Last night, the Oklahoma City Thunder defeated the San Antonio Spurs to earn their place as the Western Conference representative in the NBA Finals. Young guns Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook led their team back from a double digit deficit to stamp out the last remaining life for the old-guard San Antonio Spurs ... stop me if you've heard this before.
In beating the Spurs, OKC continued an unprecedented playoff run that will likely never be duplicated again. Other teams have been more dominant. Other teams have been more dramatic. One other team has even been younger (the Portland Trailblazers had an average weighted age less than OKC's 25.6 years in 1977). But no team has ever had a more clichéd run through the NBA postseason.
Whenever anyone, or anything, wants to achieve success in a competitive landscape, that success must come at the hands of somebody else who has already achieved it. It happens in basketball. It happens in business. It happens in the animal kingdom. The battle between youth and experience predates humanity itself, making the concept of the young gun taking on the old guard one of the world's oldest clichés. And the Oklahoma City Thunder are leaving the old guard in their wake as they march on. All of it.
Dallas. Los Angeles. San Antonio. These are the teams that Oklahoma City has dismantled en route to the 2012 NBA Finals. Dallas is last year's champion, and the oldest team in the league by weighted age. Our beloved Lakers were responsible for the two previous championships, and were the 3rd oldest team in the league. San Antonio, who has worked hard in recent years to infuse some youth into their lineup, are only top 10 in terms of "old", but they are led by a core of Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan which has not changed in nearly a decade. Their coach is the longest tenured manager in all of American professional sports. The Spurs have been the targets of "old guard" stories for five years. Oh, and they are also a "recent" champion, last winning the title in 2007. No one embodies the concept of the old guard more than Tim Duncan and his boys in silver and black.
No one, except perhaps the Thunder's next likely opponent. If the Boston Celtics can complete their improbable comeback against the Miami Heat, it will perpetuate this ridiculous storyline to its ultimate finale. Boston has also won a championship recently (2008, as if I have to remind you), and they are the 2nd oldest team in the league. Their core, minus the young Rajon Rondo, is a trio of over the hill Hall of Famers that keep on forgetting they are over the hill at exactly the right times.
If Boston makes it to the NBA Finals, and the Thunder are victorious, they will have achieved the following:
- The Thunder will have defeated every team that has won an NBA championship in the last five seasons (with all of those teams bearing a strong resemblance to the team that actually won said championship)
- They will have defeated the three oldest teams in the league and the San Antonio Spurs, who have been synonymous with the word old for longer than the Thunder have even existed.
- They will have achieved all of this as the second youngest champion in NBA history
And that's not even the whole story. This is the first year of a new collective bargaining agreement, one that is designed to be much more financially restrictive than previous versions. Based on the adjustments teams like the Lakers and Mavericks (two teams notorious for paying as much attention to the previous luxury tax as you might pay a mosquito) have been making to theoretical championship contenders (choosing to cut costs and create cap flexibility in lieu of keeping cores together and improving the roster), one can reasonably assume the restrictions have enough teeth to matter. That means the NBA might be operating on the closest thing to a level playing field that we've ever seen, which means the franchises that will win will be the ones that do the best job of maximizing the value of their player compensation.
What kind of player is most likely to provide maximum value for minimum compensation? Why, that would be a player on a rookie contract. Any rookie joining the NBA does so on a contract that is automatically set, usually for the first four years (if the player is good enough to merit all the various team options, etc.) before that player is even eligible for the big paydays and max contracts that might befit his services. That's why Russell Westbrook is only on the books for $5 million this season, and James Harden will make just short of $6 million next year. Serge Ibaka will make $2.2 million dollars next season, an obscenely low number for somebody who produces as much as he does. These are the types of contracts that will make the difference on a level playing field. These are the types of contracts only young players can have.
The story hasn't happened yet. Boston has an excellent chance of making the NBA Finals, but there's still one more contest to win against a team that has enough talent to mount a comeback. If Boston makes the Finals, the Thunder would likely be heavily favored, but we've seen the Celtics do this before, and know exactly how hard it is to take that team down when they smell the finish line. The final chapters of this year's history are yet to be written, and there are many different paths the story can still take.
But the most probable path, the path that involves outcomes currently favored to occur, would lead to the culmination of a script so ridiculous, it could not exist as fiction. The circumstances listed above simply would not pass the realism smell test. The array of past champions, the litany of "old" teams, the non-stop barrage of "young Oklahoma City Thunder takes out the old guard" storylines, all of it is a cliché that keeps growing exponentially. That it's all taking place on the cusp of a new era in NBA history, in which the easiest way to build a winner might just be to have a young, underpaid, roster instead of an old, overpaid one, is just the icing on the cake. If the Oklahoma City Thunder go on to win the NBA championship, it will be a clear indication that the NBA might never be the same, and the shift in paradigms, quite literally, could not be more pronounced.
The Oklahoma City Thunder, one of the youngest teams to ever have a chance at winning the NBA championship, might just do so by defeating all of the oldest teams in the league, at a time in which the very concept of an "old guard" team might be becoming irrelevant. You just can't make this stuff up.