MIAMI — It’s easy to think that this is just the beginning for the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are each just 23 years old. James Harden and Serge Ibaka are just 22. So as the NBA media descended upon Oklahoma City earlier this week, we figured it would become a yearly pilgrimage for The Finals. If we missed a good restaurant or didn’t get a chance to see Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum this year, there would be another opportunity next year or the year after.
And seriously, what team in the Western Conference has a chance to unseat this team in the next few years? If the Thunder don’t win this series, they at least took one more step on the ladder this year, just like so many great teams before them.
Well, Durant doesn’t want to hear it.
“That’s the one thing I hate is when people say that,” Durant said. “People are going to say we’ll be here next year or the year after that. But nothing is guaranteed. With the way this league is going, so many great teams, you never know.”
In 1995, the Orlando Magic reached The Finals with a 23-year-old point guard named Penny Hardaway and a 23-year-old center named Shaquille O’Neal. Though they got swept by the defending champion Houston Rockets, the future was bright. Penny was as unique at his position as Durant is at his, and Shaq was a behemoth who would eventually win four championships.
But that was it for those Magic. Michael Jordan and the Bulls were back to full strength the next season, Shaq left after just one more year in Orlando, and the Magic didn’t get back to The Finals for 14 years.
The future seemed pretty bright for that Orlando team too. The 2009 Magic lost in five games to the Lakers, but were led by 23-year-old Dwight Howard, who seemed indestructible. Three years later, Howard is recovering from back surgery and the Magic are desperately searching for a GM and coach to convince him to stay.
The Thunder will eventually have to deal with contract statuses of Harden and Ibaka, who can both become (restricted) free agents in 2013 if their contracts aren’t extended before then. With the new and more punitive luxury tax set to kick in that season, it’s will be more difficult to keep a talented core together than it has been in the past, unless players are willing to take less money than they can get on the open market.
Durant and Westbrook are 23. So were Shaq and Penny. And so was Dwight.
Durant is right. Nothing is guaranteed.
“We have to seize the moment and be ready,” Durant said. “You never know. Injuries might play a factor the next few years or whatever. You never know what happens in this league. I really can’t say that or be that arrogant to say we’ll be here next year for sure or the next few years for sure. We’ve got to take advantage of this moment.”