Building the Great Wall of China was a process, you see….
The Oklahoma City Thunder are America’s heartland heroes. From top to bottom, from the shot-callers in the front office to the shot-makers on the hardwood, they’re made up of all the right stuff: sharp minds and undeniable athletic talent, blended together with a big helping of humility.
They’re winners. They’re the model of roundball reconstruction. They’re what the Washington Wizards aspire to be.
But in 2008-09, the year 2 A.D. (After Durant), the team formerly known as the Seattle SuperSonics lost 59 games—wearing new colors and new logos. They finished in fifth place in the Northwest Division, 13th in the Western Conference and failed to make the playoffs for the seventh time in nine years. Their head coach, P.J. Carlesimo, was fired in late November after a 1-12 start. Carlesimo was replaced by Thunder assistant Scott Brooks, who had previously been an assistant with the Sacramento Kings, the Denver Nuggets and the Los Angeles Stars of the American Basketball Association (ABA). (Carlesimo is currently working as an assistant coach for the Brooklyn Nets.)
Less than a week after Brooks’ promotion as interim head coach, the Thunder tied the franchise record for consecutive games lost—14. (They broke that streak the very next day.) Five months later, on April 15, 2009, Brooks was named the full-time coach of the Oklahoma City Thunder; GM Sam Presti said Brooks “proved his ability to communicate with a young team while demonstrating the necessary passion to help players improve.”
Twenty players suited up for the 23-win Oklahoma City Thunder that season (named in order of points per game): Kevin Durant, Jeff Green, Russell Westbrook, Nenad Kristic, D.J. White, Thabo Sefolosha, Chris Wilcox, Nick Collison, Shaun Livingston, Desmond Mason, Joe Smith, Earl Watson, Kyle Weaver, Damien Wilkins, Malik Rose, Johan Petro, Chucky Atkins, Mouhamed Sene, Robert Swift, and Steven Hill.
Out of those 20, only Durant, Westbrook, Sefolosha, and Nick Collison are still on the team today. The average Player Efficiency Rating (PER), a rating of a player’s per-minute productivity, of the 10 Thunder players who played the most minutes that season was 13.16. The league average, according to PER inventor, ESPN’s John Hollinger, is 15. By this metric, only Kevin Durant (20.9), who won Rookie of the Year the previous season, and first-year point guard Russell Westbrook (15.2) produced better than average.
The 2011-12 Washington Wizards, in the second year of their rebuild, lost more than half of their games—on a new floor and in new uniforms. The 20-win Wizards finished in fourth place in the Southeast Division and 14th in the Eastern Conference in a lockout-shortened season. Incumbent head coach, Flip Saunders, was fired in January after “leading” the team to the worst start in franchise history.
Assistant Randy Wittman, in his third season in Washington, then assumed control of the 2-15 Wizards as interim head coach, becoming the 23rd coach in franchise history and the fourth coach to lead the Wizards since the start of the 2008-09 season. Wittman had previously been an assistant with the Indiana Pacers, Dallas Mavericks and Orlando Magic, before serving as head coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves (taking over for Dwyane Casey’s 20-20 Wolves in January of 2007) and Cleveland Cavaliers from 1999-2001.
Yesterday, on June 4, the Wizards officially announced that Randy Wittman would return to coach the team next season.
“We are excited to bring Randy back as head coach and give him the opportunity to build on the positive momentum that the team showed under his leadership last season,” said Grunfeld. “We were very pleased with the development of our young players and the commitment to winning he instilled despite taking over the team under difficult circumstances.”
Leonsis would comment (on his blog, Ted’s Take) that it was the players’ endorsement of Randy Wittman that gave the team the confidence to extend his deal. And Wittman, like Brooks in OKC, will continue to be a “positive force” for the franchise:
“He can add to the staff and add more experience on the bench, and he has carte blanche to make investments in player development,” said Leonsis. “I am pleased that this worked out for our franchise and that our players so respect him—they now have a vested interest in his success and their own ongoing development.”
Twenty-one players took the floor for the Washington Wizards in the 66-game season (named in order of points per game): John Wall, Jordan Crawford, Nick Young, Nenê, JaVale McGee, Cartier Martin, Andray Blatche, Trevor Booker, James Singleton, Kevin Seraphin, Rashard Lewis, Roger Mason, Maurice Evans, Jan Vesely, Chris Singleton, Shelvin Mack, Morris Almond, Edwin Ubiles, Ronny Turiaf, Brian Cook, and Hamady N’Diaye.
Fifteen of those players were rostered at the end of the regular season. The “Nick and JaVale Show” was traded away at the deadline, as was Ronny Turiaf; Roger Mason was waived, while Ubiles and N’Diaye finished the year in the D-League. Several more of the 2011-12 Wizards will not be back for the 2013 campaign after the team adds prospects, projects and other talent in the NBA draft (where they have three picks, including the third overall selection) and free agency. Ideally, the Wizards will amnesty Andray Blatche and buy out the washed-up Rashard Lewis.
The average PER of the 10 Wizards who played the most minutes per game—not including JaVale McGee (19.9) and Nick Young (12.9)—was 14.32, more than a full point higher than the Thunder average. James Singleton led all players with a PER of 19.7, but Nenê (18.6), Wall (17.8), Seraphin (15.8), Trevor Booker (15.5), and Jordan Crawford (14.6) were not far behind. While the 2008-09 Thunder had just two players who performed above average, last year’s Wizards team featured five players with PERs above 15 (six if you were to include McGee).
In the year 3 A.D., the Oklahoma City won 50 games—26 more than the year before, where their record was at one point a cringeworthy 3-29—and entered the playoffs as the eighth seed in the Western Conference, where they lost in the first round to the Los Angeles Lakers, 4-2. Before the season, the Thunder added (a considerably less hairy) James Harden with the No. 3 pick in the draft and paid the buyout demanded by Spanish club Ricoh Manresa to bring Serge “Air Congo” Ibaka—who was drafted in 2008—to the NBA. Scott Brooks was named Coach of the Year, having earned 45 more first place votes than the runner-up, Milwaukee’s Scott Skiles.
“We were improved once he took over as the coach,” Durant said after the announcement. “We still lost some games that were tough but we were learning and we were getting better each day in practice. I knew if we continued to do that and not come in and just say, ‘Our season’s done. Ain’t no need to practice. Ain’t no need to work hard.’ We still came in and worked every day, and he made sure he brought it every day as a coach.”
The following season, the Thunder won 55 games, earning the fourth seed in the playoffs after trading Jeff Green and Nenad Krstic for Kendrick Perkins and Nate Robinson (who is no longer on the team). Oklahoma City took care of business against the Nuggets in five games and the Grizzlies in seven before being knocked out by the third-seeded Dallas Mavericks in five.
This season, James Harden won Sixth Man of the Year honors (and Durant was named the All-Star Game’s most valuable player) as the Thunder compiled the second-best record in the West, 47-19. The Thunder are now holding their own against the Popovich System and the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference Finals, having stolen home court advantage with three consecutive wins to lead the series, 3-2.
As for the Washington Wizards, time will tell—and a little bit of patience will go a long way—but they may not be as far from the playoffs as many believe.
“But more importantly, I was impressed during the exit interviews,” Ted Leonsis told Michael Lee of The Washington Post. “To a man, the players all felt that the way that we played after the trade wasn’t fool’s gold. It wasn’t the end of the season and other teams weren’t trying.
“That this was a serious team. A team that was playing for one another. A team that’s coachable and working really, really had and it started to see the lights turning on, that if they played the right way they would get results. So we started to take that into consideration, but the players really liked the coach and the staff.”
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The Thunder continue to give us reasons to swoon, of course. But the numbers and history behind the OKC’s rebuild indicate that Washingtonians mustn’t need to look longingly at Presti’s roster. The team culture in D.C., under head coach and disciplinarian Randy Wittman, is changing from one of frustration and selfishness to one of a more constructive learning environment built through consistent effort and accountability.
And don’t sleep on culture.
“Probably the biggest thing, apart from the personnel moves, is the change in culture, really just focusing on our work every day and realize you’re not going to get better every day with magic transactions,” Thunder forward Nick Collison told SB Nation’s Mike Prada last May. “You have to do the work. For the most part, it was the change in the culture.”
Leonsis has blog tags for the “Oklahoma City Thunder,” and points to the franchise (as well as his Washington Capitals) as an example of how to strategically, tactically and culturally build a young, exciting team through salary-cap flexibility and high draft positions.
The Wizards are heading into the third year of a three-year rebuild, a season in which a history of losing must be rewritten by victors. The Thunder and the Wizards have been built in a very similar (almost identical) fashion. Now, will the Wizards take the next, critical step? That hinges on whether John Wall can develop into a Kevin Durant-like force and which other player emerges as a star … and whether Bradley Beal can be James Harden East.
The Washington Wizards are overdue for results. What happens over the next few months will reveal the type of stuff this team is really made of.