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Thunder Represent Model of Success for Raptors to Look Up To

If the Raptors are going to rebuild like the Thunder, they are going to need to find a few more players like James Harden in the draft.
If the Raptors are going to rebuild like the Thunder, they are going to need to find a few more players like James Harden in the draft.

Sam Presti and The Oklahoma City Thunder have made a name for themselves by building a winner largely through the draft. If the Raptors are going to rebuild in a similar way, they are going to need to have similar luck.

Heading into last night’s matchup with the Oklahoma City Thunder, most were expecting a blowout loss for the Dinos; by the time the final buzzer sounded that is exactly what we saw—a 91-75 win for the Thunder.

The Raptors were competitive for about two and a half quarters before suffering through a six-plus minute scoring draught which effectively ended their shot at winning the game. It also didn’t help that Andrea Bargnani—one of the few players who was actually effective on offense—left the game early in the third quarter after apparently reaggravating a calf injury that has kept him out for the majority of this season.

The Raptors were simply outmatched by the Thunder who have far too many weapons for the Raptors to keep up with on both ends of the floor. Frankly, most teams are outmatched when they go up against this Thunder squad, and this is why they are currently sitting in 1st place in the Western Conference and are a favorite to contend for the NBA title this season.

Another byproduct of their success is that they are now seen as the model for rebuilding through the draft—a model that many think the Raptors should pay close attention to as they strive to improve this flawed franchise.

Oklahoma City’s core of young players consists of three top five picks in Durant (2nd overall), Westbrook (4th overall) and James Harden (3rd overall) and their center was acquired in a deal for another of their top five picks in Jeff Green. The Thunder’s other key piece, Surge Ibaka was a late round pick at 24th overall, but is another example of how astute player evaluations can make the world of difference for a team that is looking to add assets through the draft.

The model seems simple: lose enough games each year so that you net a top five pick and choose from the best prospects year after year until your team is loaded enough with young talent that they can make a run at the playoffs. Yet, as Raptors fans know, this model isn’t as simple as it looks.

The Thunder had a couple of things going for them during that particular stretch of impressive draft showings. The first being that they play in the Western Conference which meant playing a tougher schedule, making it much easier to be one of the five worst teams in the league. The second is the luck that has come along with picking in each of those particular draft years. These are both things that have gone the opposite way for the Raptors.

Since the 05-06 season when the Dinos finished with the 5th worst record and won the lottery—only to select Bargnani who has not done for the Raptors what Durant has done for the Thunder—they have finished in the bottom five just once and that was last season. As a result we have seen the Raptors attempt to make the best of less than stellar draft positions by selecting DeMar DeRozan and Ed Davis who aren’t quite the same talents as James Harden and Russell Westbrook.

Despite finishing with the 3rd worst record last season, the Raps were given no lottery luck and were bounced to the fifth spot, where again Colangelo sought to make the best of his draft position, selecting Jonas Valanciunas, a pick which could turn out to be a huge pull for a franchise that hasn’t exactly made the best moves on draft day; or it could end up being yet another unfortunate bounce for a club that's experienced it’s fair share in recent years.

Currently the Raptors are sitting with the sixth worst record in the league and given their schedule, it doesn’t seem like they will be able to crack that bottom five. Yet again, it looks like Dinos will be counting on a strike of luck to land them a key piece to move this franchise forward and for better or worse, this is the reality of the lottery system the NBA has in place.

If you are the Oklahoma City Thunder and things bounce your way, you get the right picks in the right draft and you are a powerhouse contending for the NBA title. If you are the Toronto Raptors, you get a few unfavorable bounces and here we are: sitting 6th worst in the league with few game-changing assets and counting on some luck to turn around the franchise.

Or counting on management to make some shrewd moves with the assets they've got, the model used by tonight's opponent for the Dinos, the Indiana Pacers. It took a longer period of time, but Larry Bird and co have been systematically stockpiling young assets that can eventually take the club to another level when mixed with some key veteran presences. The Pacers' prospects have not been of the OKC variety, (think Tyler Hansbrough) but have been good enough to build around and move for any other missing links, something it appears Bryan Colangelo will be looking to do starting this off-season. In that way, the Raps will attempt to make their own luck, and get back in the playoff hunt with or without a guy like Anthony Davis.

That's not to say though that landing a Davis or Michael Kidd-Gilchrist wouldn't significantly alter the speed and trajectory of the current rebuild. It's more that the reality remains, once you get that lucky bounce you have to make the best of it, and this is some that the Oklahoma City Thunder has done with great success.

All we can do is wait and hope that the Dinos will do that very same thing when they finally catch that break.