The Thunder has reached the Western Conference finals just three seasons after suffering a franchise-record 62 losses, relying on the serendipity of the NBA draft lottery, strong scouting, shrewd trades and an overall sound strategy to team-building. Washington believes it’s making progress along a similar path — but here’s where the playbook gets difficult for Grunfeld.
For the Wizards to join the league’s elite as quickly as the Thunder, Grunfeld soon must provide standout rookie point guard John Wall with at least one teammate who also possesses superstar potential. Washington, which learned Tuesday night it would have the sixth overall pick in the June 23 draft, also holds the 18th overall selection, so the program could remain on track if Grunfeld gets things right. If Grunfeld chooses poorly, however, the Wizards potentially face a setback at a key juncture.
Thunder General Manager Sam Presti, who honed his player-personnel skills while steadily rising in the front office of the San Antonio Spurs, provided the blueprint from which Grunfeld is working.
It’s actually just a common-sense, scouting-based approach that emphasizes long-term rewards instead of quick fixes for franchises starting over. Many basketball operations officials have drawn from the plan Presti developed shortly after he was hired to run the then-Seattle SuperSonics in 2007.
Presti traded high-priced veterans, stockpiling first-round draft picks and creating salary-cap flexibility. He convinced ownership to be patient while the team lost 121 games combined during the 2007-08 and 2008-09 seasons and completed the move from Seattle to Oklahoma City. And he jump-started the franchise’s revival by picking forward Kevin Durant second overall in the 2007 draft.
For all of the wise basketball and financial decisions Presti has made, he enjoyed much good fortune in getting the incredible Durant, who provided the foundation for the Thunder’s rapid ascent. In the history of the NBA, there are no other 6-foot-9 wing players who possess Durant’s shooting range and scoring ability, and there is no underestimating his impact in Presti’s success.
Luck is part of it, and Grunfeld had some when the Wizards won the 2010 draft lottery and wound up with Wall. Like Presti, Grunfeld jettisoned experienced players, made over the club’s roster and also freed up considerable cap space. But other general managers have gotten to this point as well.
With Presti’s moves during the 2008 draft, he separated himself from his peers and possibly began to approach, albeit slowly, the level of the game’s best team-builders. A year after choosing Durant, Presti chose UCLA guard Russell Westbrook fourth overall. Then with the 24th overall pick in the first round, Presti selected the first player from the Republic of Congo to be chosen in the draft, big man Serge Ibaka.
Among the NBA’s most athletic guards, Westbrook in just three seasons has joined Durant as a top-10 player. Westbrook’s fearlessness and intensity have fueled the Thunder’s rise as much as his immense talent, providing the club with a formidable complement to the usually low-key Durant.