Jun 14 2012 3:02PM

Budding Dynasty


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The Kevin Durant story is so appealing to the masses because the 23-year-old has seemingly done everything the right way and may be rewarded accordingly with an NBA championship at such a young age.

It's so rare to have an MVP-caliber player in his early 20s on an NBA Finals championship team.

Durant is not one to put such pressure on his narrow-yet-sturdy shoulders, saying at Wednesday's press conference, ""I just don't think about that. Just play. I pride myself on working hard and learning and being coachable. I have faith in all those things that I do, day in and day out. Coming in, working hard. Believing in myself and my teammates. And believing in the system.

"Whatever happens after that, it happens. Long as I know that I come in and give it my all every single day. Can't worry about what other people say or expectations they put on me. It's just all about how I view myself and how my teammates view me. And we'll go from there." Durant's humble demeanor and obvious leadership skills have many in the basketball world forecasting dynastic potential for this young, talented Oklahoma City squad.

Of course, it's premature to do that. The Thunder are still three wins away from getting their first NBA championship together.

Still, it's a topic of conversation.

With that in mind, I thought I'd take a look back at the 10 best 23-and-under greats who played in an NBA Finals, based on Player Efficiency Rating and Win Shares.

Dynastic hopes were pinned on these teams too ... and half the time, those prophecies never were fulfilled.


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BILL RUSSELL & THE 1956-57 BOSTON CELTICS

Red Auerbach had such faith in Russell that he traded two future Hall of Famers--Ed Macauley and rookie Cliff Hagan--and got his owner to throw in a week of the Ice Capades tour (story you gotta read here) for the right to select Russell in the 1956 NBA Draft. That was the genesis of the team that would go on to win 11 of 13 NBA championships, starting right then, in Russell's rookie year at age 23. Building his team around Russell's defense and rebounding awesomeness, Auerbach created basketball's greatest team ever. It didn't hurt that Red already had a perennial All-Star backcourt in Bob Cousy and Bill Sharman, not to mention he had the territorial draft rights to another All-Star, Tom Heinsohn, in that same 1956 NBA Draft. But it was Russell who made it all go. The Celtic center's 23-and-under Player Efficiency Rating was a stellar 22.0, which is mind-boggling when you consider blocked shots weren't kept as a statistic at that time. Imagine what Russell's plus-minus and PER numbers would be if stats were kept like they are today.

A DYNASTY? Yes. Eleven times over.


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RICK BARRY & THE 1966-67 SAN FRANCISCO WARRIORS

As a second-year player, the 23-year-old Barry--who had a 22.1 career PER at that point--led the San Francisco Warriors to a six-game NBA Finals series with the Wilt Chamberlain-led 1966-67 Philadelphia 76ers, one of the greatest teams ever. With the NBA's leading scorer Barry playing alongside center and MVP runner-up Nate Thurmond, it seemed like the Warriors were headed on a path to greatness. However, Barry left the team because he thought they were low-balling him and signed with the ABA's Oakland Oaks for more money, thus ending San Francisco's dynastic hopes. Barry would return to the renamed Golden State Warriors in 1972-73 and eventually lead the team to the 1975 NBA championship.

A DYNASTY? No.


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MAGIC JOHNSON & THE 1979-80 LOS ANGELES LAKERS

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was the leader of the 1980 and 1982 NBA champion Lakers, but the fresh infusion of a 20-year-old Johnson in 1979-80 was just what the Laker forces needed to birth their first dynasty, back in the 1980s. Johnson, who had a 23-and-under PER of 22.7, immediately teamed up with the 1979-80 MVP Abdul-Jabbar, not to mention fellow stars Jamaal Wilkes, Norm Nixon and Michael Cooper to form the genesis of a squad that would go on to win five NBA titles in the 1980s (1980, 1982, 1985, 1987, 1988).

A DYNASTY? Five banners in a decade and being one of the two teams that defined a decade and resurrected the League certainly qualifies it as one.


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HAKEEM OLAJUWON & THE 1985-86 HOUSTON ROCKETS

Olajuwon, the No. 1 2004 NBA Draft pick, was a superstar the second the seven-footer set foot on an NBA floor, with amazing footwork and shot-blocking skills that made Hakeem The Dream as dominant defensively as he was with the ball. Teamed up with 7-4 center and 1983 No. 1 draft pick Ralph Sampson, Olajuwon wasted little time showing his potential, producing a 23-and-under PER of 22.5 from the get-go. Celtics Coach K.C. Jones called the Olajuwon and Sampson-led Rockets "the new monsters on the block," saying this even after Boston won the 1986 NBA championship over Houston. However, knee and back injuries cut Sampson's career down the following season and the Rockets' vaunted Twin Towers seven-foot combo was never quite the same, with the injured Sampson eventually traded in December 1987. It would be many years later--eight to be exact--when Olajuwon would put a Houston team on his back and carry the Rockets to back-to-back NBA titles in 1994 and 1995.

A DYNASTY? Despite back-to-back titles, no, since there's little doubt that the Rockets would be title-less if Michael Jordan hadn't decided to play outfield.


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SHAQUILLE O'NEAL & THE 1994-95 ORLANDO MAGIC

O'Neal was an instant dominant force in the NBA, backed by his wondrous 23-and-under 26.6 PER, while the expansion organization methodically put together a winning franchise--drafting fellow All-Star Penny Hardaway the following season and later landing free-agent gem Horace Grant. In Shaq's third NBA season, the Magic defeated the Bulls in MIchael Jordan's comeback bid in the Eastern Conference Finals. The Magic next got swept by Olajuwon's Rockets in the 1995 NBA Finals, yet hope was still in the air. After all, Shaq was 23 and the franchise was up-and-coming. However, one season later, the Magic got swept by Jordan's Bulls. And in the Summer of 1996, O'Neal left the Magic for the bright lights of the big city of Los Angeles, thus ending Orlando's dynastic hopes.

A DYNASTY? There was much potential had O'Neal stayed and Hardaway not gotten hurt, but we'll never know.


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TIM DUNCAN & THE 1999 SAN ANTONIO SPURS

The Twin Towers nickname moved to San Antonio in the late '90s when the Spurs drafted Tim Duncan No. 1 to play alongside fellow All-Star center David Robinson. And in the lockout-shortened 1999 season, the two giants laid the foundation for a franchise that would eventually lift four championship banners in San Antonio. Duncan, who had a 23-and-under PER of 23.5, and Robinson were the dominant duo of the 1999 championship squad, then went through a three-year title drought as the Lakers emerged as the league's No. 1 team. However, with a retiring Robinson teaming up with future stars Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili in the 2002-03 season, Duncan was once again able to lead the Spurs on a championship run that resulted in one more title with Robinson (2003) and two more after The Admiral retired (2005 and 2007).

A DYNASTY? Yes, and one that still has hope for championship No. 5.


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KOBE BRYANT & THE 1999-2000 LOS ANGELES LAKERS

Similar to the career arc of Magic Johnson 20 years earlier, Bryant's ascension to greatness coincided with Lakers teammate Shaquille O'Neal also taking his game to the highest level, with Shaq winning the 2000 MVP award. It was oh-so-similar to the way Kareem had won his MVP award two decades earlier in a Laker championship season. Bryant, who had a 23-and-under PER of 21.1, was a huge part of the back-to-back-to-back championship squads (2000, 2001 and 2002) and later birthed a second championship run when he and fellow All-Star Pau Gasol led L.A. to 2008 and 2009 titles.

A DYNASTY? Three straight ring ceremonies followed by a repeat certainly qualifies as a dynasty.


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LEBRON JAMES & THE 2006-07 CLEVELAND CAVALIERS

When 22-year-old James led the Cavs to the 2007 NBA Finals, he indeed seemed like the Chosen One. After the Spurs swept the Cavs, Duncan joked with the phenom, "This is gonna be your league in a little while. But I appreciate you giving us this one." James would go on to have a 23-and-under PER of 25.2, but Cleveland was never able to surround him with complementary stars in his seven years there, with an aging Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Mo Williams being their best attempts.

A DYNASTY? It could've been, but a prime time special on ESPN changed things.


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DWIGHT HOWARD & THE 2008-09 ORLANDO MAGIC

The Magic spent big money to surround Howard with a supporting cast that could take the young center to the championship level, most famously signing All-Star Rashard Lewis to a six-year, $118 million contract. Howard, who had a 23-and-under PER of 21.2, delivered the goods in his fourth NBA season, getting the Magic to the 2009 NBA Finals, where his team lost to the Lakers. And that's where the team peaked out, eventually dropping from a .720 squad to a .634 to a .561 team. With luxury-tax and amnesty penalties ranging around $20 million every year, Orlando could no longer compete in the free-agent market.

A DYNASTY? No. But the give the Magic all the credit in trying to make it work.


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KEVIN DURANT & THE 2011-12 OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER

Check out the advanced stats on the charts listed below to see how high Durant's 23-and-under stock truly ranks. It's really as good as any other superstar out there. The five-year NBA vet now has a 23-and-under PER of 22.6 and is on the verge of possibly winning his first ring. Throw in the fact that Durant has a 23-year-old All-NBA teammate in Russell Westbrook, a 22-year-old Sixth Man of the Year teammate in James Harden and a 22-year-old All-Defense teammate in Serge Ibaka--and you can see how the basketball world is excited about the future of OKC. Durant and Westbrook are locked in to big-time deals. If crafty GM Sam Presti finds a way to also sign Harden and Ibaka this summer, well, Oklahoma City may begin to think it has a better than 50/50 chance of living happily ever after on this list.

A DYNASTY? Give this a few more days to see if it's a budding one.

TOP 23-&-UNDER NBA FINALISTS ... PLAYOFF PER

1. Kevin Durant (23), 2011-12 Oklahoma City Thunder ... 28.4

2. Shaquille O'Neal (23), 1994-95 Orlando Magic ... 26.1

3. Hakeem Olajuwon (23), 1985-86 Houston Rockets ... 25.6

4. Dwight Howard (23), 2008-09 Orlando Magic ... 25.5

5. Tim Duncan (23), 1999 San Antonio Spurs ... 25.1

Note: 200-minute minimum

TOP 23-&-UNDER NBA FINALISTS ... REGULAR SEASON PER

1. Shaquille O'Neal (23), 1994-95 Orlando Magic ... 28.6

2. Kevin Durant (23), 2011-12 Oklahoma City Thunder ... 26.2

3. Dwight Howard (23), 2008-09 Orlando Magic ... 25.4

4. Kobe Bryant (22), 2000-01 Los Angeles Lakers ... 24.5

5. LeBron James (22), 2006-07 Cleveland Cavaliers ... 24.5

Note: 2,000-minute minimum

TOP 23-&-UNDER NBA FINALISTS ... PLAYOFF & REGULAR SEASON WIN SHARES

1. Dwight Howard (23), 2008-09 Orlando Magic ... 18.3

2. LeBron James (22), 2006-07 Cleveland Cavaliers ... 17.4

3. Shaquille O'Neal (23), 1994-95 Orlando Magic ... 17.0

4. Rick Barry (23), 1966-67 San Francisco Warriors ... 16.0

5. Kevin Durant (23), 2011-12 Oklahoma City Thunder ... 15.8

Note: Tim Duncan's lockout-adjusted win share score from the 1999 season is 18.0.

SOURCE: Basketball-Reference.