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Building a Conference Champion: Western Edition

This article takes a look at how the Western Conference Champions of the last decade came together.

Houston Rockets v Golden State Warriors Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

A couple days ago, I looked at how the Eastern Conference champions over the last decade built their rosters. Here’s a look at how their Western equivalents have done the same.

Golden State Warriors: 2015-2017

Key Players:

Drafted: Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, Harrison Barnes (2015-2016 only), Patrick McCaw (2017 only)

Free Agent: Kevin Durant (2017 only), Shaun Livingston, Leandro Barbosa (2015-2016 only), Ian Clark (2016-2017 only), Marreese Speights (2015-2016 only)

Trade: Andre Iguodala, Andrew Bogut (2015-2016 only), David Lee (2015 only)

Important Moves: Ironically, the team most comparable to the Warriors prior to acquiring Kevin Durant in the summer of 2016 was the Oklahoma City Thunder. They drafted Curry, Thompson, Barnes, and Draymond in three of four drafts (the one misstep being Ekpe Udoh in 2010), hitting on both mid-lottery picks and a 2nd rounder. While not quite as spectacular at that OKC run, that’s still a remarkable series of picks, turning out an MVP, two All-NBA players, and a solid starter. It all might have been for naught without two huge trades, however: flipping former star Monta Ellis for Andrew Bogut in 2012, and absorbing Iguodala into their empty cap in 2013. Those guys brought defensive intensity and know-how to a Warriors team that needed it, and Iggy in particular has been a massive part of the Warriors’ free flowing offense and culture of sharing. Bringing in Durant in 2016 was overkill, a move that won them an easy championship in 2017, and will probably win them a couple more for years to come. There is no end to their dominance in sight.

Long Term Strategy, if Any: Much like the Thunder, Lakers, and Magic, the Warriors are ultimately a homegrown team that made the right moves at the right time to launch them into contention. They kept their cap flexible enough to make the Iguodala trade, and generally made savvy moves in free agency (Speights, Barbosa). They held onto the right players (Klay and Draymond during the Kevin Love exiting Minnesota saga) and dumped the wrong ones (Ellis). Player evaluation has been a major plus in other ways as well, hitting on players off the scrap heap (Clark and Livingston) and in the second round (Draymond again and McCaw). There was more luck involved than with many other teams- signing Steph to an extension right when his value was lowest, having the cap spike right when Durant was a free agent- though the Warriors also simply implemented all their individual transactions terrifically. The Warriors, like most other teams on this list, didn’t execute some grand strategy. Not making bad moves is just as important as going through with the good ones, and the Warriors have managed to do both those things in their recent run.

San Antonio Spurs: 2013-2014

Key Players:

Drafted: Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Kawhi Leonard, Tiago Splitter, Cory Joseph, Gary Neal (Undrafted Free Agent, 2013 only)

Free Agent: Boris Diaw, Patty Mills, Marco Bellinelli (2014 only)

Trade: Matt Bonner

How the Team was Built: The Spurs are such an organic product that it’s tough to single out the many individual moves that led to their resurgence in the mid 2010s. Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili had all been in San Antonio for at least a decade, forming one of the greatest NBA threesomes of all time. The team around them shifted at least three or four times, however, bolstered by the Spurs’ ability to find prospects in the late 1st and 2nd rounds. With young players such as Splitter and Joseph always in the pipeline, the Spurs have had a remarkable stretch not just of playoff appearances, but of being actual contenders. The biggest reason for their continued success is undoubtedly the ascendance of Kawhi Leonard as an MVP caliber player. While he wasn’t that superlative back in 2013 and 2014, he was already an All Defense level defender and pretty good offensive player, and his acquisition for the cost of George Hill (a perfectly fine starting point guard) is one of the greatest trades in NBA history. The Spurs themselves have said they didn’t think he would be this good, and one has to believe them—he might have transformed his game more than any player in NBA history. Outside of the new “Big 4”, the rest of the roster was composed of young guys, smart veterans (Diaw, Bonner), and a couple transients (Bellinelli, Neal). Perhaps no team has played team basketball as well as the Spurs in 2013-2014, and it’s a formula that’s virtually impossible to reconstruct.

Long Term Strategy, if Any: Being the Spurs. In all seriousness, the Spurs are their own thing, an organization apart in the NBA (though the Hawks and Warriors have both come close to them in various ways in recent years). They possess the best coach in NBA history in Greg Popovich, the most cohesive and forward-thinking front office in the NBA, and a well-deserved reputation for greatness. No other team has those things. Nor does any other team really have much of a path towards reaching them. Fundamental organizational quality is something that can be strived for, but it can’t just be achieved just like that. Even outside the organization, a Tim Duncan or a Kawhi Leonard doesn’t come around very frequently. In general, the Spurs remained relevant by keeping their core together and adding pieces through the draft. They don’t always make great moves (drafting Nando de Colo, signing Richard Jefferson), but they don’t screw up much either. Simple competence, in many ways, is the hardest path to pursue.

Oklahoma City Thunder: 2012

Key Players:

Drafted: Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Serge Ibaka, Nick Collison

Free Agent: Derek Fisher

Trade: Kendrick Perkins, Thabo Sefolosha

How the Team was Built: The Oklahoma City Thunder of the early 2010’s are the current blueprint for every team trying to build through the draft. All of the Thunder’s key players were drafted by them, or acquired via trade with homegrown pieces. The former Seattle Supersonics gave up on their previous iteration of the team built around Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis, trading them both away for a bevy of prospects and draft picks. The Supersonics were awful without their two stars, landing them the #2 pick in the draft—Kevin Durant. In the two years after Durant was drafted, the Thunder added Westbrook, Harden, and Ibaka in the draft, going on the greatest draft run of all time. After that, the rest of the roster wasn’t as much of an issue, with the Thunder swapping the hitherto core piece Jeff Green for Kendrick Perkins, a source of professionalism, grit, and championship experience. Alas, the Thunder weren’t good enough to topple LeBron and the Heat at their peak, and they would never return to the Finals. One by one, the core pieces left. Only Westbrook and a now washed up Collison remain.

Long Term Strategy, if Any: The Thunder were the definition of a homegrown roster. Therefore, their only real strategy was to be patient, and not trade any of their youngsters for a win-now move (until the Perkins deal). They were bad for several years, had high draft picks, and knocked all of them out of the park (two MVPs, and a two-time MVP runner-up). Being that bad is something that teams can accomplish easily, but hitting all those draft picks to such an extent is not. It’s quite possible that no team ever matches that Durant-Westbrook-Ibaka-Harden run (at least in such a short span), as it’s a simply ridiculous amount of talent. Yes, the Thunder made errors around the margins, and the James Harden trade haunts them to this day. They should have won a championship with that core. It all goes to show that even if a team does almost everything right, a championship is not guaranteed to follow.

Dallas Mavericks: 2011

Key Players:

Drafted: Dirk Nowitzki, JJ Barea (Undrafted Free Agent)

Free Agent: Peja Stojakovic

Trade: Jason Kidd, Jason Terry, Caron Butler, Shawn Marion, Tyson Chandler, DeShawn Stevenson, Brendan Haywood

How the Team was Built: The Mavericks are virtually unique among this list of champions in how they built up their roster. Dallas didn’t rely on one or two big trades or free agent signings, nor did they reach the Finals after some of their younger players developed into stars. No, Dallas was a playoff team for a full decade before they won a championship, and had even made the Finals in 2006. Instead of a build up to a title, Dallas constantly refreshed their team, swapping out players when it was clear they weren’t essential or needed to be upgraded. Finally, in 2011, the perfect cocktail was created. The key ingredient: Tyson Chandler, who was brought over from Charlotte for scraps. His rim-protection and rebounding were vital to Dallas during their championship run, especially against LeBron in the Finals. A couple other key players came over when the Mavs capitalized on the Wizards’ falling apart in the aftermath of “Gungate”. The 2011 Mavericks were truly a unique team, a blend of veterans mixed together over a couple years who caught fire at exactly the right time. Mark Cuban allowed Chandler to walk in free agency that summer, however, and the Mavs never recovered.

Long Term Strategy, if Any: The strategy the Dallas Mavericks pursued is very difficult to swallow. They remained good enough to make the playoffs every year even as they turned over the roster regularly. Most teams who shake things up take a step back at least once or twice, but the Mavs hung on for a decade until they broke through. Dirk was the only real untouchable, though Jason Terry was also a core piece for much of that time. Bringing it back every year with some small changes is a strategy that requires patience and luck. Fortunately, the Mavs had both.

Los Angeles Lakers: 2008-2010

Key Players:

Drafted: Kobe Bryant, Andrew Bynum, Jordan Farmar, Sasha Vujacic, Luke Walton, Ronny Turiaf (2008 only)

Free Agent: Ron Artest (2010 only), Derek Fisher, Vladimir Radmanovic (2008 only)

Trade: Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol, Shannon Brown, Trevor Ariza

How the Team was Built: The Lakers were a pretty good team in February of 2008. Kobe was still one of the two or three best players in the NBA, and Lamar Odom was a nice sidekick. The rest of the team was young and exciting—Bynum was 20, Vujacic was 23, Farmar was 21, and Ariza was 22. Then, out of nowhere, the Lakers snatched Pau Gasol away from the Memphis Grizzlies, sending back a couple draft picks, some veterans, and two mediocre prospects. It was considered one of the most lopsided trades of all time almost immediately, and launched the Lakers into contention. They went 22-5 the rest of the way, and zoomed through the playoffs before losing to the Celtics in the Finals. In 2009 and 2010, however, the Lakers would not be denied, as the combination of Kobe with the three-headed big man hydra of Gasol, Bynum, and Odom was simply too much to handle. Roster consistency was a strength of the Lakers in this period, as they returned virtually the same team every year (the big change being the swapping of Ariza for Artest in the summer of 2009). That continuity finally got the best of them in 2011, as other teams became younger and more innovative. The Lakers never adapted, and are still struggling to return to the playoffs now.

Long Term Strategy, if Any: Despite their reputation as a star-studded franchise that’s a dream home for free agents, the Lakers’ run in the late 2000’s had almost nothing to do with free agents. The core of the team was either drafted or had been around for a long time already (Odom). Some small trades were made around the fringes for young guys who could develop with the rest of the roster (Ariza, Brown), but for the most part the Lakers were home-grown. Mitch Kupchak made a brilliant move with the Pau Gasol trade, cashing in his assets for a star player to put his team over the top—reminiscent of the Lewis trade for the Magic (though Pau was a much better player). The Magic and Lakers are actually highly comparable (Howard and Kobe as superstars, Odom and Turkoglu as the versatile forwards, and a similar cadre of young role players), and became contenders in the same fashion. For teams hoping to replicate that success in the future, that’s a hopeful sign.

Conclusion: Unlike the Eastern Conference champions of the last decade, which were mostly formed by trades or in free agency, the Western Conference winners were largely based on internal development. While acquisitions such as Pau Gasol and Kevin Durant made seismic changes to the conference, the teams they joined were already contenders (or in the Lakers’ case, close to it). The Thunder and Warriors in particular are teams whose foundations lay in their own draft prospects. Instead of surging to contention due to one or two massive moves, they rose in strength over time, making moves around the margins and keeping their cores intact. When the time was right, they struck, acquiring key pieces who filled in the rest of the puzzle. This is a blueprint that teams can at least try to follow (what the Process was aiming for, without the blatant tanking). The Nuggets, Timberwolves, and many other teams are building up their own stockpile of young players, hoping that enough of them pan out to move the team into contention (or even into the playoffs). While this strategy is slow to complete and very likely to fail (not all teams can draft like the Thunder or Warriors did), it’s still the option that offers the easiest road to real success.