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Shaun Powell

Is this team too young to win an NBA title? Does age really matter?
Glenn James/NBAE via Getty Images

Too young to win? Thunder shouldn't lean on that one

Posted Mar 2 2010 10:46AM

They can win 50 games, make the playoffs, enjoy first-round home-court advantage and suit up the NBA's leading scorer and MVP and still have zero chance at winning a championship.

Such is life for the Oklahoma City Thunder, who must settle for a nice little run, a few playoff crumbs and a pat on the head for a job well done, all because the basketball gods have already declared them too weak, as in years, to carry the trophy.

Strange how that works in the NBA. Michael Chang won a Grand Slam tournament in tennis when he was 17. The Michigan Fab Five came a timeout away from possibly taking an NCAA title. Every now and then, in other sports, a young athlete or team defies the odds and conventional thinking by claiming a championship. This dynamic apparently is against the law in the NBA.

Any team must put at least four veterans in the playing rotation before they can think about sipping champagne in June. The NBA is unique that way. Young players and teams can prove themselves through an 82-game schedule and be applauded for their "maturity" and "poise" and whatnot. Then suddenly, in May and June, they're too "inexperienced" to win games.

What, does the court widen or lengthen in springtime? The hoop get squeezed? The rules change? The ball turn square?

"You've got to have players who've been there before," said Chauncey Billups, the Nuggets guard, citing the pressured atmosphere of the postseason. "You need veterans."

The results don't lie. Go back and examine the rotations of previous NBA champions, and they all were sprinkled with veterans who brought wisdom along with talent, with one stubborn exception. The Trail Blazers of 1976-77 had no business winning, considering the average age of their playing rotation was just under 25. Four of their starters were in college just three years earlier. Win a title with a bunch of twentysomethings? That's never been done, before or since.

Therefore -- and this is no surprise -- the hippie rebel of that Blazers team has a big problem with everyone writing off the Thunder as being too young.

"When I hear about Oklahoma City and how their age is being held against them, I totally disagree with that," said Bill Walton. "If they don't win a championship, it won't be because they weren't old enough. It'll be because they weren't good enough."

If Oklahoma City even wins two rounds, it'll be remarkable for a few reasons, among them: They're too weak offensively in the post, there's no expectations, and if you placed their hands on a Bible, even they would admit to thinking that they don't belong on the floor deep into the postseason. Walton and the Blazers never let that stop them. They caught fire midway through the season, swept the Lakers in the conference finals and upset the star-studded Sixers, led by Julius Erving and George McGinnis, in the Finals.

"Once we made the playoffs, we thought we were good enough to win it all," Walton said. "We weren't just happy to be there."

That's the problem with young teams. They listen too much to folks who say they're too young. They're content with just making the playoffs and satisfying the home fans. The Orlando Magic, with a young nucleus of Shaquille O'Neal, Penny Hardaway and Nick Anderson in 1995 reached the Finals and weren't especially devastated over losing to Hakeem Olajuwon and the Rockets. Why? They were too confident of their future to put so much emotional stock into losing that series. Shaq and Penny even bragged about being the Kareem and Magic of the 1990s and predicted they'd be back in the Finals multiple times. How'd that work out?

The people of Oklahoma City are so thrilled to (A) have a team, (B) watch a superstar in Kevin Durant and (C) enjoy winning basketball, that there's no anticipation of the Thunder doing anything special or historic in the postseason. As little as a month ago, while Durant was in the midst of his amazing scoring streak and the Thunder were clearly on a roll, coach Scott Brooks said the team wasn't even thinking ahead to the postseason. You think George Karl or Phil Jackson would ever say that?

But Brooks has a young team and didn't want his players distracted by what might lie ahead. That was totally unlike Walton and the Blazers, who dared to think ahead and dream big.

They also had a great player, who made all the difference. So it'll be interesting to see the mentality adopted by the Thunder, assuming they reach the playoffs. Do they ride Durant the way Portland did Walton?

Or do they see Kobe or Carmelo or Dirk on the other bench, a more experienced bench, and cling to the youth excuse?

Shaun Powell is a veteran NBA writer and columnist. You can e-mail him here.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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