraint, the Thunder had to make a choice.
The choice the Thunder made was to sign Durant and Westbrook to maximum contracts and to try and get Harden with something less. One might argue this was a good choice, afterall...
- Durant appeared in the All-Star game in 2010, 2011, and 2012 and was a First Team All-NBA selection in each of these seasons as well.
- Westbrook appeared in the All-Star game in 2011 and 2012 and was a Second Team All-NBA selection in these seasons as well.
- Harden has never been an All-Star and has never been voted to the All-NBA team.
Beyond awards, we also see:
- Durant has averaged 26.3 points per game in his career and led the NBA in scoring per game the past three seasons.
- Westbrook has averaged 19.0 points per game in his career and finished 5th in the NBA in scoring per game this past season.
- Harden has only averaged 12.7 points per game in his career. And this past season he only averaged 16.8 points per game this past season.
So given the Thunder's budget constraint, it makes sense to pay Durant and Westbrook and let Harden depart.
Then again, awards in the NBA are driven by scoring totals. And unfortunately, a player's contribution to wins is about more than how many points a player scores.
The Thunder won 47 games last season. And about 32 of these wins can be linked to the play of Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Serge Ibaka. Yes, Westbrook -- who produced less than five wins last season -- was not ranked in the top three on the Thunder last season. Westbrook was inthe top three in 2010-11, but his Wins Produced per 48 minutes of 0.153 that season could be thought of as good (average WP48 is 0.100) but not outstanding (a 0.200 mark is consider the level of a "star").
So what makes Harden so much more productive than Westbrook? The key is shooting efficiency. Scoring totals are driven by how many shots a player takes and how often those shots go in the basket. Players - like Glenn Robinson and Stephon Marbury (and yes, this observation is classified as "factorial" - have understood for a very long time that scoring gets a player paid and wins a player awards. So it literally pays for a player to look for his shot. Last season, Westbrook finished 3rd in the NBA in field goal attempts per game. But when we turn to shooting efficiency- and we can consider effective field goal percentage or true shooting percentage - we see a player that was only average last year. And across his entire career he is below average for a point guard.
Meanwhile, Harden is well above average with respect to shooting efficiency (and this is what drives his lofty Wins Produced mark).
So why does Westbrook shoot so much? Well one obvious explanation is that Westbrook is the Thunder's point guard. So many possessions require Westbrook to decide who gets to shoot. Given the incentives facing NBA players, Westbrook seems to make the same decision that was often made by players like Stephon Marbury and Allen Iverson. Yes, Westbrook has often decided that it would be a good idea that he shoot.
This decision had certainly helped Westbrook get a maximum contract. But it has also resulted in Harden moving to Houston.
And this means the Thunder's path to a title (i.e. step #4 above) has been derailed. Yes, the Thunder are still an above average team. But Harden's production of wins will be very difficult to replace. So for the 2012-13 season, it doesn't look like the Thunder will be favored to get back to the NBA Finals.
All of this should serve a cautionary tale for those franchises who seek to follow the Thunder's path. Losing NBA games -- as the Charlotte Bobcats demonstrated last year -- doesn't appear to be difficult. The rest of the Thunder's game plan, though, is not so easy. It is difficult to:
- draft top talent in the lottery: Most lottery picks aren't stars. We can see this in Oklahoma City, who spent high draft picks on Green and Westbrook (and again, Westbrook doesn't produce enough to be considere a "star").
- know which players to sign to long tersm contracts: Since all lottery picks aren't equal, teams need to know which players to sign to long-term contracts. Maximum contracts are a great deal for any team - whether in small or large markets - when the player produces wins in large quantities. But these are not great deals for pseudo-stars like Westbrook.
Oklahoma City has experienced both pitfalls. But with both Durant and Harden, they had the talent to compete for a title. But their inability to recognize that Harden - not Westbrook - was the key to the team's future has probably led the Thunder off their path to a title.
All of that suggests the Oklahoma City model may not be the best plan for teams to follow. Yes, the losing part is easy. But turning all the losing into productive players is difficult. And since teams -as the Spurs have demonstrated - can find productive players outside the lottery, maybe teams should focus less on step #1 (i.e. losing a bunch of games) and more on locating and keeping the productive players that can help a team contend for a championship.