Commentary

Method actors

The Thunder have taught everyone how to build a legit NBA contender from cold, hard data

Updated: August 13, 2012, 4:38 PM ET
By Jordan Brenner | ESPN The Magazine

Kevin DurantNed Dishman/NBAE/Getty ImagesThere's no madness in the method OKC used to build a beast of a team around Kevin Durant.

This story appears in the March 5, 2012 "Analytics Issue" of ESPN The Magazine. Subscribe today!

THIS WAS THE ULTIMATE TEARDOWN JOB. When Sam Presti left his gig as the Spurs' assistant GM in 2007 to take over the Sonics, he inherited a team that had been two games over .500 in the previous nine seasons. That's the NBA's version of purgatory -- neither chasing a championship nor lousy enough to rebuild in earnest. There was little talented youth on hand but plenty of bloated salaries. And the Sonics were likely headed to Oklahoma City the following season.

But Presti and his tight-knit front office had a vision rooted in process. And that process led to stripping apart the roster piece by piece -- Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis hardly had a chance to shake Presti's hand before they landed elsewhere. It also led to a 24-91 start just 115 games into the new GM's tenure. "It was a tough period for everyone, but I also think we learned a lot about ourselves as a team and organization by working through it and sticking together," Presti says. "We call on those experiences often; it's an important part of who we are."

After winning just 23 games (including a 3-29 start) in 2008-09, the Thunder's first season in OKC, they jumped to 50 wins and a playoff spot the following season. Then 55 and a trip to the Western Conference finals last year. And through Feb. 16, they were 22-7, third in the NBA in winning percentage, behind the Bulls and Heat.

You don't have to be Robert Langdon to crack the OKC code. The goal is not simply to win, but to develop sustained success over time. That's complicated by playing in the country's 45th-largest TV market, one with a population of 580,000, no history of major pro sports, limited sponsorship dollars and no Fortune 500 companies scooping up seats as they do in, say, Chicago, Los Angeles or New York. The Thunder have little margin for error because they can't generate enough to throw money at problems.

To compensate, the Thunder have targeted young players who could mature collectively under a system so dedicated to player development that it could be confused with a college program. They have wielded cap space as a weapon, maintaining financial flexibility despite calls for bold moves. In acquiring players, they've studied character and fit as closely as crossovers and verticals, with a dose of math thrown in. And to make sure that the short-term euphoria from a few wins doesn't obscure the long-term goal of consistent excellence, the organization has maintained a rigorous commitment to self-evaluation. Those components -- along with some luck along the way -- have been the driving forces behind a process so successful that it's easy to forget the early disasters. And the Thunder's ascent is timed to the decline of aging Western powers like the Lakers, Mavericks and Spurs.

Presti's gift has been his ability to sift through vast amounts of information and weed out the most important data points. Analytics is more than just numbers -- it is, quite literally, the study of analysis. And from advanced stats to detailed scouting reports, from psychological evaluations to face-to-face meetings, Presti wants all the info he can find, because he knows how much value to place on each factor.

"Credit the players and the coaches, both past and present," says Presti, who swats away praise as quickly as Serge Ibaka does a layup attempt. "My job is just to support people and work to create an atmosphere where we can continue to build, enhance and ultimately sustain our program."

Fair enough, but when you've started a rebuilding movement that is already known around the league as the OKC Thing -- even before it has led to a title -- you've done a pretty good job. Former colleagues turned competitors Steve Kerr and Danny Ferry marvel at Presti's preparation and unwillingness to "feel comfortable," as Ferry says. A rival exec says: "I can't think of any missed steps. They've moved guys they should move, kept guys they should keep."

A closer examination of the team illuminates how the Thunder have maintained a commitment to their core philosophy, effectively creating a training manual for how to rebuild a franchise. As you'll see, each step in the process has been as much a lesson as a success story, and every key player lends insight into a different, critical aspect of the OKC Thing.


LESSON 1: STARS CAN ALWAYS SHINE BRIGHTER

Before this season, coach Scott Brooks challenged Kevin Durant to become a better playmaker. Like a golfer going through a swing change, the process meant growing pains; the two-time scoring champ is averaging a career-worst 3.66 turnovers per game. But Brooks isn't concerned because many of those miscues are the result of Durant's trying to make plays for teammates. Once everything clicks, Brooks thinks KD 2.0 could average up to five assists per game. That's in line with Durant's goals, as he explains:

"I want to be better for my teammates, and that's going to help us. The record shows it. I had a big game against the Wizards -- 33 points. We lost. I had 36 against the Clippers. We lost. But I had 21 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists, and we beat the Spurs. So sometimes I may need to pass up a few shots to get everybody else involved and energized. If I get Perk a dunk or Serge a wide-open jump shot, they're going to come back down and play unbelievable defense for us.

"You have to pass up on opportunities to score, then, and I've tried to do that this year. I might have a three that I think is a good shot, but I could find a better shot for a teammate or throw a hockey assist. Then it's key to watch film and learn where guys are going to be. From the point guard to the shooting guard to the center to the power forward, I've got to know every spot on the floor to know where my teammate's going to be at all times. So sometimes when I might not see him, I drive to the lane and just kick it to the corner, knowing he'll be there. And I have 100 percent confidence in my teammates to knock down shots.

"And yeah, I'm turning the ball over a lot. But they're turnovers where I've got good intentions. It's not where I'm trying to score and the ball bounces off my foot. I'm trying to make a good pass. I'm handling the ball more. I'm playing some point guard, getting Russ off the ball and letting him score while I initiate the offense. I don't think I could ever reach what LeBron, Grant Hill and Larry Bird have done in terms of assists at this position, but hopefully if I work hard, I can get there."


LESSON 2: KNOW YOUR NUMBERS

LeBron. CP3. Nick Collison. Dirk. One of these players doesn't belong, right? Uh, wrong. That is if you count yourself among the adjusted plus/minus rating faithful. During the previous two seasons, Collison, the OKC reserve PF, was ranked among the top 10 players in the league in that category, a list otherwise populated by NBA royalty.

"I'm very aware of that," Brooks says. "I like looking at plus/minus. And I love Nick."

What does that say about a guy who averages 4.6 ppg and 4.0 rpg in 20.4 minutes? That the lone member of the team from the pre-Presti days excels in the subtle aspects of the game. On defense, Collison uses his anticipation and quickness in reading and reacting to call out screens, to tip balls and to hedge aggressively before rotating back. He was second in the league in charges drawn with 57 in 2009-10 and was fifth, with 51, in the league last season. On offense, he passes and screens at exactly the right moment and excels in running the two-man game with James Harden. "Well, James does most of the work," Collison says modestly. But for a guy who is a member of four of the Thunder's five most-effective lineups, the stats say Collison does plenty of work himself.


[+] EnlargeKevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden
Rocky Widner/NBAE/Getty ImagesDurant says he'll live with turning the ball over more this season if it means creating better looks for his teammates.

LESSON 3: STAND BY YOUR MAN

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, we stand in defense of Mr. Russell Westbrook. Despite being an All-Star point guard who led the Thunder to the Western Conference finals at 22 years old, he has taken more shots lately than Snooki. We will not let these accusations go unanswered. In fact, we will refute them:

Westbrook has a bad attitude and he can't coexist with Kevin Durant.

Hogwash. They're the Thunder's first two guys in the gym and the last two to leave. For a supposed gunner, Mr. Westbrook has assisted on a remarkable 36.5 percent of Mr. Durant's field goals since the beginning of last season. And please accept the statement of Mr. Durant as a character witness: "I don't know why people say that; it baffles me. People put him under that umbrella of one of those guys who has a bad attitude, that people don't want to play with him. But you don't see him every day. He works so hard. He does so much for this team."

Westbrook is not a point guard.

If that's the case, why has the team he runs been ranked in the top five in offensive efficiency last season and in the current one? Mr. Westbrook has assisted on 39 percent of made baskets while he's been on the floor over that period of time, seventh in the league for players with at least 1,000 minutes.

Westbrook is not a winner.

Two Final Fours. A FIBA World Championship gold medal. A Northwest Division title and a Western Conference finals appearance. And he turned 23 in November. Enough said.

Westbrook shoots too often.

No, he's an efficient, versatile offensive player. For instance, Mr. Westbrook has shot 800 free throws since the beginning of last season, 113 more than the next-highest point guard. And he leads all point guards over that time span by grabbing 5.1 percent of available offensive rebounds. Quite simply, the man creates opportunities.

Westbrook will clash with coach Scott Brooks.

Why? Because Mr. Westbrook dared to show frustration when Mr. Brooks went with Mr. Eric Maynor at the point in the fourth quarter of Game 2 in the Western Conference finals? That's not disrespect -- it's the kind of competitive fire that made the assistant GM, Mr. Troy Weaver, fall in love with Mr. Westbrook's game at UCLA. Or you can just take Mr. Brooks' word for it: "I like when Russell puts his emotion out on Front Street. I want him to be on the court, showing that he's angry that a guy's getting scored on or our defensive coverage broke down. Russell is an incredible young man who has improved a lot in four years here. He may not be your point guard, but he's my point guard."

We rest our case.


LESSON 4: ONLY YOU KNOW WHAT YOU NEED

In 2009, Presti was an idiot. With the third pick in the draft, he passed on Tyreke Evans' sublime scoring, Stephen Curry's silky stroke and Ricky Rubio's vaunted vision to select ... Harden? Sure, the guy was a first-team All-American at Arizona State, but 6'5" shooting guards with 10.1 percent body fat and Tyler Hansbrough's lane agility don't exactly thrive in the NBA. Presti was criticized for the pick, and things only got worse when Evans and Curry excelled as rookies while Harden played just 22.9 minutes per game.

But the team that preaches patience would turn out to be right again. Harden's high FT rate at ASU (59.7) suggested similar production as a pro. Game video and workouts displayed the clever artistry of what Presti calls a "right-brain thinker, someone who sees the game differently." Watch Harden on the break and you'll see it for yourself. He recognizes how the floor will develop before guys even fill lanes, and he uses the early chaos of scrambling players to create space or angles to get to the rim or make a quick pass. In short, he anticipates plays before they materialize. And interviews revealed Harden to be a tremendous fit for OKC's program because he "liked the idea of contributing to winning and was willing to make a sacrifice to be a part of it," Presti says.

But none of that info could have projected what Harden would become in this, his third season. His offensive rating of 125 this year is the eighth highest since the 1990-91 season for a player with a usage rate of at least 21. And he's doing it off the bench, a role he not only tolerates, but embraces.

"Coming off the bench with the second unit, I can be a lot more aggressive and basically just take over the game," Harden says. "And then when Kevin and Russell come back into the game, we all work off each other."

The uberefficient sixth-man role is just the latest reason Harden draws comparisons to the Spurs' Manu Ginobili, another lefty shooting guard who compensates for a lack of elite athleticism with an unorthodox approach and an abundance of skill. Says Harden: "We both have weird games. It's hard to predict what we're going to do."

Other than contribute mightily to winning, that is.


LESSON 5: THE TOUGHEST MOVES CAN BE THE BEST ONES

Perhaps no day on the job has been rougher for Presti than last Feb. 24. That's when he dealt Jeff Green to Boston for Kendrick Perkins. Presti's eyes reportedly grew misty during the news conference announcing the deal as he bid farewell to a cornerstone of his rebuilding process. He wasn't the only guy affected. "It was tough for me to cope with him trading Jeff, since we came in together," Durant says. "That was like my brother. But I trusted Sam on that. And we got Perk."

And there's the rub. For the evolution of the franchise, Presti knew he needed a physical, defense-oriented center and that he couldn't commit to the lucrative contract Green would command on the open market. And after years of searching for that elusive big guy, Presti found one who was just 26 at the time and had championship experience. That much was known. But the domino effect from this one trade has been nothing short of staggering from four different perspectives:

1) Adding Perkins impacted the team's interior defense in multiple ways. He took on the role of guarding the opponent's top low-post scorer, which allowed Ibaka to move out of the middle to his natural power forward spot, where he could roam freely as a shot-blocker. The team's DRtg improved immediately, from 104.5 before Perkins joined the starting lineup to 102.1 after. This season, the defense is even better, at 99.2. Shot-blocking has a lot to do with it; the Thunder rejected just 6.8 percent of opponents' shots prior to his joining the starting lineup. But that stat jumped to 9.2 percent in the playoffs and sits at 9.2 percent this year.

2) The need to replace Green's playmaking opened up more opportunities for Harden. And not only did he meet Green's production, he exceeded it. Harden's usage rate jumped from 20.8 before Perkins joined the starting lineup all the way to 25.8, yet he still maintained his superior eFG% (.518), PER (16.4) and ability to draw fouls (18.7 percent). In the playoffs, his eFG% and PER improved by leaps and bounds to .558 and 19.1, respectively.

3) Because Perkins was hurt at the time of the trade, Presti made another deal on the same day, sending D.J. White and Morris Peterson to the Bobcats for Nazr Mohammed. The impetus for the move was to find a short-term starting center, but the biggest consequence was unintended. When Presti and cap specialist Mike Winger opened the books, they were shocked to discover that the Bobcats deal had saved roughly $2 million against the cap. That put them in a position to extend Perkins' contract immediately instead of letting him test the free agent market. Seems like even when the organization doesn't seek continuity, it manages to find it.

4) The Thunder ended up with a dose of KG. Perkins says his time playing with Kevin Garnett in Boston was "probably the best thing that ever happened to me. One thing KG has instilled in me is to lose yourself in the team and not be an individual."

Now the Thunder marvel at Perkins' attention to detail, from calling out screens on defense to making sure guys go hard during shootaround. And he even brought some of KG's trademark irritability to the heartland. Brooks says, "He has a lot of defensive anger inside of him." And Perk has even coined a phrase -- "You can't get bored with the process" -- which he repeats like a mantra to the point where you'd think he's the one running the organization.

A player with a vision rooted in process? The Thunder wouldn't have it any other way.

Jordan Brenner (@JordanBrenner) is a contributing writer for ESPN The Magazine. Follow The Mag on Twitter, @ESPNmag, and like us on Facebook.

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ESPN The Magazine contributing writer
Brenner writes for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN Insider. He covers the NBA and college basketball.