Heat and Thunder: The future is now
January, 29, 2011
By Kevin Arnovitz
The men at the head of two model franchises with completely different blueprints.
Imagine you're talking to a circa 1986 NBA fan in the sitting room of your time machine. That person on the other end of the exchange might even be the younger you, the one who grew up loving 80s basketball.
It's the day before ESPN on ABC rolls out its first national Sunday doubleheader of the season. You explain that, in some respects, the more things have change in the NBA, the more they've stayed the same.
The Celtics and Lakers will square off in the back end of the doubleheader. You recount how, despite some hiccups during the 90s, both teams have been restored to their rightful place in the pantheon of NBA franchises.
"So what's the first game?" the fan from the past asks.
"The Miami Heat at the Oklahoma City Thunder."
You begin your extemporaneous review of the last quarter century of NBA basketball.
"The league has grown to 30 teams. That process began with the 1988 expansion, which gave us a team called the Miami Heat. Like most expansion franchises, they struggled in the early going. But in 1996, they brought in Pat Rliey -- yeah, that Pat Riley, can you believe it? -- and have since become one the league's tent pole franchises. The confidence and savvy of the organization under Riley coupled with the livability (and tax-free conditions) of Miami have attracted some top free agents over the years. And the biggest haul of all came about seven months ago, in fact, when they lured the most revolutionary player of our lifetime (imagine the body of Karl Malone with the speed of Michael Jordan, but that's a different conversation entirely)."
"Jordan is incredible, Man! Please tell me he gets healthy next season and this was just a sophomore slump or jinx."
"I think you'll be pleased by his durability and game going forward. He turns out to be pretty decent.
But anyway, back to the Heat's 2010 offseason. So in addition to this James guy -- everyone just calls him LeBron -- they kept their current stud and brought in this extremely efficient finesse power forward (that position has changed, earthling, but that too is a longer conversation about the evolution of the game). So this experiment, all orchestrated by Riley, has turned the Heat into a revolutionary basketball undertaking. I work for an internet outlet (an even bigger conversation, I apologize, but it will make sense in 10 years, I swear) that covers this team and it's bonkers. Imagine all the Royal Family hoopla, but with basketball."
"Fine, Sold. That's a model franchise. But you mean to tell me that the NBA has a team in Oklahoma City?! I mean, I guess they went into Sacramento about a year ago. Does this Oklahoma City team --"
"What's with all these non-plural nicknames? Please tell me it's not a trend!"
"I'm afraid so. Actually the Thunder are the former Seattle SuperSonics.
"It's a very sad story, but if it's any consolation, the Thunder have an awesome fan base. The team is also a model franchise."
"The 1 o'clock national game, I'd say so. So how'd they get there? More big free agents? Superstars in the future really want to play in the southern Great Plains?"
"Well, the Thunder are a model franchise, but in a completely different way than Miami, or the Lakers or Boston. See, there's this thing called the salary cap."
"I think it was just installed -- read about it in SI. Doesn't seem like such a big deal."
"Just you wait. Anyway, the Thunder were really awful when they left Seattle, but they had all these amazing, insanely young players. They hired a young guy named Sam Presti who came up in the San Antonio front office -- another model franchise, by the way. The Spurs are the paragon of competence and they've spawned coaching and executive disciples all over the NBA.
So the Thunder bring in this young general manager. And instead of panicking about the woeful state of the team, he invests a lot in player development and begins to hoard draft picks. Under the salary cap, which has a rookie scale, draft picks become even more important because it's a sure-fire way to have young talent playing far below their market value."
"Enough with the salary cap stuff. You're giving me a headache and I have a long trip back to 1986."
"Fair enough. If you don't believe me about the Thunder, just listen to the coach of the Miami Heat. His name is Erik Spoelstra. That's Erik with a 'K'.
Spoelstra told me the other day that, 'Probably the one word that comes to mind when I think about Oklahoma City and Sam Presti, in particular, is vision. They had a specific vision for that organization, where he wanted to take it. They have a philosophy of what type of player they wanted to get. They've had an aggressive mentality to gain draft picks immediately out of the gate. And they want to play a specific style of basketball. I think it's really a credit to Sam and the ownership for having that very specific vision -- and a plan to do it over two or three years and not try to do the quick fix in one summer.'"
"So if I'm hearing you correctly, you're telling me that, in the future, there are two schools of building a model franchise. One relies on reputation and sex appeal to attract big-time players. And the other creates a quasi-farm system, lets those players mature over time as a unit, keeps salaries low so they can use that leftover money under this newfangled cap to make tweaks to the roster?"
"That's basically it. Basketball becomes as much a game of portfolio management as it does an athletic event."
"That's kind of depressing."
"No, not at all! It gives us something to talk about in the offseason and gives hope to the crappy franchises. And the game? It's as beautiful to watch and graceful as it has ever been."
"Maybe so. But I bet you don't get to watch Greg Kite in the future. Your loss."