During the 2014 NBA Draft, ESPN’s Fran Fraschilla said what may be the most iconic line in NBA Draft history.
He called Bruno Caboclo, whom the Toronto Raptors picked 20th overall, “Two years away from being two years away” and set the internet on fire during what was still the infancy of the beast now known as #NBATwitter.
Fraschilla’s prophecy proved untrue, with Caboclo never truly finding his footing in the NBA and instead becoming immortalized as a meme.
More than seven years later, Fraschilla’s quip may have found its second wind, but this time with an entire franchise.
The front office of the Oklahoma City Thunder, led by their General Manager Sam Presti since 2007 , unabashedly tanked last season, have committed to losing as much as possible this year, and seem determined to continue on this path for the foreseeable future.
The Thunder were tied with the Cleveland Cavaliers for the fourth-worst record in the league last season (22-50) which bore them the sixth overall pick in this year’s NBA Draft. They nabbed Australian guard Josh Giddey with that selection and he has been a pleasant surprise over the first few weeks of this campaign.
The 19-year-old Giddey and their 23-year-old shooting guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, whom they acquired from the Los Angeles Clippers in 2019 as the centerpiece of the package that they received for Paul George, have formed a quirky backcourt that looks like it has the potential to eventually lead them back into the playoffs.
The development of these two has actually become quite a hindrance in Oklahoma City’s race for more ping pong balls in next year’s draft lottery. Their season started as planned, with four consecutive losses and six defeats in their first seven outings, before the talent of their backcourt eventually won out.
They won four consecutive games and found themselves within a game of .500 with a 5-6 record. Order has since been restored, with the Thunder subsequently dropping 10 of their next 11 games. Giddey has missed their last two outings with an undisclosed (non COVID-19) illness and Gilgeous-Alexander has sat out three contests already with minor injuries.
It is expected that these two will continue missing time here and there this season. Their continued growth together will inevitably lead to more wins and the only way to stop them from botching their lottery hopes might be to keep them off the court. This allows Oklahoma City to hit two birds with one stone–play it safe with the health of their cornerstones and rack up losses in their bid for a higher pick in the draft.
The Thunder’s last game was the first time, although definitely not the last, that these two sat out the same game. It resulted in the worst loss in NBA history, 152-79, versus the Memphis Grizzlies who were playing without their own up-and-coming guard Ja Morant.
The embarrassing loss was an unfortunate confluence of events for Oklahoma City. Memphis does not have older stars who are prone to coasting against lottery-bound teams. The Thunder have been able to spring surprising wins versus teams with this profile, most notably their two come-from-behind victories versus
their fellow lottery-bound team the Los Angeles Lakers.
Instead, the Grizzlies’ roster is littered with young prospects who have already proven that they are NBA-worthy and are now working towards lucrative contract extensions when their respective deals expire. Memphis had nine players who scored in double figures and the rag-tag Thunder did not stand a chance versus this hungry team that would never remotely consider taking their foot off the pedal.
Of course, this is all part of Presti’s plan.
Oklahoma City has over 30 draft picks, including their own, from next year’s draft until the 2027 edition. They have more picks than there are roster spots (15) on an NBA team, but that doesn’t seem to be a concern for them and they have continued to accumulate future draft selections in the same manner that Dennis Rodman chases rebounds.
Presti is effectively betting on himself here. After starting his front office career in the early 2000s with the league’s gold standard franchise at the time, San Antonio Spurs, he joined the Thunder in the offseason of 2007. He subsequently went on the greatest hot streak of the recent era, first picking Kevin Durant second overall that year and trading their existing star Ray Allen for the fifth choice of that same draft which was used on Jeff Green.
While the Durant-Green duo showed promise in their first year together, it ended with another lottery selection for the team in 2008. Presti drafted Russell Westbrook fourth overall and Serge Ibaka with the 24th pick. In 2009, he had one last swing in the lottery and he hit another home run with James Harden whom he nabbed third overall.
Presti picked three NBA MVP winners in three consecutive years and while it only resulted in one Finals appearance for their franchise, they enjoyed several years of relevance during a tough era in the Western Conference.
It will be interesting to see whether Presti’s bravado will reap the same rewards for the franchise or lead him to the same fate as Sam Hinkie, the last man who tried a rebuild on the same scale with the Philadelphia 76ers and was eventually ousted before his plan bore fruit.
Giddey and Gilgeous-Alexander are a step in the right direction, but Presti will have to nail the upcoming draft and find another building block if he hopes to remain out of the hot seat. There is no exact science to the draft and there is no guarantee that his picks will pan out. The recent lottery reform, which smoothened the odds among participating teams with the intent of discouraging tanking, is also another headwind that was not there during Presti’s last foray into the lottery an era ago.
Eventually, some of these picks may become attractive trade assets to bring stars to an Oklahoma City team that is not exactly a free agent hot spot. In the meantime, it will be exciting to see how much patience their ownership group and fanbase have for Presti’s plan to build through the draft.
They are two years away from being two years away, but Presti is also in a delicate situation that has him just two moves away from having to just go away.