Enjoying this year's conference finals? The good news is they might be a preview of things to come in both conferences. With the exception of the veteran Dallas Mavericks, the other three conference finalists could become fixtures this deep into the postseason. The Chicago Bulls and Oklahoma City Thunder boast young superstars in Derrick Rose and Kevin Durant, while the Miami Heat will be contenders as long as Chris Bosh, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade remain in their prime. Or at least we tend to assume. Reality can be far different.
But to begin, in terms of the youth movement, Oklahoma City, led by a pair of 22-year-old All-Stars in Durant and Russell Westbrook, is the prime example. The Thunder's core also includes 21-year-old second-year standouts James Harden and Serge Ibaka. In fact, the Thunder have just one player born in the 1970s (backup center Nazr Mohammed) in their rotation, which explains why they were the league's youngest team this season when weighed by minutes played, with an effective age of 24.4 years.
Since the ABA-NBA merger, the only team to make the playoffs with a younger rotation than Oklahoma City's has a pretty familiar theme--it was actually last year's Thunder. This season's group has taken a huge step forward in its development by reaching the conference finals. In that same span, Oklahoma City became the youngest team to win a playoff series, eclipsing the 1983-84 Mavericks, who advanced one round with an effective age of 25.5 years.
In terms of precocious success, the Thunder can't be matched, but Oklahoma City is not alone in winning ahead of schedule. The Bulls, with an effective age of 27.3 years, also rank among the six youngest conference finalists in the last decade and a half.
Year Team eAge warpAge
2011 Oklahoma City 24.4 22.6
1998 L.A. Lakers 26.4 26.0
2005 Phoenix 26.6 26.3
2007 Utah 26.7 25.1
2002 New Jersey 26.8 28.1
2011 Chicago 27.3 25.6
2009 Cleveland 27.4 26.4
2007 Cleveland 27.5 26.0
2008 L.A. Lakers 27.5 27.2
2002 Boston 27.6 26.5
2011 Dallas 31.8 32.7
2011 Miami 29.7 28.9
Average conf finalist 29.3 29.2
Using minutes played might understate the Bulls' chances of lasting contention. Other than Carlos Boozer, the oldest players in Chicago's rotation tend to have relatively small roles in the team's success. The Bulls' three top players in Basketball Prospectus' Wins Above Replacement Player (WARP) metric are all 26 or younger. That includes the youngest MVP in league history, 22-year-old Rose.
Weighting instead by each player's WARP total, Chicago's weighted age drops to 25.6. That still trails the Thunder (22.6), but it moves the Bulls into the top-three youngest conference finalists dating back to 1996. Besides this year's pair of teams, just one team in that span reached the conference finals with a WARP-weighted age younger than 26: the 2006-07 Utah Jazz, at 25.1.
That Jazz team reflects the cautionary aspect of this tale. After getting swept by the San Antonio Spurs in the 2007 Western Conference Finals, Utah's core of players would go on to win just two playoff series together over the next three years before being torn apart by free agency and the trade of Deron Williams to the New Jersey Nets. Instead of heralding the Jazz's arrival as a Western Conference power, the unexpected trip to the conference finals (aided by the Golden State Warriors upsetting that year's top-seeded Dallas team) turned out to be a high point.
Overall, the track record of the youngest conference finalists in recent memory is mixed. The 1997-98 Los Angeles Lakers were just getting warmed up. After Phil Jackson took over the helm of the Lakers, the duo of Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal would lead the Lakers to three consecutive championships and four NBA Finals appearances in five years. In similar fashion, the 2007-08 Lakers won back-to-back championships before roster changes caused advancing age to catch up with them this season.
At the opposite extreme, the 2004-05 Phoenix Suns and 2003-04 Indiana Pacers reflect how unpredictable the future can be for successful young teams. The Suns got back to the conference finals the following year, but their inability to get past the San Antonio Spurs led to a series of moves that shipped out core players and coach Mike D'Antoni. Phoenix would return to the conference finals in a final hurrah last spring, but with a largely new cast. Meanwhile, after being upset by the Detroit Pistons in the 2004 Eastern Conference Finals, the Pacers saw their hopes shattered by the melee with Detroit the following November. Indiana would never recover, winning just one playoff series before wholesale changes.
Of the 10 youngest conference finalists, as many (four) failed to return to the conference finals during the ensuing five years as made multiple trips.
Insider's Tom Haberstroh recently wrote about how the Mavericks' age adds a sense of urgency to their playoff run. Indeed, Dallas' effective age ranks third-oldest among conference finalists in the last 15 years, trailing the last of the Chicago Bulls' championship teams and the 2007-08 San Antonio Spurs. The pressure to win a ring may be more palpable for Mavericks veterans Jason Kidd and Dirk Nowitzki, but all of the conference finalists should be viewing this as their best chance to win a championship. Their youth gives them the opportunity to get back to this point and beyond, but offers no guarantees.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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