The Cavs, the OKC Model, Luck and the Lottery

There are a myriad of ideas when it comes to building a championship contending team in the NBA about how it should be done. Some espouse that a team needing to build from the ground up should strip their team down and for all practical purposes “tank” for high draft picks. Others contend that you should try to rebuild on the fly while still trying to make the playoffs every year. For practical purposes let’s call the former strategy the “OKC model” and the latter the “Houston model.”

The Oklahoma City Thunder built their current playoff roster mostly through being a bad basketball team. The core of their team was built on high lottery picks: Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, and Jeff Green. They added other pieces using those players taken with those high draft picks like when they traded Green for Kendrick Perkins. But the fact is that the Thunder were built into a championship contending team because they sucked for three straight years.

The Houston Rockets were a consistent playoff contending team when they had a core of Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady. However, when both those players’ careers went careening off cliffs due to injuries so too did the Rockets’ chances of contending for a title. Houston GM Daryl Morey chose to try and rebuild the team on the fly while still being a winning team and trying to make the playoffs every year. This plan did not appear to be going anywhere until last offseason when Morey was able to turn a bevy of various assets (role players and picks) into Harden. They didn’t make it out of the first round this year but there’s no telling how great this team will be with Harden as the star. There are at least signs that would suggest that what Morey has been trying to build may actually work.[1]

This brings us to the Cleveland Cavaliers post-LeBron. While there was some sentiment among fans that the team should attempt the “Houston model” there was never much of a chance of that happening. So it appears that what Chris Grant has been employing is the “OKC model” instead. At least let’s hope that’s what he’s doing since the team has, well, sucked for three years straight now. Grant has fairly well stripped the entire team down such that the only player left under contract for next season who ever played with LeBron is Anderson Varejao. He’s loaded up the team with young draft picks and low-risk/low-reward free agents. What the Cavs have to show for their poor effort on the court thus far is Kyrie Irving, Tristan Thompson, and Dion Waiters. Those three players, along with this year’s lottery pick, are what we hope will make up the core of a contending team.

Many older fans have not taken too well to this method of team-building. Guys like Greg Brinda enjoy screaming and yelling about how what the team really needs is to sign some better players and win games. They take pleasure in pointing out how OKC got eliminated from the playoffs early this year as if that somehow proves that the OKC model doesn’t work. I don’t totally disagree with this level of thinking. I wanted the Cavs to push for the eighth playoff spot this past year. But when Andy went down and then Kyrie and Waiters also missed extended time it became clear that what this team needed to do was suck it up and tank. I’m never a fan of this. I will never root for losing. I hate losing. I want to see my teams win. But I do understand the process and necessity of it.

I am a believer in the OKC model of team-building. But I will be quick to point out that there have to be other supplemental moves to enhance your team. You can’t simply get rid of all older players and only have a team of young, inexperienced players and expect them to grow and develop. You have add some veteran leadership to help those young players grow. Otherwise you end up with a Sacramento Kings type situation where the young talented players have all developed poor habits and don’t know how to work as a team.

I feel like Grant basically stumbled into the addition of several nice veteran role players that undoubtedly had a positive impact on the younger guys on the Cavs roster. Luke Walton never would have been added to the team if it wasn’t for the first round pick that he brought along with him in the Ramon Sessions trade. Shaun Livingston got cut from the Wizards…I repeat, the Wizards.[2] Then the trade that brought over Wayne Ellington and Marreese Speights was simply a cash-dump by Memphis. Those acquisitions transformed what was without a doubt the worst bench in the NBA at the start of the season into one that, in the month of February at least when the team was mostly healthy, was actually quite formidable. This point bring me to the most essential point of any team-building exercise…luck.

I think we down-play how big of a role luck has in building a contending team and winning championships. It was pure luck for OKC that they hit on as many draft picks as they did, not to mention getting Serge Ibaka with the no. 24 pick in 2008. It was luck that those players were even available when OKC came up to make their selections. It was also bad luck that Westbrook got injured in the playoffs and blew their title hopes.[3] It was luck for Houston that there was a young star player on a team with “too many” stars that was willing to take on spare pieces in exchange.[4] Going way back, it was luck for the Spurs that David Robinson got hurt that they were able to land the best low-post player in a generation in Tim Duncan. It was luck for the Bulls that Portland draft Sam Bowie and not Michael Jordan. Heck, it was even luck for the current Miami Heat that there were three star players who all came into the league in the same year and were all uncannily willing to take less money to play together. It was also luck that as many key role player like Mike Miller, Ray Allen, and Shane Battier were willing to play on the cheap. And on the other side of it for the Heat, if Wade is as injured as he’s appeared to be thus far in the playoffs then it’s not a given that Miami is going to win the championship. And if they were to suffer the greatest of bad luck and lose LeBron then there’s NO WAY they’re winning a title this year. If that were to happen, does that automatically mean that the way the Heat built their team is wrong? Of course not! Just because it doesn’t work doesn’t mean it’s the wrong way to do it. There’s luck involved in all winning and losing. You have to build a team the way you believe is best and hope for some good luck along the way.

And that’s what the Cavs really need this offseason, starting with the NBA Draft Lottery this Tuesday night at 8:30 ET on ESPN.[5] They need some more luck. It was luck (along with a very shrewd deal) that landed them Kyrie two years ago. Good luck could strike again with a favorable lottery draw.[6] But good luck will also have to happen during the offseason with trades and free agency.

Chris Grant and the Cavs need to do more than just add two new rookies to the roster. They need to bring in some veteran players that will help the young bloods grow and also contribute to winning and getting back to the playoffs. But they have to do it at the right price. I was actually in favor in a strange way of the crap bench roster that the Cavs rolled out on opening night in 2012. Because that meant that they hadn’t panicked and over-spent for role players. That’s so often the death of teams in all sports. You have to understand the accurate value of players. Just because OJ Mayo thinks he’s worth $10 million a year doesn’t mean he’s actually worth it. In the same way, I fear that Livingston is going to go into free agency expecting to get paid in the $8 mil. range—which is ludicrous. And just because he was great to have around last year doesn’t mean that the Cavs should bring him back at any cost. Grant needs to focus on finding deals, finding players who he can sign at or below what their actual value is, not what their market value is. This is great in theory, but it also takes some luck. You have gamble that you can wait out the process long enough that most teams have over-spent on role players to fill out their roster and that there will be players worth having when the dust settles. That’s how Houston ended up getting Carlos Delfino for $3 mil. last offseason. A “win-now” mentality is what leads to over-spending for mediocre players while a steady long-term focus on building a team recognizes that that type of thinking can cripple a roster and condemn you to mediocrity.[7]

The move I really want the Cavs to make though is a trade for an All-Star caliber player.[8] This is of course much easier said than done and relies on a ton of luck. But if the Cavs could package some of their young talent (basically anyone except Kyrie) and this year’s draft picks for a star player I’d do it in a heartbeat. But we’ll get into more of that down the road.

For now we need to focus on getting some good luck on Tuesday night. Which, naturally, is a completely contradictory statement. Do whatever you feel brings you good luck and we’ll see how the ping pong balls bounce.[9] And above all, you just gotta believe…or something like that.

[1] That was all quick and very general and I’m trusting that you all at least have a cursory understanding of what’s been going in on the NBA over the past five or so years.

[2] Livingston’s strong play last season was truly remarkable when you consider that he played on six different teams over the past five years, including two stints in Washington. Nobody wanted him. If he can continue to play like he did last year though, he could be a backup PG on just about any team in the NBA.

[3] I should also note that OKC’s GM Sam Presti has made some bad moves not involving draft picks. While trading away Green may not have negatively affected the Thunder specifically, just having Perkins on the roster is a negative. He’s way overpaid and is simply not good and does his team no benefit when he’s on the court. Why Scott Brooks plays him as many minutes as he does is beyond most rational basketball minds. He somehow managed to have a negative PER in the 2013 playoffs and also finished with a plus/minus of -40 which is impressive considering that OKC didn’t get blown out in any games. However, the trade of Harden is the worst of all. They panicked and traded away Harden too early because they were worried that they would get left empty-handed and he would leave in free agency (because OKC doesn’t want to pay the luxury tax, yet they didn’t amnesty Perkins for some reason). They should have taken one more run at a championship this season and then gone from there. Instead, they panicked and traded what ended up being a nice crisp dollar bill for about 53 cents in tarnished coins. It’ll be interesting to see where Presti goes from here to try and rebound from those gaffes. So when we talk about the Cavs employing the “OKC model” we’re referring to being bad “on purpose” for several years in a row to accrue high lottery picks. Trading away those high lottery picks for spare parts and over-priced role players is NOT part of the plan.

[4] Again, by “spare pieces” I’m referring those 53 cents in tarnished coins.

[5] That looks like a beautiful promo doesn’t it? I didn’t get paid for that either. Mostly I just figured that I’ve looked it up enough times so it won’t hurt to put in print.

[6] Honestly, all I really care about is that we don’t drop any spots. I’ll be happy with a top-3 selection. After that I think it gets really sketchy.

[7] The Brooklyn Nets.

[8] Think, Kevin Love. If you believe, it will happen.

[9] For me it’s such things as wearing my maroon boxers and wearing a Cavs shirt under my work uniform. And, no, I don’t think that it’s that weird.


One thought on “The Cavs, the OKC Model, Luck and the Lottery

  1. Pingback: Cavs Win the Lottery: Draft Noel or Trade the Pick? | Cleveland the GOAT

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