If there is anything that the brutal, 149-day NBA lockout taught us, it was that we shouldn’t have been naďve enough in the first place to believe that the sport - any professional sport - isn’t about the bottom line. The NBA, like the IPL or the EPL or the MLB or the Spanish Liga is a business. The players are businessmen, who like you and me work hard to earn a salary, except that their salaries are much larger than most of ours for the work they do in entertaining and enthralling us. They trade away the business suits and ties for jerseys and loose-fitting shorts; their office cubicle is the 94 feet by 50 feet wooden court, their work-station desktop is leather basketball. Their jobs are surely more exciting than yours or mine, but they are jobs, and like any job, there is more work and less play, even when the work is to play!
So it comes as no surprise that NBA success is determined not just by the talent of the players in the squad, but also by the economic conditions that help to build a successful team. Salary caps, employee contracts, trade exceptions, collective bargaining, etc. are terms that fly around as often as points per game, career-high, Most Valuable Player, and championship. The economic issues have to be a perfect match for a player and a team to choose each other, and to continue choosing each other for a long term. Too often, a contract comes between teams and players otherwise destined to be together.
But every once in a while comes a team that lives in the moment on the court, clearly unbothered by the financial ‘grown man’ obstacles of the future and hell-bent on enjoying the youthful exuberance of simply playing excellent basketball.
A certain young squad in Oklahoma City – more boys than men – seem to be that team at this moment. Regardless of what the future holds for Durant, Westbrook, Harden, Ibaka, and co, the Thunder are playing for the here and the now, with the dangerous combination of high-level professional talent and the mentality of school kids who just want to play together and win every game.
The Thunder have perhaps the youngest set of core players in the NBA. Their four best players – Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, and Serge Ibaka – are all 23 years or younger and have played just a combined 16 years in the NBA. And yet, despite the lack of experience in their best players, this team has found itself in the Western Conference Finals for the second year in a row after defeating the 2011 and 2010 NBA champions in back-to-back series.
The Thunder, like other professional basketball teams, still operate like a business. Their players get a salary and a contract based on their ability or their potential, and it’s up for the management to decide how to fit the salaries together under the cap. But unlike other teams, OKC’s youth has allowed them to be flexible with their salaries. If the Thunder wish to build around Durant (which they should), salary issues could potentially put the futures of Russell Westbrook and more likely, James Harden, in doubt in years to come. A lot could go wrong. Players unhappy with their minutes could demand trades; players unhappy with their contracts could sign for more money in a different team; players unhappy with the coach could protest a change.
But whatever the pessimist in you may envision for their future, the present seems to be shining brightly for the folks out in Oklahoma City. On the court, the team plays like it’s exempt from the mental stresses of age and responsibility, and their off-court chemistry translates perfectly to match the on-court success. Guided by the veteran presence of Derek Fisher, Kendrick Perkins, and Nick Collison, the Thunder’s young pups have good, professional role models.
Let the optimist in you speak out now: A team built around a bunch of 22- and 23-year-olds have reached the Conference Finals twice already. If they stuck together for their prime years, you can be assured that the Thunder fan will enjoy quality basketball from their team for the better part of this decade.
But we must remain in their golden present, where the young, wild, and free Thunder have gone blistering through the two winners of the last three championships, and now, come face to face with an experienced and efficient Spurs side that knows a thing or two or four about winning it all. The Spurs have won four championships from 1999-2007, and are primed for their fifth this season. If the Thunder’s four stars have a combined experience of 16 years, then the Spurs have a player in Tim Duncan who alone has played 15 years in the NBA. In the Spurs, the Thunder can see their ideal future as a team, one that has kept its core together for nearly a decade and won multiple championships as a result. The future belongs to the Thunder, sure, but are the young ones good enough in the present to defeat the experienced Spurs? In his preview of the Western Conference Finals, my NBA India colleague Akshay Manwani seems to think so.
Whatever the result by the end of the season, one thing is for sure: the Thunder have brought back the joy in playing professional basketball simply for the sake of playing it. No matter what the future holds, the present is theirs to celebrate. They can shut off and ignore all the outside noise, and just have fun. If playing basketball is a job, then no one seems to enjoy their work more the young men in OKC.