By this point in the proceedings of this year’s NBA Finals, some NBA writer somewhere has covered just about every angle imaginable. Cleveland fans hate LeBron James, Seattle fans hate the Thunder, and LeBron fans hate the hate from Cavaliers fans… the list goes on and on.
But those are all storylines that don’t have anything to do with what’s happening on the basketball court. This year’s finals have been (unfairly) broken down into a simple idea; Kevin Durant is better in the clutch than LeBron James and therefore the Thunder will beat the Heat in the NBA Finals. Most every argument I see about the Finals takes up one of the sides of the Durant/LeBron coin. Occasionally there will be a column about Dwayne Wade turning into Paul Pierce or Russell Westbrook trying too hard to force his name above Durant’s on the marquee, but the 2012 Playoffs have been dominated by the league’s two biggest superstars.
The NBA has reached an historical turning point as the 2012 Finals unfold before us. Not a turning point based on statistics or TV ratings, but a turning point on which the very ideals of the game hang. Does the team put together by manipulative public relations hounds win a championship, or does the (possibly as equally flawed) package of stars built by a savvy organization prevail?
I’m on record with a prediction of Thunder in six games (with hopes of seven games), but the answer to that question cannot be had on a computer screen. That answer can only be found on 48 minute old hardwood.
But, while I can’t tell you what the outcome of the NBA Finals will be, I can tell the story of how the Heat and Thunder got to this point – and how that story is intertwined with the Cavaliers and the Seattle Supersonics. I’m not talking Seattle politics or Cleveland mismanagement; I’m talking 2003 and 2007. Or, even more specifically, I’m talking the 2003 and 2007 NBA Drafts.
In 2003 the Cleveland Cavaliers picked LeBron James with the first overall pick. I remember both the night of the draft lottery and the night of the draft the same way I remember my first beer, or the first cigarette I choked down trying to look cool. I cheered, jumped up and down, was convinced that things were going to be different.
After Detroit picked Darko Milicic (I STILL can’t defend that pick) and Denver picked Carmelo Anthony, the fourth and fifth picks in 2003 set in motion the wheels of time that brought us to today’s NBA. Toronto picked Chris Bosh with the fourth pick and Miami picked Dwayne Wade with the fifth pick. That’s the big three, not all the same age, but all drafted in the top five in 2003. Nick Collison also was drafted in 2003 with the 12th overall pick by the Seattle Supersonics. I was right about things being different, I was just wrong about how it would happen.
While Dwayne Wade was establishing himself as a winner with the Miami Heat, LeBron James was captivating crowds with nightly highlight reels. Chris Bosh was becoming a bona fide star north of the border, too. The difference between the situations in Miami and the situations in Cleveland and Toronto are not difficult to spot.
Between 2003 and 2007 Miami was adding veterans in free agency and competing for championships while Cleveland and Toronto squandered draft opportunities.
The Cavaliers drafted Luke Jackson, Shannon Brown, Ejike Ugboaja, and Daniel Gibson. The Raptors drafted Rafael Araujo, Albert Miralles, Charlie Villanueva, Joey Graham, Roko Ukic, Uros Slokar, Andrea Bargnani, P.J. Tucker, and Edin Bavcic.
Those draft picks don’t represent the only roster moves that Cleveland or Toronto made during those four seasons – and both franchises had some good teams during that run – but when the best player from two teams’ draft is Charlie Villanueva, it really can’t be a surprise that their cornerstone players felt compelled to jump ship.
In the 2007 NBA Draft, Seattle chose Kevin Durant with the second overall pick after the Portland Trailblazers decided to go with Greg Oden with the first pick. Portland’s decision, while huge at the time, meant more to the history of the NBA than we could have ever known on that day. Durant going to Seattle in 2007 started a run of drafts by Seattle/Oklahoma City that is as perfect as the Cavaliers and Raptors drafts were flawed.
After picking Durant, Seattle chose Russell Westbrook with the fourth overall pick and Serge Ibaka with the 24th pick in 2008. The franchise moved to Oklahoma City before the 2008-09 season, and much to the chagrin of Sonics fans the draft magic moved with them. Oklahoma City chose James Harden in 2009 and some serious savvy by the front office has landed the Thunder in the 2011-12 NBA Finals.
See, it turns out that the story of two super-teams meeting in the NBA Finals isn’t only about the differences in how those teams were built. This story is as much about what happens to teams like Cleveland and Toronto when they draft poorly as it is about what Oklahoma City has been able to do by putting together a spectacular string of first round picks.
I picked Oklahoma City not only because of the hope the Presti Plan represents for the Cavaliers as we near the 2012 NBA Draft, but also because of the way these four teams intersect. Miami has drafted as poorly as Cleveland and Toronto since 2003, and as you can see here, all the savvy front office moves in the world can’t make up for bad drafts. This ill-gotten big three may get close, but the NBA doesn’t give a ring for close.