Sam Presti revealed himself as a very smart man today in his shock trade of Jeff Green and the Clippers’ 2012 first-round draft pick (top ten protected) for Kendrick Perkins. While it’s not easy to get a bad team to the point the Thunder are at right now, it’s a lot easier than taking a team from that point to the point where a championship becomes a realistic possibility. It’s more than just the opposition, more than all that; it’s the truth that the habits that took you from “bad team” to “exciting up-and-coming team” can be detrimental when trying to become “championship team.”
To become the exciting up-and-coming team, you have to accumulate lots of interesting, young pieces that you can dream on. The Thunder had that in Durant, Westbrook, Ibaka and Green. You could imagine the possibilities of what these players might become in the best-case scenario. And while everyone can imagine those possibilities, these players are the most valuable they’ll ever be: Westbrook, for example, is more valuable to the rest of the NBA as a player who might win an MVP than as a hypothetical MVP-winner. (Why? Because, realistically: it’s probably downhill from said MVP year. Sure, you’ll still be awesome. But it’s a slightly less valuable brand of awesome.) The important thing, if you’re the GM, is not to get too entranced by potential: you must be willing to trade potential into a coherent reality.
The pitfalls are illustrated by the previous two holders of the “exciting up-and-coming team” label, the Chicago Bulls and Portland TrailBlazers. Each of these teams had accumulated many fun, good players—each of these teams refused to trade them for quality players when they became available. (The Bulls, reportedly, turned down Pau Gasol and Kevin Garnett when they became available, preferring to keep the burdened-by-potential Luol Deng. I like Deng a lot, more than most I suspect, but a smart team never would’ve done it.) As it happens, the TrailBlazers are trapped in the valley of mediocrity and will probably never win a title; they’ll blame bad luck and have some reason to. But in truth they were never going to win a title even in the best-case scenario: didn’t have the horsepower. The Bulls got extremely lucky: won the number one pick in the right year and made the right choice in the right year and got Derrick Rose. (Given that Michael Beasley was considered a near equal for Rose going into the draft, this decision was more difficult than you might think. Still: luck.) Otherwise they would’ve doddered around in the 45 win range, which, as any NBA fan will tell you, is probably the most boring kind of team to follow. For the GM, these kind of teams get you fired.
You never want to count on luck, which is why you be aggressive when given the opportunity to convert potential into reality. Both Jeff Green and Kendrick Perkins are role players, and as I’ve argued before, role players are ultimately replaceable, unless they fulfill a specific, hard-to-replace role on your team. Green didn’t really fill a role; yesterday’s poor performance against the Spurs with an aimless last-shot three probably confirmed that for Presti in one of those vivid Gladwellian stories-confirming-theory incidents. Meanwhile, the Thunder wanted a mobile, defensive center who can pull down rebounds; Perkins doesn’t quite fill all of those roles—he’s not particularly mobile—but he’s close enough.
Green is a particularly interesting case of potential. If you hang out in a group enough, some of the glow shines on you too. That was Green: got to bask in that Westbrook/Durant glow. If you looked at him hard enough—and I’ve been arguing since the summer that Ibaka would eventually replace Green—you’d see a very average player, albeit a versatile average player (the versatility gave the impression that he was better than he was; in reality, instead of a jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none, he was more like a “ten of clubs of all trades, master of none.” Or something.). In essence, Green was the kind of player who, to the savvy GM, is worth more to other teams than your own. That’s what happened with the trade: if Green continues to be average, the Thunder got away with a huge theft, especially if the Clippers really stink next season (and the pick is below number ten.) Again, as I’ve argued before: number ten picks and higher are excellent ways to find mediocre players or, once in a while, get a genuinely valuable player. The Celtics, basically, are hoping to get lucky. The Thunder are choosing reality. (By the by, the addition of Nate Robinson is a very nice one. He’s had a bit of an off year, but should he recover, he’ll add some valuable scoring and moxie.)
It’s good that they are, because I felt they were in danger of falling into the habits of the Blazers and Bulls. They have the top two, but they don’t quite have the quality to fill out a team. Ibaka might become that, but it’s not worth investing all hopes in him. Hence the Perkins trade. They haven’t quite figured everything out—they still need more shooting, in my estimation—but you can tell the Thunder and Presti are exceptionally clear-eyed about their own faults. A very valuable quality, that.