What Wiz can learn from NBA’s Final Four
By Michael Huberman
As the NBA’s Conference Finals draw closer to determining who will play for the title, Wizards fans should examine the blueprints for how the remaining teams were built. Each matchup features teams similarly assembled, and in both instances it’s not unrealistic to see the Wizards following similar strategies.
The Western Conference Final, featuring the Oklahoma City Thunder and the San Antonio Spurs, is a matchup of two teams who built through the draft and after securing a superstar, surrounded him with the pieces necessary to compete for a championship. Now, both teams were fortunate to be bad in years when a can’t-miss prospect was available in the draft. In the case of the Spurs, they landed the #1 pick in the 1997 Draft, which they used to select Tim Duncan. The Thunder, then the Seattle Supersonics, secured the #2 pick in the 2007 Draft, which they used on Kevin Durant.
Duncan has gone on to become arguably one of the ten greatest players in NBA history, and was the anchor for the Spurs teams that won four NBA championships from 1999-2007. Durant, only 23, is already a three-time NBA scoring champion, and has the Thunder a game away from their first finals appearance since the team moved to Oklahoma City.
The Spurs, widely considered to have one of the shrewdest front-offices in the NBA, has added piece after piece through the draft, including finding steals with Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili and valuable role players like DeJuan Blair, Tiago Splitter, and Kawhi Leonard.
It shouldn’t come as a shock that Thunder GM Sam Presti worked his way up through the Spurs organization, and since becoming the Thunder GM has utilized a similar blueprint to build his team. In 2008 the team picked UCLA PG Russell Westbrook, now one of the NBA’s best young point guards, and also hit home runs with their selections of Serge Ibaka and James Harden.
Looking at the Spurs and Thunder, Wizards fans should take solace in knowing that hitting on 3-4 draft picks can be huge steps in building a consistent contender. With a still-improving John Wall leading the way, and Kevin Seraphin and Jan Vesely still developing, the number three pick in this draft becomes that much more important. If the Wizards can find a Russell Westbrook to John Wall’s Kevin Durant, and the role players continue to grow, then they could be one crucial step closer to becoming a playoff contender.
On the other hand, there’s the Eastern Conference Final between the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat, who both built their teams around respective “Big 3’s” and surrounded them with whatever talent they had and could find.
Coming off the 2006-2007 season, in which Celtics reached the lowest of lows, at one point losing 18-straight games, the team hoped their 24-58 record would be bad enough to allow them to either select Greg Oden or Durant. However the Celtics received the 5th selection in the lottery, and traded that pick (Georgetown’s Jeff Green) and players to Seattle for Ray Allen. With both Allen and Paul Pierce in the fold, the Celtics then traded five players and two draft picks to the Minnesota Timberwolves for Kevin Garnett, thus forming the “Big Three”.
The Celtics also had some nice, but inexperienced, players in Rajon Rondo, Kendrick Perkins, Leon Powe and Glen Davis to go along with veterans James Posey and PJ Brown. The new-look Celtics went on to put up a 66-16 record in the regular season on the way to winning an NBA record 17th championship. Since then they have lost in Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals and are currently tied 2-2 in an epic battle with the Heat.
After Dwyane Wade and Shaquille O’Neal led the Heat to the 2006 NBA title, the team went thorough a rebuilding phase not unlike the one the Wizards have been going through after their run of playoff teams in the mid 2000’s. Despite having one of the league’s top players in Wade, the Heat were unable to surround him with the players needed to compete for a title, highlighted by selecting Michael Beasley at #2 in the 2008 NBA draft, ahead of Westbrook and Kevin Love.
After a first round exit in 2010, the Heat headed into the offseason with almost $46 million in cap space, in a year where Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh were all free agents. The rest is history and while this trio has yet to win their first (or second, or third, or fourth, or fifth, or sixth, or seventh) title, and their surrounding cast is still very much suspect, they are still in contention to do so, with a pivotal Game 5 tonight in Miami.
Washington, DC isn’t South Beach and the Wizards don’t have the history of the Celtics, but they have the financial means to attract and secure marquee NBA talent. If John Wall becomes one of the premier point guards in the league, and the Wizards strike gold with the #3 pick, then you could justifiably envision a scenario where a third star, either by trade or as a free agent, can be convinced Washington is the place to be to win a championship.
Either way, the teams still competing for the Larry O’Brien trophy have followed paths the Wizards may soon find themselves choosing.