I get it! They did it the old-fashioned way. Made themselves the team to beat in the Western Conference by building through the draft. It is the model that just about every team in the league that is not a major market should use.
But honestly, how often has that been the case?
The reason the Thunder are so cool, is because they managed to do something that barely any teams have had the ability to do in the modern era of the NBA.
Lets look at the last decade of teams who have been to the NBA Finals and get an idea of which teams actually built through the draft to get there.
2000: Lakers over the Pacers – Lakers have never built through the draft so they won’t count at all for the duration of this. Only relevant Pacers, who they themselves drafted was Reggie Miller, Travis Best and Rick Smits. Jalen Rose, Mark Jackson, Sam Perkins and Chris Mullin not drafted by the team. So the Pacers don’t count.
2001: Lakers over the 76ers: Philly built through Iverson who they drafted but after that, the next top performers: Theo Ratliff, Dikembe Mutombo, Aaron McKie and Eric Snow were not drafted by them. They don’t count.
2002: Lakers over the Nets: I promise I am not writing this to make Suns fans feel bad about how many titles the Lakers have. They still don’t count. The Nets are the closest team we have had yet who built through the Draft. Kerry Kittles, Keith Van Horn (draft day trade), Kenyon Martin and Richard Jefferson were all drafted to the team. However they are not close to a finals appearance without bringing in Jason Kidd from the Suns. That and the east was terrible in the early 2000s. So guess what, they don’t count!
2003: Spurs over the Nets: Again the Nets don’t count. But we do have a winner! The San Antonio Spurs absolutely built through the draft with the first of many with Duncan, Parker and Ginobili. Plus David Robinson (a Spurs pick) was with this particular unit as well. Score one finally for the draft builders.
2004: Pistons over the Lakers: Detroit is close but considering this team does not go on this run without Big Shot Billups, Rasheed Wallace and Rip Hamilton, all of which were not drafted by the team. Pistons and yes still the Lakers do not count.
2005: Spurs over the Pistons: Similar squads mentioned above. I will count the Spurs again and will not count the Pistons.
2006: Heat over the Mavericks: The Heat here are close because they do not win without Dwayne Wade who the Heat drafted. But they also do not win without Shaq. They are close but I will not give it to them just because of Shaq. The Mavs are in the same boat. They are not there without Dirk. Josh Howard and Devin Harris (draft day trades) were also draft picks. However Jerry Stackhouse and Jason Terry were not. But you know what, I’ll give it to the Mavs because of how great Dirk, Harris and Howard were on that run. Point three for the draft built teams.
2007: Spurs over the Cavs: Both these teams get a point for the draft built teams. Spurs big three and Lebron for the Cavs will all credit the draft.
2008: Celtics over the Lakers: Ha! I laugh at this one. Who needs the draft??
2009: Lakers over the Magic: The Magic are close as well because Dwight Howard and Jameer Nelson were drafted by the team. But Rashard Lewis, Hedo Turkoglu, Rafer Alston and Mickael Pietrus were not. So I will not give a point to the Magic for building through the draft.
2010: Lakers over the Celtics: Still laughing…
2011: Mavericks over the Heat: I gave the Mavs point earlier from their 2006 appearance. Not this time. Dirk still there but now add Caron Butler, Shawn Marion, Tyson Chandler, Peja Stojakovic and still Jason Terry all not draft picks. And this was not the 2nd overall pick of the Mavs Jason Kidd, it was key free agent acquisition Jason Kidd. Mavs don’t count here. Heat will not either as this is the start of the James-Wade-Bosh years in Miami.
Which brings us to the 2012 OKC Thunder who lost to the Heat. Mark one more point for the built through draft team via OKC thanks to Durant, Westbrook, Harden, Ibaka and yes even Nick Collison.
That is 20 different rosters mentioned. Along with the Thunder, I credited the Spurs three times, the Mavs once and Cavs once. That is six rosters (but only four teams) out of a possible 20 in a ten-year span who have built a team through the draft and made it to the Finals.
Playing percentages, 30% of the rosters to make the finals have built through the draft since 2000. 20% of the teams to make it to the finals in that span from built through the draft.
I shouldn’t have to do the research to show you how well the Bobcats, Clippers, Warriors, Grizzlies, Bucks, T-Wolves, Raptors, etc. have done with the countless lottery picks they have had over the years.
The Bulls post Jordan, were 371-540 in 11 seasons up until the year they drafted Derrick Rose. That is a 41% winning percentage. The lovable Chicago Cubs had a better winning percentage in that time span at 49%. The Bulls had four playoff appearances and only made it out of the first round once. Crazy to think about with the great basketball market that is Chicago. Do Suns fans want that? It is just as likely to be like those Bulls teams as it is to be like the Thunder.
After all that of that being said. How likely is it that if you blow a team up and build through the draft, you can make the finals? The draft is mostly about getting lucky. Sure there are all of those analytics and scouts that Lance Blanks and Lon Babby love to talk about that put in countless hours at an attempt to make the right choice.
But the reality of the NBA, especially now and over the last decade, is that in order to be one of the elite teams, you have to make the right acquisitions via free agency. And unless you are not a major market team like LA, Boston, Chicago, New York and I guess now Miami, you need a combination of the draft and free agency.
I am still on the fence of what the Suns have done so far this off-season. Add Eric Gordon somehow along with Beasley and Dragic and you are looking at a very solid squad. Maybe not a title contender right away. But a team with a core that do some special things for many years to come.
So Nash ended up with the Lakers for late first round draft picks which on the surface seem worthless. But to have the Suns just be bad and try to be the exception to these crystal clear percentages is not a risk I think the organization should take.
The biggest key, which is not easy, is not signing players into bad contracts which force you to sit on your hands with while you are an eight seed at best. That has been the case over the last few years and the team put themselves in a deep hole. But with what the Suns seem to be attempting to do here in this current off-season, I don’t see that to be the case.
Only time will tell but if you’re a fan, the moves made this off-season should not raise concern, it should raise promise.
For more on the Suns, follow Jared Cohen on Twitter at @JaredPros2Preps