When the Oklahoma City Thunder's star players watch tonight's NCAA title game, they may feel a tinge of regret. Had Kevin Durant stayed in college, this would be his senior year at Texas. The same is true of UCLA product Russell Westbrook, while sixth man James Harden would be a junior at Arizona State. Along with 23-year-old Jeff Green, those three players represent the core of the NBA's youngest team. And while they might have missed out on the chance for March Madness this season, the Thunder has something bigger to play for. Oklahoma City clinched the first playoff berth in the team's history on Saturday and did so in style, beating the Dallas Mavericks at American Airlines Center.
A year ago, I marveled at the Portland Trail Blazers' ability to win 50-plus games despite their youth. Following a similar playbook of stockpiling productive draft picks, the Thunder may actually be doing the Blazers one better this season. At a minutes-weighted average of 23.9 years of age, Oklahoma City is the league's youngest team. In fact, just two teams in the NBA's last three decades have been younger, and both of them (the 2002-03 pre-LeBron James Cleveland Cavaliers and 2005-06 Atlanta Hawks) were teams in the early stages of the rebuilding process, not playoff teams. The Thunder has surpassed last year's Portland team as the youngest ever to finish .500 or better.
In last year's column on the subject, I used the historical relationship between age and team success to take a look at which teams had most defied their age. With six games left on its schedule, Oklahoma City has played its way to the head of this list, which includes the 2008-09 Blazers and was previously topped by a different team from last year--the Cleveland Cavaliers, who won better than 80 percent of their games with a roster barely older than average.
Year Team Age Win% Diff
2010 OKLAHOMA CITY 23.9 .632 .319
2009 Cleveland 27.4 .805 .315
2005 Phoenix 26.6 .756 .306
1998 L.A. Lakers 26.4 .744 .304
2009 Portland 24.7 .659 .304
1983 Philadelphia 27.5 .793 .298
1985 Milwaukee 26.3 .720 .285
1992 Chicago 28.3 .817 .282
2009 L.A. Lakers 27.9 .793 .278
1980 L.A. Lakers 26.9 .732 .267
Oddly, all three of last year's youthful teams have gotten much older this season. The Cavaliers added 38-year-old Shaquille O'Neal and 33-year-old Antawn Jamison, the Lakers replaced 24-year-old Trevor Ariza with 30-year-old Ron Artest and the Blazers have brought in 36-year-old Marcus Camby, 37-year-old Juwan Howard and 34-year-old Andre Miller, suddenly giving them one of the league's most senior rotations.
The Thunder's success starts with Durant, who was the NBA's youngest player when he won Rookie of the Year in 2007-08 after a single season at Texas. Still just 21, Durant has emerged during his third season as an MVP candidate. Already, Durant's campaign has been the eighth-best in total WARP by a player younger than 22. The names ahead of him read like a who's who of the league's elite--Tim Duncan, Dwight Howard, LeBron James, Tracy McGrady, Shaquille O'Neal and Chris Paul. Durant may yet surpass Paul and Howard by the team the season ends.
Then there is Westbrook, who with relatively little fanfare has been just about as valuable as any second-year player in the league. Brook Lopez and Marc Gasol are the only sophomores with higher WARP totals. While Westbrook's ability to finish at the rim and his perimeter shooting remain works in progress, his rapid development as a distributor has helped Oklahoma City accelerate its timeline.
The Thunder's bench is anchored by a trio of rookies--Harden, Maynor and Serge Ibaka. Harden and Ibaka are both 20 yet have been productive, combining for 5 WARP. The latter's improvement over the course of his first season has been nothing short of remarkable. Ibaka has gone from a project to a reliable member of the Oklahoma City rotation, making progress with his defensive awareness and polishing his offensive game.
Ibaka's emergence and the addition of Maynor have allowed the Thunder to bench veterans Kevin Ollie and Etan Thomas, who were both in the rotation at the start of the season. Now, the old man in the Oklahoma City rotation is center Nick Collison, who won't turn 30 until next October (when his teammates will surely chide him about being over the hill). And there's a big drop from Collison to the next-oldest rotation players, Nenad Krstic, 26, and Thabo Sefolosha, who will turn 26 in May.
While the Thunder's youthful exuberance is evident in the Twitter accounts of and videos posted by Durant, Green and Harden (a.k.a the Broingtons), for the most part Oklahoma City does not play like a young team. For that, the Thunder's architects deserve a lot of credit. Fittingly, they are youthful as well. General manager Sam Presti was hired in 2007 at the age of 30 and coach Scott Brooks is also young for his position at 44. Presti has emphasized culture and found players mature beyond their age who also happen to be very talented. Brooks is a leading candidate for Coach of the Year for the way he has handled the roster and the success of the defense he and assistant coach Ron Adams have implemented.
"I don't talk about their age," Brooks explained earlier this season. "They don't talk about it. I don't allow them to talk about it. You don't want them to make that an excuse. If you're an NBA player, no matter how old you are, you're an NBA player. You expect them to perform and do the things you need to do to win. Our guys embrace that."
Soon, the question will become whether youthfulness will hinder Oklahoma City in the postseason. My research last year suggested that experience is not a significant factor in playoff success. The Blazers, who were upset by the Houston Rockets in the first round, will surely be trotted out as a cautionary tale, though I think that outcome had as much to do with a bad matchup as it did Portland's youth.
The Blazers have been used as a yardstick for the Thunder throughout this rebuilding process. This time a year ago, Ric Bucher (who correctly anticipated Oklahoma City's rapid rise in an ESPN the Magazine story) touted the team's future by suggesting to The Oklahoman that the Thunder, not Portland, was the up-and-coming power in the Western Conference. Even Oklahoma City's marketing tagline for this season, "Rise Together," evoked the Blazers' "Rise with Us." Now, however, it is the Thunder who is setting the standard for precocious NBA success.
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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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