The Thunder are young and exciting. They have the youngest scoring champion in NBA history and he has a superstar guard as a sidekick. The third scorer has improved markedly from last season and unquestionably has star qualities.
And none of those three – Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden – has yet to celebrate a 24th birthday.
The center (Kendrick Perkins) is unspectacular and light on the boards, but he’s a good defender, large and functional. The role players embrace their jobs, play with enthusiasm and provide efficient support.
The Thunder won 55 games last year, are currently the only team to win 80 percent of their games and have many supporters – certainly at home, but also across the NBA – who believe a championship is in the immediate future.
I’m not one of those people. I’m dubious about the Thunder developing championship pedigree – at least in the short term.
And as many promising teams have discovered, so much can happen to change the long term.
Let’s review what the Thunder have accomplished thus far:
♦ OKC won its first playoff series in April by defeating the Denver Nuggets in the first round. The Thunder was the fourth seed; Denver the fifth. The Nuggets also had traded Carmelo Anthony at the trading deadline and were still a new team.
The Thunder were supposed to win.
♦ In the second round, OKC defeated the Memphis Grizzlies, who were the eighth-seeded team. The Grizzlies upset the Spurs in the first round, primarily because Manu Ginobili was limited by a painful elbow injury. The Grizzlies had a nice playoff run, but, again, they were the eighth seed.
The Thunder were supposed to win.
♦ In the third round, the Thunder met the Mavericks and went down quickly in five games.
We’ve seen teams with exciting potential in the past. Remember the 2007-08 New Orleans Hornets? At 56-26, they were the No.2 seed in the West, won their first round series against the Mavericks then forced the defending champion Spurs to a seventh game before losing.
At the time, Chris Paul was 22, Tyson Chandler was 25, David West was 27 and Peja Stojakovic was 30. The Hornets had a wonderful blend of youth and experience, excellent role players, a rabid fan base and a title seemed within reach.
Four years later?
Paul is a Clipper, Chandler is a Knick, West is a Pacer, Stojakovic is unemployed, head coach Byron Scott was fired, the team was sold to the league and David Stern is de facto general manager.
That young exciting team with championship potential has been obliterated.
As impressive as the talent is on the Thunder, the reality has always been that young teams do not win championships. That alone does not mean it can’t be done. While noted philosophers have reminded us that ball don’t lie, history sometimes does. That’s why there is always a first.
But if you can find a team in NBA history whose four leading scorers were 23 or younger, please send me a note.
Kobe Bryant won his first title in 2000 at 21, but Shaquille O’Neal was 27, third leading scorer Glen Rice was 32 and fourth leading scorer Ron Harper was 36.
Tim Duncan was 22 when he won his first championship in 1999, but the next four high scorers – David Robinson, Sean Elliott, Mario Elie and Avery Johnson – were 33, 35, 30 and 33, respectively.
Duncan’s second in 2003 had a younger crew. Robinson was 37 and still around, but a role player. After Duncan, who was 26, the next three leading scorers — Tony Parker, Stephen Jackson and Manu Ginobili – were 20, 24 and 25, respectively.
And much was made of Michael Jordan’s Bulls having to endure frustration and misery before finally winning a title in 1991 when Jordan was 27 and Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant were 25 each.
The Thunder’s key players are younger than all those teams, but that alone is not cause to believe it can’t be done. But it demonstrates how difficult it is. Thunder head coach Scott Brooks knows he has a special roster. But he also knows that NBA titles are won by veteran teams.
After a recent game, Brooks told the media, “We want to win a championship eventually.”
The crazy 66-game season with the ignorant schedule has been a positive for the Thunder. While the older guys battle nagging injuries throughout the league, the top five OKC scorers have not missed a game.
And the playoff schedule is also going to be compressed so, again, young legs should benefit.
Then again, what if the Lakers, Spurs and Mavericks – three teams with championships – enter the playoffs healthy? San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich is a master at keeping an eye on the big picture, resting his older players and preserving them for the playoffs. Popovich has never cared where the Spurs are seeded. If Ginobili is healthy by playoff time, the Spurs are going to present a huge challenge.
Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle has a little Popovich in him. Carlisle was brilliant coaching in the playoffs last year and you can be sure he will continue to look for opportunities to rest Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Kidd. The Mavericks have had a problem with health this season and realistically, it does not look at this point like the nagging injuries are going to go away.
But who knows? A dip into the fountain of youth or some sort of magic elixir could boost them for another playoff run. And they have the experience and confidence to cause problems.
And finally, does anyone want to play Kobe Bryant and the Lakers in a seven-game series?
The Thunder have done a wonderful job of drafting, and Brooks has his team playing at a high level. But OKC is hardly a sure thing.
A major step for the Thunder will be winning a playoff series against a team seeded in the top four.
They have not yet done that.
When they do, I will believe the future has arrived. Until they do, they are a team with potential. And as history has told us, there are significant steps between that and a championship.
Jan Hubbard has written about basketball since 1976 and worked in the NBA league office for eight years in between media stints. Follow him on Twitter at @whyhub.