ESPN.com has a new rankings list, this one putting numbers next to every front office in the league. The criteria was to give each team’s owner, coach and general manager a number from 1-10, which created a cumulative score.
The Thunder, a team that has been to the NBA Finals in the last two years and has increased its winning percentage year over year for the last five seasons, came in eighth. That’s right. Eighth. Their cumulative score was 6.93, putting them behind the Rockets (7.10), Celtics (7.30), Bulls (7.33), Pacers (7.82), Mavericks (7.96), Heat (8.56) and Spurs (9.45).
How could the Thunder, one of the most revered and currently mimicked organizations in the league, finish eighth in a front office list? A few thoughts:
1) The scores for each category are going to be released throughout the rest of the week, but my guess is the Thunder received a nine or 10 for their general manager, but poor marks for their head coach and owner. There’s a widely accepted idea that Clay Bennett and the Thunder’s ownership group is cheap, along with the fact some still view them as bad guys for relocating the team. The relocation was six years ago, and while it was messy and ugly, Bennett has landed an NBA goldmine in Oklahoma City. The Thunder enjoyed their 152nd straight sellout last week and have been in the top 10 of attendance the last five years.
As for the idea they’re cheap: Yep, they traded James Harden instead of paying him and thereby, the luxury tax. But that whole situation was far more complicated than a lot of pundits make it seem. Remember: The Thunder offered Harden a $55 million deal, which would’ve made him the highest paid sixth man in NBA history, and would’ve taken the team around $9 million into the luxury tax. Harden’s unwillingness to accept that offer fit in line with his growing angst of being a sixth man, and the Thunder’s decision to trade him was almost as much of a cultural decision based in philosophical differences than it was just about the dollars.
So, what so many like to dismiss as cheap, is actually smart cap and team management.
2) I’ve seen a number of people try and categorize Sam Presti’s work as simply being a good, or even lucky, drafter. Kevin Durant at No. 2 was certainly a bit fortuitous, because the Blazers could’ve taken him. But taking Russell Westbrook No. 4, Serge Ibaka No. 24, Harden No. 3, Reggie Jackson No. 24, those weren’t just lucky choices.
Some seem to think that you pick a player and your work is done as a GM. For the Thunder, the drafting was really the easy part. Scout a good basketball player that fits the culture and identity, then take them. The hard part is developing their talents and abilities, managing their personalities along the way. That’s really the genius of Presti. He’s created a developmental culture that takes young players and builds them into high level contributors, or assets. Guys like Perry Jones have more trade value than you might think simply because they’ve been seasoning in the Thunder developmental system the last couple years. Other GMs around the league take note of that.
Nope, Presti hasn’t made big free agency splashes, but that’s not the plan. Transactions aren’t the only thing a GM is responsible for. It’s about creating a general organizational identity and getting everyone to buy in and function within that structure.
3) Scott Brooks? The teams’ head coaches ranked ahead of the Thunder: Kevin McHale, Brad Stevens, Tom Thibodeau, Frank Vogel, Rick Carlisle, Erik Spoelstra, Gregg Popovich. Some of those — Thibodeau, Carlisle, Popovich — are top level, elite head coaches. But McHale? He’s 2-4 in the postseason. Stevens is a rookie. Thibodeau is 16-18. Vogel is 18-17. Brooks? He’s 29-25 with two trips to the Western Conference finals and one to the NBA Finals (h/t @heathwblack).
Is Brooks a great coach? I don’t think so, but you don’t have to be great to be successful. The results speak for themselves and while Brooks makes curious, frustrating choices at times and his stubbornness often comes off as being overwhelmed, there is a method to the madness. Look at what Brooks has done. He’s been the man in charge of developing all this young talent, producing a top level contender out of 21-25 year olds. He has a team that has consistently been in the top five of both offense and defense the last few seasons. And without an injury to one of the league’s five best players last season, might have an NBA title to his name.
4) The Rockets ahead of the Thunder? Really?
I get why there’s a basketball writer infatuation for Daryl Morey, but really, why? He’s a very good general manager and the Rockets have done positive things under his direction, but his forward-thinking has exactly produced overwhelming success. Since Morey took control of the Rockets in 2007, the team has been to the postseason three times, and only has won one playoff series.
Remember: This is the front office that drafted Royce White — affectionately called the worst pick in draft history by Morey himself– gave Jeremy Lin $24 million and Omer Asik $25 million, while then trying to trade Asik but couldn’t after it set an arbitrary deadline to do so. So instead, they have a $25 million back-up to Dwight Howard.
Again, I don’t mean this to sound like a bashing of Morey, because he’s an exceptional GM that thinks outside the box and is willing to take chances. But we evaluate based on results and for him and the Rockets, where are they?
This whole ranking thing is extremely arbitrary and there’s really no reason to care. But I’m mildly bothered by the changing perception of the Thunder organization based on what seem to be some unfair ideas. This has been a franchise seen as The Model the past few years. In the franchise rankings also done by ESPN, OKC’s ranked in the top five consistently, climbing as high as No. 1. The players win the games, but the front office creates the foundation. No, Presti’s plan hasn’t produced a championship, and yes, he’s had the good fortune of building a contender around a transcendent type player like Durant. But eighth? Doesn’t seem right.