Much of the talk about the “Oklahoma City Model” of team building centers, understandably, on Sam Presti’s drafting of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden – all top level NBA talents — in three consecutive drafts.
The amount of attention that their three draft day home runs makes sense, because (as any NBA fan — perhaps, especially a Cavs fan — knows) you need 2-3 high level NBA players to compete at a high level in today’s NBA. But a GM getting his franchise’s cornerstone, buttress and gorgeous bay window all through the draft – meaning that he doesn’t have to part with any additional resources (i.e. money or other good players) – frees that GM up to maximize Phase 2, The Asset Phase.
See, OKC had another lottery pick in that incredible draft run from 2007-2009 (that also got them Serge Ibaka, though later in the 2008 draft at #24). Jeff Green was taken with the 5th pick in the same draft where Kevin Durant went #2. Originally the Celtic’s pick, #5 went to OKC in the draft day trade that sent Ray Allen to Boston. Green has developed into a nice player, but he’s never really lived up to the promise of a top-5 selection. So, why aren’t we saying, “Gee, Sam Presti nailed those Durant, Westbrook and Harden picks. But, clearly, he’s fallible. Look at Jeff Green”? It’s because Presti’s draft success in 2008 and 2009 allowed Green to not have to be a big-time player to justify his selection. He was no longer part of OKC’s 2-3 star future. Jeff Green was now an asset and he let Presti go out and get Kendrick Perkins from the Celtics when his team was one very wide body from taking the leap from up-and-comer to contender.
All this is to say that, while local and national writers spend quite a bit of time connecting Chris Grant’s rebuild of the Cavaliers with what Presti did with the Thunder – and Cavs fans spend a lot of time wringing their hands about if the trio of Kyrie Irving, Tristan Thompson and Dion Waiters will develop into as strong a foundation for this team as Durant-Westbrook-Harden – what Grant is doing with The Asset Phase of the rebuild is almost more interesting.
Assets, to think of them very generally, are not things that increase a GM’s chances of success as much as they are things that decrease the terrifying prospect that every decision they make has to be the right one. Assets are wriggle room – and with enough of them (be they draft picks, promising young players on rookie contracts, diamonds in the rough and, while less so now, big-money expiring deals) a GM should have a much longer length of rope, even if the results are that he still hangs himself with it.
So, in Presti’s case, downgrading Green from “Top-5 pick(!)” to “key asset” was fine because he’d found the stars he needed elsewhere – and it allowed him to cover over another of his rare draft whiffs (or, to be more fair, while the jury may still be out on the long-term success of center, Cole Aldrich, he was not good enough fast enough for a Thunder team ready to take the leap and needing a quality center) by turning Green into Perkins. The lesson, clearly, is this: in the NBA, if you manage your assets well and hit well enough on enough of them, you receive what few GMs really have—the necessary ability to fail.
If you’ve paid even modest attention to Chris Grant’s tenure with the Cavaliers, you’ve heard the same words over and over: “assets” and “flexibility.” And when we look at the team he’s assembled – talented young players like Irving, Thompson, Waiters and Zeller – we spend, perhaps, too much time inventing scenarios in which they all achieve the ceilings of their draft day promise or they just fail miserably. What has to be kept in mind is the middle ground – the Asset Phase – where a talented young player, even if he does not become Serge Ibaka or Russell Westbrook still has value and can help this team going forward (of course, they help them much better if they all just become All-Stars, but y’know…).
That’s also why Grant is being smart about bringing in undrafted players, like Kevin Jones or Michael Eric (or, in the past, like Samardo Samuels, Alonzo Gee, Donald Sloan or Manny Harris). While the odds are against these players reaching the promise or performance levels of a player picked high in the draft, the risk is very low and the reward, should the organization be able to develop this player into someone who can help the Cavs or (sometimes more importantly) interest another team, is very high. The true payoff of this is down the line when you can see if, say, Samuels is included in a draft day deal that helps net us a higher pick – or Eric develops into a rotation big, soothing the sting when Grant trades Varejao – or if Gee is included in that Varejao trade, getting us something more (another player to develp, more picks, etc) back. And, maybe, none of those things happen. Likely, none of those things will happen. But Grant is lengthening his rope – bringing in high-level talent, as well as developmental projects that should (should) allow the team, once it’s ready, to be competitive in the long term because they’ve done enough that’s smart to allow or make up for the riskier moves.
Or maybe I just want Waiters to be as good as Russell Westbrook. Yes. That would do, as well…