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.
In his second NBA season, Ibaka (he played in Europe for a season) has quickly emerged as what Presti envisioned he would: a productive, shot-blocking forward-center who has significant scoring potential. Durant, Westbrook, Ibaka and guard James Harden (selected third overall in 2009) form the core group of a club built to win for a decade, with none of them over 22.
Presti’s biggest achievement is that he made the losses matter. He maximized the Thunder’s high draft position for three straight seasons, picking multiple highly skilled players capable of thriving in the NBA for a long time.
This is Grunfeld’s challenge.
Wall was a good start, but the job isn’t even a quarter finished yet. It’s fine for Grunfeld and owner Ted Leonsis to express optimism because of the team’s solid cap maneuvering and other ancillary moves that worked out well. None of that matters, though, if Washington fails to draft additional impact players.
Some would contend this is a weak draft class, making it difficult for Grunfeld to deliver. Although it’s true that many of the best draft-eligible players remained in school because of the seemingly inevitable lockout coming this summer, the Wizards cannot use that fact as an excuse.
Presti was widely criticized for selecting Westbrook so high. Most teams had concerns about Westbrook’s shot selection and questioned his ability to play point guard. Ibaka was too much of a project to help early in his career, some clubs surmised.
At times during the playoffs, Westbrook has experienced difficult growing pains. Parts of Ibaka’s game are raw. And if they were free agents, most teams would eagerly rush to sign them.
Harrison Barnes probably would look great launching three-pointers in a Wizards uniform, and Wall undoubtedly would welcome power forward Jared Sullinger (or having almost anyone besides Andray Blatche at the position). Barnes remained at North Carolina and Sullinger returned to Ohio State, so Grunfeld will have to look elsewhere.
In today’s NBA, Presti has proven it’s possible for teams to go from the lottery to championship contention relatively fast if they choose the right players. Grunfeld has to find some more of those guys for the Wizards.