OKLAHOMA CITY - It’s the matchup within the matchup.
One way of building a team versus another.
Patient and organic vs. swing for the fences and build it overnight.
Even casual hoops fans are aware of how the Miami Heat was assembled — Dwyane Wade was fortuitously drafted, helped led the team to the 2006 title along with Shaquille O’Neal and, years later, convinced LeBron James and Chris Bosh to join him in South Beach. Voila — instant championship favourite.
Meanwhile, there were years of losing in Seattle, the departure of a franchise icon in Ray Allen and a slow build to contender status in Oklahoma City.
While one team spent massive bucks in free agency, the other (OKC) has acquired only one player — wily veteran Derek Fisher this past March — via the open market recently.
The Thunder, under general manager Sam Presti, hoarded draft picks, often taking on bad contracts from other teams in order to get a pick or move up in the draft (that happened in 2010 when the Heat sent sharpshooter Daequan Cook and a pick 14 spots higher in order to shed salary used to ink James and Bosh).
But many teams have drafted in the lottery for ages and showed little for it at the end of the day (paging the Los Angeles Clippers). Using the selections wisely is the key and nobody has done that better than Presti and his staff.
Sure, they got incredibly lucky in order to land Kevin Durant — Greg Oden looked like Shaq’s successor and a perennial superstar centre, so Portland took him over Durant, who was coming off of one of the best freshman seasons in NCAA history.
Had Oden fallen to them, things might have turned out quite different in Oklahoma City.
But still, grabbing Westbrook fourth overall in 2008 after he had shown merely flashes during his time at UCLA turned out to be a stroke of genius. Getting Serge Ibaka, the best rim protector this side of Dwight Howard, 20 picks later was just as savvy a move.
In 2009, everyone knew James Harden had a lot of talent, but they also knew that he didn’t live up to immense expectations in his sophomore year at Arizona — including during the NCAA tournament — and some questioned his drive.
But Presti went with Harden and he’s become the top bench player in the league, a lethal scorer and a perfect complement to Durant and Westbrook.
The Thunder has also used the trade market wisely.
Starters Kendrick Perkins and Thabo Sefolosha are defensive lynchpins, two of the best defenders at their position and major reasons why the team is the NBA’s best.
It was a lot easier to give up Jeff Green for Perkins knowing that Harden, a better player, was already in place.
Meanwhile, Sefolosha was stolen from the Bulls for little in return and has given fits to opponents such as Tony Parker and Kobe Bryant.
While it all starts with the good fortune of landing Durant, Oklahoma City’s success doesn’t hinge on Durant alone.
Everything else had to fall into place and, thanks to Presti, it has.
Of course, Miami has had its share of good fortune along the way as well. Wade dropped to five and has turned out better than all but James in that draft. Also, Raptors general manager Bryan Colangelo gifted the team the cap space it eventually needed to grab Bosh and James by agreeing to the Shawn Marion for Jermaine O’Neal deal.
In the NBA, you have to be good — and lucky.