2012 NBA Finals - Oklahoma City Thunder vs. Miami Heat: The Blueprint
Looks like we’re finally getting the Finals matchup we as fans have hoped we would get ever since this lockout shortened season started. And with this particular pairing, we are given a variety of narratives to follow. The top two MVP vote-getters in Lebron James and Kevin Durant will be going head-to-head. The “Good Guy” Thunder team will go up against the “Bad Guy” Heat team (a terrible story line if you think about it). The narrative that interests me the most, though, is how these two teams represent two different (and essentially polarizing) ways to build a contending team.
Let’s start with the Miami Heat. We all know how this story begins: some of the top NBA players of their positions headline an incredibly stacked 2010 free agent class, led by big names like Lebron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh. Wade ultimately decided to resign with the team who drafted him, the Miami Heat, while recruiting Bosh in the process. Then on July 8th, 2010, Lebron made one of the worst PR moves with a television broadcasted decision to join Wade and Bosh in Miami. Thus, the super team, Big Three Miami Heat was actualized.
Of course, this was only possible because of the Heat’s player contract situation. The team made it so that every players’ salary, with the exception of Mario Chalmers’ and Michael Beasley’s, would only go up until 2010, in anticipation for the high profile free agent class. Beasley’s contract was ended up being traded for two second round picks and cash considerations, thus freeing even more cap space for the team. These moves allowed for the signings of three top free agents, being able to resign key role players for less money (Udonis Haslem, Joel Anthony, James Jones), and signed cheaper free agents as well (Mike Miller, Mike Bibby, Juwan Howard, to name a few).
As for the Oklahoma City Thunder, they were able to accomplish what every terrible, lottery bound team attempts to do: rebuild through drafting great players that hopefully develop into stars. In 2007, the Sonics had the 5th worst record (31-51) and was awarded the 2nd pick which became Kevin Durant (they also had the Boston Celtics’ 5th pick through the Ray Allen trade, which became Jeff Green). In 2008, the Sonics had the 2nd worst record (20-62), was awarded the 4th pick, and drafted Russell Westbrook. In the same year, they obtained the 24th pick via a trade with the Phoenix Suns, and drafted Serge Ibaka. In 2009, the now relocated Thunder had the 4th worst record (23-59) and were awarded the 3rd pick, drafting James Harden. From this point on, the Thunder would only see improvement.
In the 2009-10 season, the Thunder would improve their record by 27 wins to 50-32, clinching the 8th seed in the West. They would take the eventual champion Lakers to 6 games before being eliminated from the playoffs. In the 2010-11 season, the Thunder would improve by 5 games, solidifying the 4th seed in the West, and would reach the Western Conference Finals where they would fall in 5 games to the eventual champion Dallas Mavericks. Now in the 2011-12 season, the Thunder earned the 2nd seed in the West, won 4 games in a row against a San Antonio Spurs team that previously was on a 20 game win streak, and now face the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals.
And in that span, Kevin Durant was Rookie of the Year, made 3 All-Star appearances, made 3 All-NBA first team appearances, was awarded the 2012 All-Star MVP, won 3 scoring titles in a row, and came in 2nd in MVP votes in 2012 behind Lebron James. Russell Westbrook also has two All-Star appearances and two All-NBA second team appearances. Also, don’t forget that James Harden is the 2012 Sixth Man of the Year and that Serge Ibaka came in 2nd in Defensive Player of the Year voting behind Tyson Chandler.
Though both the Heat and the Thunder present two different blueprints as to how a team can be built into contenders, I doubt any other team can replicate what either of these Finalists have done.
With the new Collective Bargaining Agreement (you know, the whole reason why a lockout occurred in the first place), it will be tougher for teams to hold onto so many max contracts (the Thunder will have to deal with this problem once contract negotiations begin with Harden and Ibaka). Also, not only does a team need a ton of cap space in order to make signings like this work, but the city needs to be a destination in which high profile players would like to go. In 2010, teams like New Jersey and the LA Clippers had enough cap space for at least one max contract, but (at least at that time) neither team had a history of enough success that would garner interest.
And if teams wishing to rebuild through the draft are essentially gambling. Even if a team gets high draft picks a few years straight, those picks mean nothing if the players chosen don’t pan out into star players. The Thunder just happened to hit home runs three years in a row, none of which happened to be #1 draft picks in the first place.
The only exceptions I can think of either situation came years before: The Celtics gathering their Big 3, and the San Antonio Spurs. Granted, the Celtics had to trade for both Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, and Rajon Rondo happened to pan out at that season, thus leading to a Championship. The Spurs on the other hand, didn’t have a plethora of high draft picks. After drafting Tim Duncan with the #1 pick in 1997, they have always had success year after year, winning 4 total Championships. In that span, they were able to draft value picks: Manu Ginobili at #57 in 1999 and Tony Parker at #28 in 2001. Either way, these scenarios are still very unique and will be difficult to replicate.
By no means do I think that one way to build a contender is better than the other. Obviously, both teams are great (the best in each conference at this moment) and I honestly believe that the Finals this year are a complete toss-up as to who will win it all. Each team has a trio of incredible talent, each with a player than can be the greatest player on the court for an entire game. The Thunder have an outstanding offense with a great defense. The Heat have an outstanding defense with a great offense. Both teams are playing better than how they were in the regular season. It’s the 1st, 4th, and 5th picks of the 2003 draft against the 2nd, 4th, and 3rd picks of the 2007-2009 drafts. When it comes down to it, I’m going with my gut:
Oklahoma City Thunder in 6.
Not surprisingly, he got all but 4 of the 1st place votes (3 going to Sixers G Louis Williams, and 1 going to Bulls F Taj Gibson). Well deserved… even though he probably should be starting and getting more than 31 minutes per game… but hey, whatever works.
R-n-G Award Picks: Sixth Man of the Year - James Harden, Oklahoma City Thunder
Runner-Ups: … does it even matter?
I wrote back in my season reviews that I assumed James Harden would start most of the season for the OKC Thunder… but I was definitely wrong. After Thabo Sefolosha went down with injury for a few games, James Harden was implemented into the starting line-up…. and struggled mightily. After two games, Scott Brooks opted to put Dequan Cook as the starting wing, bringing Harden back to his 6th man role.
This past season showed us how Harden is just like one of the other great 6th men in the NBA: Manu Ginobili. He can shoot, he can drive and finish at the rim, he can handle the ball, and he gets starter-like minutes (over 31 minutes a game). Harden’s also an efficient scorer, shooting 49.1% from the field, with a True Shooting Percentage of .660, good for 4th best in the league (right behind, you guessed it, Manu Ginobili).
James Harden is far and away the 6th Man of the Year, and I don’t think a choice has been more obvious since Dwight’s last Defensive Player of the Year awards. As long as the OKC Thunder can afford James Harden (next season is the final year of his rookie contract), expect Harden to continue contending as the top sixth man in the league. And that’s where he is comfortable.
James Harden, the GQMF
There isn’t much of a story here, but OKC Thunder’s 6th Man has a quick article online at GQ.com where he lists his 10 Essential items. Pretty cool if you’re into that kind of thing, which I am at least.
It’s crazy when the NBA’s best team’s (by record so far) 3rd best player comes off the bench and gets attention like this, like an awesome kind of crazy. Maybe it’s the beard.
2011-2012 Bold Statements: Sixth Man of the Year - Brandon Bass
Random, right? If you really think about it, Bass makes sense. Kevin Garnett is getting limited minutes in this shortened season. With more games slated per week and more back-to-backs, Garnett may not even play every game. That leaves a lot more room for Bass to play in Doc’s system, which seems like a much better fit than in Orlando. Sure, he’ll get several starts with Garnett’s DNP’s, but he’ll still come off of the bench enough times to qualify for the 6th man award. I expect a big year from this guy.
Lamar Odom - The biggest reason why I don’t have Odom as my main pick as 6th man of the year is because rarely do players get back-to-back 6th Man of the Year awards. In spite of this, Odom will be great off the bench in Dallas. Odom is the type of player that can work with any team’s system, so expect him to have a good year. Problem is, though, that he’ll be sharing 6th man duties with Jason Terry.
James Harden - Harden was actually my favorite to win the 6th Man award, but I actually see him eventually getting the starting spot for the Thunder, thus making him ineligible for the award.
Dark Horse Candidate: Chuck Hayes
He’s back! After having heart troubles that showed up in his physicals, his contract was initially voided by the Kings. Luckily, he’s getting a second chance with the team, which makes me very happy. Hayes isn’t the type of player that jumps out to you in the boxscore, but he really helps his team with post defense and grabbing offensive rebounds. When I choose Hayes, this is a huuuuuge stretch. I just really like the guy.
Oh, and yet another charity game highlight video.
Last night also saw Drew Gooden’s Make A Wish Foundation charity game in San Francisco. I’m actually really sad I missed this. One: the City is only a 30-40 minute drive for me. Two: A lot of NBA players I really like were at this game, like Derozan, Wright, Harden, Gordon, Tyler, and Noah. Not sure if I would have enjoyed seeing big guys like Gooden and Varejao run the point though, but this game sure looked fun. Shawn Marion needs to get outta here with that Sisqo hair, though.
Oh, and a little Spanish kid named Ricky Rubio also came out, making his American debut on the court. Man, those passes were sweet.
I need more friends who are not busy and would be down to go with me to these games.