When assessing the deemed quality of a team’s draft selections over the past 3 years, what do you look for?
Games won or individual points per game? Best plus/minus rating or perhaps how quickly a player ‘fits in’?
All of the above can play a part in guiding an evaluation but ultimately the single most important question regarding new players has to be: where are they headed?
The players drafted by already successful teams must fill a niche in order to be rewarded with playing time and if they are perceived to be unable to contribute, or if they happen to face superior talent at their position, they will not play, in which case the answer is brutal in its simplicity. No place fast.
Players drafted to losers face different problems, but problems all the same.
Expectations are usually a volatile mix of despair and ‘new dawn’ at the basement dwellers. If you were chosen in the lottery it is very much deemed your responsibility to resurrect a previously moribund franchise.
There are minutes to be had but there is no learning curve steeper.
Losing will become all too familiar and only the truly persistent, not to mention talented, will prevail through the storm of progress which will inevitably involve at least one loss of faith by the fans.
Vehemently believing that progress is being made and that the sunlight of the playoffs is not too far away is key, especially when the boos are raining down.
Every team not talking championship will churn out the same rhetoric at the start of every season, that the franchise is going in the right direction and that young players are gradually utilising their potential, but the conviction they have in every cliché that they speak can mostly be described as wavering at best.
There are very few teams in recent years to have prophecised a bright future and then actually gone about delivering one.
Only two spring to mind: the Portland Trailblazers and the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Teams that have been as low as you can go, categorical rebuilders, that have drafted well and grown as a team over a number of years in steps that can be easily identified.
No empty promises and General Manager speak. Just empirical results.
In Brandon Roy and LeMarcus Aldridge the Blazers drafted two players in whose hands the future of a franchise could be safely placed and through cunning in successive drafts they have been able to surround their leaders with the kind of complementary players that enable 50 win seasons and playoff runs.
Crucially, the Blazers stuck to their strategy, maintaining their youthful vision even when the losses were piling up.
They acknowledged the importance of learning together rather than seeking veterans who could taint the mix.
They were thrown in at the deep end. Eventually they swam.
The future has arrived for the team once known as the Jailblazers: 3 years ago making the playoffs was a pipe dream, this year just making it there isn’t enough.
If ever there was a case of duplicated blue prints the Thunder have traveled the same road as Portland in pursuit of wins and a team to be proud of.
In recent times, no team has been under heavier reconstruction than the Zombie Sonics.
Where many teams have readjusted or retooled, the Thunder have entirely re-modeled, building from scratch a team capable of making noise in the years to come.
In a coincidental twist of fate the promise of a better tomorrow for the Thunder was heavily influenced by the actions of the team most like themselves.
By passing on Kevin Durant for Greg Oden the Blazers ensured OKC would have the centrepiece on which they could build.
Injuries have restricted Oden’s progress and the fact that the Blazers are as good as they are without him suggests that if he can get healthy for any stretch of time Portland could be Finals material
The fortunes of the man picked directly behind him could not be any more contrasting.
Durant has gone from highly touted prospect to potential MVP and best player in the game discussions within the space of 3 seasons.
A meteoric rise indeed.
The Thunder were simply in the right place at the right time to grab Durant: the stars aligned as they occasionally do and they took advantage.
Few teams will ever experience that kind of luck.
That is without taking into account the calibre of Jeff Green and Russell Westbrook who make up Oklahoma’s Holy Trinity, three players drafted a year apart with the realistic ability to drive the Thunder toward title contention.
Currently sitting at two games above .500, the Thunder stand a very real chance of making the playoffs, the next step on their path to possible greatness, despite being just a year removed from a 23-59 record.
Durant may receive the majority of the plaudits but the respect and admiration for his running mates is coming: there is a reason why Charles Barkley calls Westbrook a ‘stud’.
Generously listed as 6’3, Westbrook is as springy as they come, the product of hours of sand work and plyometrics. Quick as a cat and strong to boot the UCLA product will challenge Mr Paul and Mr Nash for best point guard honors in the years to come.
As for Green, the man is versatile. Playing on the wing or in the post the Georgetown alumni presents opposing forwards with the kind of match up problems that coaches love to hate.
It will be apparent soon enough whether James Harden, OKC’s newest young gun, will force the Three Amigos into the Fantastic Four but it is already clear that the shooting guard will be at worst a solid and effective offensive weapon. He can score. Consistently.
If he can find the next level in the NBA the Thunder will possess not only the youngest core in the League but also the most fearsome in terms of where they are collectively, and individually, destined.
Add projects like BJ Mullens and the rehabilitated Shaun Livingstone to the Thunder mix and the roster is clearly on its way toward strength in depth, a prerequisite for competing at the highest level.
The Blazers and Thunder are moving forward rapidly and they have their unwavering vision, and luck, to thank for it.
So where are they headed? The Finals eventually.
The difficulty is that they will have to through each other to get there.