The Oklahoma City Thunder and the perils of process

“The process” is one of the more prominent buzzwords in the basketball nerd lexicon. Hoops heads discuss the process like one might discuss a cause. It is an abstract idealogy behind winning that can’t be proven or disproven empirically — you either jump in and believe or you don’t.

It basically breaks down like this: NBA teams know that landing on a franchise-changing star is a crap shoot; the process involves playing the nuances of the draft lottery system to stack the deck in your favor over a number of years. There’s no guarantee of landing that superstar, but you keep hording picks and flexibility until you’ve got the means to acquire a couple of them.

This involves losing, and waiting out a meaningful turnaround rather than finding a short-term fix. The process means forfeiting many smaller battles until you know you’re ready to win the war.

The Philadelphia 76ers under Sam Hinkie are the living embodiment of the process today, but the greatest victory for the process in the modern era has to be the Oklahoma City Thunder. Like the current Sixers, the Thunder were awful in their formative years and sat on their flexibility until a contending core emerged.

From Kevin Durant, to Russell Westbrook, to James Harden, the Thunder never thought twice about handing the reins over to a bunch of unproven lottery picks. For Thunder GM Sam Presti, the moves he didn’t make during this time made all the difference — it allowed each of the Thunder’s stars to emerge organically.

On the backs of their young stars, the Thunder were an 8-seed, then a 4-seed, then a 1-seed. Sam Presti had seemingly mastered the process and reaped the rewards, building a monster team with a monster core all under the age of 25.

Had injuries and the unfortunate Harden trade not slowed them down, OKC’s process could very well have manifested a championship by now. The fact that it hasn’t has caused the Thunder’s process to lose a lot of its sheen; so much so that the league has moved on to the darling Warriors and the zombie Spurs as the new models for success. They’ve proven it with championships after all, and OKC still hasn’t.

The aforementioned Harden trade is an obvious inflection point for OKC, and history will remember it as such. It is destined to be one of the most debated and controversial trades of all time, but it was clearly justified by the Thunder’s process at the time. OKC had been methodical about building something sustainable, and a max for Harden would have choked the young Thunder’s flexibility by forcing them into the luxury tax. Sam Presti chose to bet on the model that had made OKC a winner, and seemingly got a treasure trove of future assets for Harden (two firsts, a second, Kevin Martin and the young Jeremy Lamb).

Clearly history will write this trade as a grand blunder for OKC, but it’s not as if they completely lost their way. OKC avoided the luxury tax and went on to win 60 games the next season, defeating Harden’s Rockets in the first round. Had Westbrook and later, Ibaka, not suffered tragic injuries at the worst possible moments, the process might be easily vindicated by more Finals appearances or championships.

But no matter how many what-ifs you pepper it with, it’s hard not to second guess the Thunder’s process today. OKC has a monster team, with monster talent, but they aren’t the favorites to win the West and probably shouldn’t be. It’s now a bold pick to choose to Thunder to make the Finals and it’s hard to argue against that.

Today, Sam Presti’s Thunder are also breaking a lot of their own rules dictated by the process in earlier seasons. After working hard to avoid the luxury tax, the Enes Kanter extension has plunged the Thunder deep into it. OKC sits with the second-highest payroll in the league with a tax bill in the tens of millions. A max player will be coming off the bench in a situation eerily similar to one OKC tried to avoid in 2012, only Enes Kanter isn’t exactly James Harden.

The pile of first round picks to keep cheap talent coming to Oklahoma City is also eroding away. The Thunder have started surrendering picks to acquire less-than-ideal championship pieces in Enes Kanter and Dion Waiters. It was also a little late to fire Scott Brooks, as the Thunder now try to modernize on the fly under rookie coach Billy Donovan in a championship-or-bust-season. Add up all the turmoil over the last couple of months and it no longer seems like a careful, methodical process at work.

The Thunder’s eleventh hour push for a championship as Durant enters free agency is a fascinating study of the process at work. It may very well be that bad luck has skewed our perception of OKC and they steamroll their way back to championship contention. But if that doesn’t happen, and it doesn’t look likely, perhaps the lesson here is that you’re only ever able to see one or two steps ahead of you in the NBA. Try to look out any further and you might just end up losing your way.