The Oklahoma City Thunder turned the tables on the San Antonio Spurs in Games 3 and 4 of the Western Conference Finals, thanks in part to an almost inexhaustible supply of young players they can roll off their bench. Reggie Jackson entered the starting line-up in Game 3 and Jeremy Lamb picked up the slack when he went down with an ankle injury in Game 4. Steven Adams has been a huge presence upfront, with his ability to block shots and finish around the rim.
The Thunder built a contender through the draft from 2007-2009, when they grabbed Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Serge Ibaka, but they haven't lost their touch in recent years either. Even though they are no longer drafting at the top of the lottery, they are still able to find key contributors in the latter stages of the first round - Jackson was the No. 24 pick in 2011, Lamb was the No. 12 pick in 2012 and Adams was the No. 12 pick in 2013.
All three have one thing in common with the first generation of Thunder stars - super long arms. That's the market inefficiency that has allowed Oklahoma City to draft rings around most of the NBA. When you have longer arms than your opponent, it makes your life really easy on the basketball court. You can shoot over the top of them, you can play a step farther back on defense and still block their shot and you have an easier time getting rebounds and steals.
The value of length and athleticism was apparent in Game 4 against San Antonio, when seemingly every one of the Spurs passes was tipped, deflected and turned over. Once the Thunder were able to get the game up-and-down, it was essentially over, as the Spurs don't have the athletes to run with them. San Antonio makes their bones on ball movement and execution in the half-court, but that's difficult when there are long-armed condors running all over the floor.
Look at the wingspans in the Oklahoma City rotation - Westbrook (6'8), Jackson (7'0), Lamb (6'11), Durant (7'4), Ibaka (7'4), Adams (7'5). The only guys without supersized arms are the veterans they picked up in free agency (Caron Butler and Derek Fisher) as safety blankets for Scott Brooks. That's the theme even for the young players who don't get a lot of minutes - Andre Roberson (6'11) and Perry Jones III (7'2). It’s all about the gospel of length.
That's why they have been able to build on a different model than the rest of the league. Even as they contend for title, they are still picking up quality young players through the draft because they've turned it from a crap shoot to counting cards. There's no point in re-litigating the James Harden trade, which was mostly a matter of economics, but they were able to make it because they had confidence they could turn those mid first-round picks into good young players.
The Thunder are the Oakland A's of the NBA, a franchise determined to build a perennial contender without breaking the bank in terms of payroll. There's no way to do that without being able to consistently find young talent in the draft. Oklahoma City is getting big contributions from Jackson ($1.3 million), Lamb ($2.1 million) and Adams ($2.1 million), all for the price of one mid-level veteran. The Heat sign ring-chasing vets; the Thunder run a finishing school.
The key is to always have the pipeline running. As guys like Fisher, Butler, Thabo Sefolosha and Nick Collison age out, the Thunder won't just need Lamb, Adams and Jackson - they will need Roberson, Jones and Grant Jerrett as well. Looking farther down the road, they will need to get something from their two draft picks in 2014 - the No. 21 pick, the final piece of the Harden trade, as well as their own at No. 29. In a draft as strong as 2014, don't bet against OKC.
It's almost impossible to predict what they will do with those picks, given how long they will be waiting on draft night. For the most part, they will be waiting to see who falls to them and hoping to take advantage of any highly-rated guys who start gathering the wrong kind of momentum. If nothing unexpected happens, they will be picking through 20-25 players considered late first-round picks on most draft boards and you already know what’s on their cheat sheet.
Here's a few names to keep in the back of your head - Markel Brown, an uber-athletic 6'3 combo guard from Oklahoma State with a 6'9 wingspan, Jordan Adams, a well-rounded 6'5 shooting guard from UCLA with a 6'10 wingspan, Kyle Anderson, a 6’9 point forward from UCLA with a 7'3 wingspan and Isaiah Austin, a spindly 7'1 power forward from Baylor with a 7'5 wingspan. All those guys are versatile college players with exceptional length for their NBA positions.
None of the four are perfect prospects, but that's why they aren't going to go in the Top 10. Jackson was a combo guard without a defined position on a middling ACC team, Adams was an extremely raw young big man who averaged only 16 minutes a game as a freshman and Lamb was the leader of a spectacularly underachieving UConn team. The Thunder looked past the flaws in their resume and trusted the model they've been using for nearly a decade.
When a team goes on a long run of excellence, whether it's in the NFL, MLB or the NBA, it's easy to credit their braintrust with having magic sports IQ beans that allows them to out-think their competition. The reality is that everyone, whether it's Sam Presti or Billy Beane or Bill Belichick, has a model and a philosophy for what they are trying to do. The Thunder have a cheat code in the draft and it can be reverse-engineered - it's called guys with super-long arms.