The Oklahoma City Thunder defeated the San Antonio Spurs last night to advance to the NBA finals behind their core of young guns. While it might have been fun to see the old dogs on the Spurs get one last ride together, the joyful exuberance of OKC’s celebration last night was invigorating.
OKC’s ascension is leading to headlines like “Thunder May Have Long Reign in West” and “OKC Starts A New Era.” While it’s nice to think that this budding young team has an incredible future in front of them, the truth is that it’ll be very, very difficult to keep this emergent dynasty in place.
This year, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, and Serge Ibaka combined to make a little more than $10 million. Westbrook scored a massive new contract that will kick in after this season, Harden will be due for a substantial raise, and Ibaka — making a scant $1.2 million — might be able to get a $10 million/year deal on the open market. Kevin Durant and Kendrick Perkins might be the only two OKC starters who are being paid approximately what they’re worth, at $16 million and $7 million respectively.
There’s been a minor cult that’s developed around the genius of OKC GM Sam Presti, so there’s the thought that the Thunder can just fill in gaps as they lose budding stars to free agency and continue apace. History suggests that’s a lot harder than it sounds. The Miami Heat have struggled to surround their big-salary stars with players that would be starters on other playoff teams, and once the bill comes due on OKC’s young talent, the Thunder will be in the same predicament. Miami has shown that, when it comes to free agency, it’s difficult to find diamonds in the rough.
The other way to add talent, of course, is through the draft. The Thunder found their top three players each with a top-five pick. That’s a stupendous record of success (and most people don’t realize just how unlikely that is). It’s a lot harder to build through draft talent when you’re drafting in the 20-30 pick range. Sure, if they keep their core intact, OKC only needs to add role players – but late-first-round picks are just as likely to flame out as to find success as rotation players.
The Oklahoma City Thunder are in the Finals — an event that has been predicted ever since Durant, Westbrook, and Harden first teamed up and flashed their potential. They’re an amazing and exciting young team. Let’s enjoy the ride, but not get ahead of ourselves with the dynasty talk.