With the departure of Kevin Durant, the Oklahoma City Thunder can’t be considered legitimate title contenders. But the template they developed still exists. Borrowing heavily from the Spurs before them, the Thunder showed that stable leadership, savvy free-agent moves, an institutional knack for developing young players, and some incredible luck at the top of the draft can make any team, no matter the size of the market, a contender. As OKC faces a post-KD future, other franchises will try to follow in its footsteps. This week, we’ll be looking at who could be the next Thunder.
Figure 1. The OKC Blueprint
Step 1: Bottom out to acquire high draft picks. (2007–09)
Step 2: Hit home runs with each selection. (Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden)
Step 3: Get lucky at the lower end of the draft. (Serge Ibaka)
Step 4: Balance out inexperience by acquiring/extending a veteran(s) who exemplifies the culture you want to create. (Nick Collison, Kendrick Perkins)
Step 5: Let simmer.
Step 6: Profit.
It’s better to be lucky than good. Always. Some of you will disagree, I’m sure. But look — we live on a rock, traveling at impossible speed through space. Our next living moment is contingent on the hope that a cosmic chunk of ice with our names on it isn’t, at this very moment, rounding third. If it is, no amount of human ingenuity or the emotional bond between Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck can change that. Life is the ultimate make or miss league.
Good fortune (see Figure 1) is integral to team building in the NBA, and this was especially true for the Oklahoma City Thunder. Every step of the way, from 2008 to 2016, the franchise was aided by luck, in the form of bouncing ping-pong balls, freak injuries, and puddles of sweat. So how do you follow their lead? You can start by keeping it local.
The Minnesota Timberwolves have always felt like a regional organization. Bill Musselman, the team’s first head coach, got the job partly because he coached the 1972 Minnesota Golden Gophers to their first Big Ten title in 35 years. Flip Saunders was an assistant coach for the Gophers when, in 1982, they next won the Big Ten. Kevin McHale (Minnesota’s Mr. Basketball, 1976) is from Hibbing, in the northern part of the state. Tyus Jones — the other, much less heralded player from Minny’s 2015 draft-night acquisitions — starred locally at Apple Valley High School.
Squint through the snow-refracted glare and you can see the logic. Winter in Minnesota is dark, desolate, and marked by otherworldly cold, providing no respite from the very public pressures of professional sports. From that perspective, it’s essential to hire people you know can hack the 4:30 p.m. sunsets and single-digit temperatures without feeling like they’re living in a James Blake song. You need people who know the importance of tire chains. And, if the end results are disappointing, for years and years and years, well, at least you’re among friends.
Today’s Wolves haven’t much diverged from the friends-and-family plan. New head coach and majordomo Tom Thibodeau, arguably the franchise’s boldest hire since [shudder] David Kahn, was one of Musselman’s assistants during the inaugural Timberwolves season in 1989–90. Kevin Garnett is on the roster playing the role of former Timberwolves Legend Kevin Garnett. Nonetheless, luck trumps the best-laid plans, and the Timberwolves are the Next Thunder.
Figure 2. The OKC Blueprint (Timberwolves Variation)
Step 1: Bottom out to acquire high draft picks. (Ten top-10 picks since 2006)
Step 2: After numerous empty at-bats, hit a freaking home run for once. (Karl-Anthony Towns)
Step 3: Get lucky when a totally flukey situation results in the acquisition of a promising young player. (Kevin Love for Andrew Wiggins)
Step 4: Balance out the inexperienced core by acquiring/extending a veteran(s) who exemplifies the culture you want to create. (Kevin Garnett)
Step 5: Let simmer.
Step 6: ?
For Minnesota, the future hinges on Towns. He’s 7 feet with the skill and mobility to face up; the range to hit 3s; and the strength, size, and footwork to play in the post. Towns can play off the ball or spot up (1.094 points per possession last season, according to Synergy), or you can throw it to him and let him bust heads (his 1.188 points per possession out of ISO plays ranks in the 97th percentile in the NBA, according to Synergy). He blocked 1.7 shots per game (10th best in the league). And, oh yeah, Towns is only 20 years old, so Ricky Rubio will be buying him beer until November.
Like Durant, who cops to being 7 feet tall only when spitting his ladies-man game, Towns represents the next evolutionary step for the NBA big man’s continuing journey out of the post. He’s a young Tim Duncan with a 3-pointer, a future MVP-level player who has already altered the trajectory of his woebegone franchise. But, in order to be the next OKC, Towns needs young stars around him. Enter Andrew Wiggins, 21 years old, the no. 1 pick in the 2014 draft.
Wiggins has more in common with Russell Westbrook than meets the eye. Both are slashers who use overwhelming athleticism to power through thickets of defenders and overcome a lack of shooting range. Last season, Wiggins took 550 shots within 6 feet of the basket, joining Westbrook (641) and Isaiah Thomas (604) as the only backcourt players in the top 12 of such attempts. Many of those shots involved Wiggins’s patented spin — a whiplash-inducing, against-the-grain pirouette that, like all great signature moves, is totally predictable and utterly devastating. Like young Durant, we take it as a given that Towns will reach greatness. But it’s Wiggins’s developmental arc that holds the most potential for immediate team improvements. Becoming a respectable distance shooter would give Towns, and the rest of the team, space to operate. (We’re still waiting for Westbrook to figure out his jumper, of course.)
Despite holes in Wiggins’s game, his partnership with Towns is already KD–Russ-esque. Last season, Towns and Wiggins, both 21 or younger, posted PERs in excess of 15 — something Durant and Westbrook accomplished back in 2009–10. The Timberpups are here.
Shouts to my old dogs, though! Here’s a sentence I never thought I’d write: 2016 Kevin Garnett is the Timberwolves’ Nick Collison. Back in 2010, Thunder GM Sam Presti signed then-29-year-old Collison to a funkily structured extension designed to keep him in OKC while providing future cap flexibility. The idea was to give the Thunder’s core of youngsters a veteran presence — a glue guy both on and off the court. His experience was vital to a team that was greener than the Hulk. Presti’s knowledge of the league’s economic structure is something the Wolves front office has yet to display. And, yet, proving again that luck trumps everything, KD is gone, Westbrook could soon follow, and Nick Collison is locked up until 2017.
So is Garnett, by the way. Last season, KG played fewer minutes than Tyus Jones (the Wolves were more than 10 points per 100 possessions better when Garnett was on the floor). But, of course, Garnett is not here exclusively for his on-court contributions. He’s here to teach the Timberpuppies how to execute pick-and-rolls and defend them. He is there to teach them intensity, and the importance of never giving the enemy free shots, even after the buzzer, and even when they’re children.
On the coaching front, the Thibodeau hiring places the Timberwolves ahead of the OKC curve. Thibs had a .647 win percentage during his time with the Chicago Bulls, and he has a well-deserved reputation as a defensive innovator. Presti probably saw Scott Brooks as a placeholder, the bridge guy who teaches the young players how to play while saving a notoriously parsimonious franchise cash before it had to hire the Real Coach. Then came OKC’s explosive improvement — 23 wins in 2008–09, 50 wins the following season — and Brooks became essentially bulletproof. In Minnesota, luck became fate, and fate turned tragic. Flip Saunders, had he lived, would likely still be the coach of the Timberwolves today. Instead, Thibs takes over for Sam Mitchell, who was clearly not up to the task (read Mitchell’s informative Q&A with Britt Robson to see how much hard work and thought goes into even a subpar coaching job).
But even though the Timberwolves are following their own, modified version of the Thunder blueprint, questions remain: Is Zach LaVine or the just-drafted Kris Dunn the James Harden of this equation? What happens to Rubio and Nikola Pekovic?
And the biggest question of all? What’s harder than being just lucky? That one has an answer: being lucky and good.