Throughout the past 20 months or so, fans of the Utah Jazz have found a new catchphrase: “The OKC Model.” The slow-but-relentless rise to dominance of the league, with one exception, by the Oklahoma City Thunder over the past five seasons has inspired many fans of the NBA to re-think the best way for a small market team to build. Rather than trading for established superstars and role players, OKC drafted with seer-like success in the mid-late 2000′s, and let their young players take the helm from the get-go. The result, as everybody knows, is a team that knows and trusts each other, and that looks to be the impenetrable force in the Western Conference for the foreseeable future.
A lot of people have already put some thought into how the OKC model might be beneficial for a team like the Jazz (in fact, our own Braeden Jensen wrote an insightful piece on this same subject a few days ago). However, the debate over the model’s applicability to the Jazz is so heated, and indulged so often, that we figured you can’t have too much of a good thing. This post will be a little different, however. Rather than one writer’s perspective on the issue, below you will find a courtroom-style argument between two of our writers, John English and Daniel Lewis. Given that the burden of proof lies with Mr. English to persuade everyone that Ty should abandon his Sloan-era coaches map in favor of the Thunder philosophy, he will present to you, our jury, first. Mr. Lewis will respond, and each will have an opportunity for rebuttal. Opening arguments are limited to 500 words, and rebuttals are limited to 250 words. Mr. English, you may proceed.
JOHN ENGLISH: Derek Harper and Rony Seikaly are two names who’ve burned themselves into Jazz memory forever, two men who never won an NBA championship, and two men who didn’t want to try if it meant they had to move to Utah.
League-wide perceptions about the Jazz have improved since then, but the Jazz do not have the recruiting advantages of Los Angeles, New York, Miami, Chicago, Boston, etc. They’re not going to get the big-name recruit unless it happens to be a year where they can pay the most money. And if they can’t get the free-agents, the only other options are trades and drafts.
The only team in the past 28 years that won the NBA championship without a top-three pick was Boston, and they had #5 Kevin Garnett and #5 Ray Allen.
It’s not a matter of if, but when, the Oklahoma City Thunder will be winning a championship of their own, a small-market team that hasn’t needed to land the big free agents. They’ve done it through three steps.
1. Draft well.
2. Develop your draft picks.
3. Use your assets.
When the Seattle Sonics fell into the lottery, they lucked out by getting that once-a-decade talent in Kevin Durant with the #2 pick in 2007, and also took Jeff Green at #5. The next year, they drafted Russell Westbrook at #4 and Serge Ibaka at #24 (who stayed overseas). In 2009, they got James Harden at #3. The philosophy of the patient front office was, “Try to win as many games as you can, but play your draft picks.” They had so many good assets that they were able to trade Green for big-man Kendrick Perkins. The Thunder are now in the discussion every year when it comes to speculating who’ll win the next NBA championship.
The jury’s out on whether or not the Harden trade will pan out for the best, at least they knew the talents of the men they had. Durant, Westbrook, Ibaka, Harden, Green were allowed to grow, and their growth led to luxurious flexibility. I don’t know what the Jazz are learning from not playing Alec Burks.
DANIEL LEWIS: Before the Oklahoma City Thunder drafted Kevin Durant and established a culture of winning in the flatlands of Oklahoma, the “draft a superstar and build,” was known as the San Antonio model. Tim Duncan was the prize for a season of futility by the Spurs, and he has helped them win four championships during his time in San Antonio.
That means in the last sixteen years, the formula for that model of winning has happened twice – a 12.5% rate of success in the draft.
So when the Jazz find possession of the third pick in the draft, and they select Enes Kanter, a player who had been dominating chairs instead of opponents for eighteen months, I become highly suspect of the management’s ability to draft the necessary talent for a championship caliber team.
It would be excusable if the pattern of poor drafting hadn’t been going on for so long. Nearly 60 percent of the players taken by the Jazz in the last twelve years aren’t just on the Jazz roster – they aren’t even in the NBA anymore.
Compare that to Oklahoma City and their draft history. Since drafting Kevin Durant, 31 percent of the players drafted by the Thunder are not playing in the league. To be transparent, the Jazz have 45 percent of their players in the league still. However, 60 percent of the players taken by the Thunder are starting, while only two are starting from the draft classes of the Jazz. You’ll only see one of the player’s names in the Jazz box score a few times a season however, because he is starting for the Denver Nuggets. Kosta Koufos is developing under George Karl, having been acquired two seasons ago from Minnesota after having been included in the package for Al Jefferson.
The main reason that the OKC/SA model doesn’t work with this Jazz team is that – the Jazz can’t draft well.
It’s a difficult task, and one that a majority of the teams in the NBA do not do well. But if the model is truly, “Draft well,” and not just, “Draft once-in-a-lifetime talents,” then I don’t see the Jazz being able to do that.
In the past 30 years, the NBA Finals champion has been from Los Angeles, San Antonio, Chicago, Boston, or Detroit 25 times. The other teams featured Hakeem Olajuwon, Shaquille O’Neal, Dirk Nowitzki, and LeBron James. That is the caliber of player that it takes to win a championship against the best teams in the NBA, and it is a caliber of player that is rare to come across.
JE: The question isn’t whether the Jazz haven’t embraced the OKC/SA model; it’s a question of whether or not they should. And in order to follow it, I posited three steps. This makes a great argument against the first but you can’t succeed as a small-market team unless you do all three.
Cleveland had a once-in-a-lifetime player with LeBron James, but Cleveland didn’t use their assets wisely to surround him with the talent he needed to win. Wally Szczerbiak, Antawn Jamison, etc., aren’t the big names needed to get a team over the hump. See also Orlando. They drafted Shaquille O’Neal and Dwight Howard, but could never surround them with the right talents to get them their rings.
But when looking at draft history you encompass twelve years for Jazz draft history, when the majority of first-round picks were out of the lottery, but only look at Kevin Durant on at Thunder history. Before KD, they were spending first-round picks on the likes of Saer Sene and Robert Swift. Where are they now?
In order to embrace the OKC/SA model, the Jazz hired Dennis Lindsey. If ever there was a franchise that knew how to draft from anywhere, it’s the San Antonio Spurs.
The NBA championship is hard to win. In fact, 30 of the past 32 NBA Finals champions have been from seven cities. The exceptions were the 1983 Philadelphia 76ers (with Moses Malone) and the 2011 Dallas Mavericks (with Dirk Nowitzki). Rather than ask the other 21 NBA franchises to just give up, they can look at what worked for similar markets and try it.
DL: Dennis Lindsey is a step in the correct direction for the Jazz. The Spurs helped train Sam Presti on how to run an organization, and when he took the job as general manager of the Sonics in 2007, he began to lay the framework for the team as currently organized.
We can grade the last 12 years of draft picks for the Jazz because Kevin O’Connor has been in charge of draft decisions since 1999, while Sam Presti, who did not draft Robert Swift or Saer Sene, can be graded after 2007. Sam has been excellent at drafting, even when the pick is not in the lottery. He took a gamble on a talented forward named Serge Ibaka after O’Connor and the Jazz passed on the international player and selected the safer pick, who played a similar position, Kosta Koufos.
While Cleveland and Orlando did not win the Finals with the surrounding casts assembled around LeBron James and Dwight Howard, both of those teams did make it to the Finals. Howard and James lead their teams to the Finals in their fourth season – is Enes Kanter going to lead the Jazz to the Finals in two years?
The next step for the Jazz, then, to fully embrace the OKC/SA model is trading Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap, AND Marvin Williams, three veterans who are blocking younger players. Acquiring star talent through the draft means securing high draft picks that will produce top-shelf talent. The front office doesn’t have to be patient – they shipped Deron Williams eighteen months before his contract ended. They need to maximize value and trade their veterans before the All-star break and play out the rest of the season with an eye for the future.
While the front office can’t publicly state that their goal is to win in two or three years, fans need to recognize the writing on the wall and allow change to happen. Every action has consequences, and a few years of high lottery picks comes with a large amount of losing.
So there you have it. Are you persuaded one way or the other? Remember, in Utah courtrooms, you only need 75% of the jury for a verdict!