Kevin Durant couldn’t foresee it his rookie season, that it would take just four seasons for him to become a two-time all-star, that he’d be flanked by an all-star point guard, and that he’d be considered a candidate for the NBA’s most valuable player on a team that ranks among the elite in the Western Conference.
Durant had to absorb 62 losses in his first season in Seattle and, after adding Russell Westbrook, had to take 59 more whippings when the team moved to Oklahoma City the next year. But with an organization — led by General Manager Sam Presti — committed to astute drafting, dealing and development over quick-fix solutions, his Thunder arrives on Monday at Verizon Center as the envy of many around the league.
“I thought this would take a while to get here,” Durant said of his early struggles, “but you got to give credit to our organization and how they changed things around. We did things the right way every day.”
In Oklahoma City, the Washington Wizards see a team they would like to be; one that recognized the need to start over from scratch and reached relevance after an initially gruesome beginning. The Thunder (42-23) has yet to win a championship or a playoff series for that matter, but it already has created a team-building strategy that is referred to around the league as “the Oklahoma City model.”
It took advantage of lottery luck, established and cultivated a core of young talent, made shrewd trades to accumulate draft picks and/or prospects, created financial flexibility and used discretion in free agency. Wizards owner Ted Leonsis often references how the Thunder assembled quality talent around Durant as an example of what he would like to duplicate in Washington around No. 1 overall pick John Wall.
The Wizards (16-48) have never hidden their commitment to getting younger, accumulating draft picks and trying to develop a core that rises up the ranks. But the results this season in Washington have been more unsightly than promising, with the team starting out by losing 25 consecutive road games and now going through a horrific stretch of 19 losses in their past 22 games overall.
Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld said recently that the team shouldn’t be judged by wins and losses, but by how effective it is pulling off a rebuilding plan committed to acquiring and developing talent.
There is a lot of uncertainty next season with the collective bargaining agreement set to expire on June 30 and a lockout appearing to be more of a possibility. The Wizards, however, have put themselves in a decent position to improve next season with the addition of a certain high lottery pick and a first-round pick acquired from Atlanta in the Kirk Hinrich trade. “When Ted came over, he gave the mandate to try to rebuild through the draft. I think we’ve achieved a lot in a year,” Grunfeld said. “We have a lot of work ahead of us, and we do have some assets and we have to continue to work hard, have a good draft, add another piece or two in the draft and see what the new rules are with free agency and see what happens, but we have put ourselves in a flexible position from a financial standpoint.”
The Wizards recognized the need to start over several months before Leonsis took over for the Pollin family last June, but very little remains from that initial cap-clearing detonation that included dealing away Antawn Jamison, Caron Butler, Brendan Haywood and DeShawn Stevenson. They used the 30th pick from Cleveland acquired in the Jamison deal to move up and draft Trevor Booker, who has established himself as a solid rotation player at power forward. Al Thornton, also acquired in the Jamison deal, has already been waived and is playing in Golden State. And Josh Howard was re-signed, but has been restricted all season with a left knee injury.
They used the cap space last summer to take on Yi Jianlian, an experiment that has yielded little; and given an almost $3 million salary raise to Andray Blatche, who is producing decent numbers but is having an overall disappointing campaign after breaking his foot last summer.
They also got Hinrich in a trade with Chicago that continues to reap benefits — he arrived with 17th overall pick Kevin Seraphin, a project with potential; and was dealt for another first-round draft pick; a rookie in Jordan Crawford; and Mike Bibby, who made the surprising decision to give back his entire $6.2 salary next season, providing more salary savings.
The biggest move of the rebuild has been trading Gilbert Arenas to Orlando for Rashard Lewis. Lewis has struggled of late with right knee tendinitis limiting his production, but more important, the deal allowed Nick Young to show his ability to score and it left the franchise in Wall’s hands to lead.
Durant said he would advise Wall to not let his early struggles deflate him. “Continue to keep thinking positive, because everybody on the outside looking in is always thinking negative, but you’ve got to always keep your head up. Since he’s the leader of that team, never let his team think losing's okay. I’m sure they are going to change it around pretty soon and he’s going to be the cornerstone of that organization.”