1. OKC Soars: The Oklahoma City Thunder have officially entered some pretty unique territory. After beating Utah tonight, the Thunders are now 41-24 and project to win over 50 wins. That’s pretty impressive because OKC is quite a young team. But the surprising thing is exactly how young they are. The Thunder’s top three players in minutes played, Kevin Durant, Jeff Green, and Russell Westbrook are all under 24. In fact, the only player on the roster who plays regularly over 26 is Nick Collison (29). How are the Thunder doing it? Obviously, Durant is the driving force and Westbrook to a lesser extent. KD is scoring at an incredible rate and Westbrook is okay. But the Thunder are 18th in offensive efficiency, indicating that the offense is Durant and Westbrook or bust for the most part. No other regular player on the team has a PER of over 14.7 (Serge Ibaka is the highest).
But the team is really defending well. Amazingly, young players James Harden and Jeff Green have both been tough defensively, as have role players like Thabo Sefolosha and Nick Collison. The end result is that OKC has gone from 20th in defensive efficiency in 2008-09 to 6th this season. It’s not clear where exactly the extra defensive oomph is coming from. Delving into the numbers, OKC is up a block a game from last year. Statistically, the Thunder don’t have any incredible shot blockers but the rookie Ibaka is the best blocker and an improvement upon previous options. Throw in tough defense from Jeff Green and Harden and a full season of Sefolosha and it’s clear that the Thunder don’t really have many weak defensive players in the rotation, with the possible exception of Nenad Krstic (who is hardly a bad defender). Finally, a full season of coach Scott Brooks clearly helps. Defensive systems make a huge difference and Brooks gets a ton of credit for the Thunder’s improvement.
The scary thing about OKC is that there is a lot of room for improvement. OKC was an awful offensive team in 2008-09 (29th) but have moved up to an adequate 18th this season. Even a modicum of improvement from Green and Harden (which is a reasonable expectation given his youth) and signing a good scorer at any non-Durant position and this team could be in business going forward.
Forgetting about the next few seasons, the interesting question at hand is whether the Thunder can be a playoff threat. Traditional lore seems tell us that young teams don’t generally make a playoff impact. This is particularly true because the Thunder’s playoff situation is very fluid. They are currently a five-seed and looking at a tough match up with the Jazz. Realistically, OKC has a shot of playing almost any one in the West depending on who surges or fades with final month or so of the season. So, it’s hard to say what will happen. For fun, here is the Thunder’s record against the playoff teams of the West:
-Vs. Lakers: 0-3
-Vs. Nuggets: 1-2
-Vs. Mavericks: 1-2
-Vs. Jazz: 3-0
-Vs. Spurs: 1-2
-Vs. Suns: 1-1
-Vs. Blazers: 1-1
While the sample sizes are small, OKC has a tepid record against the best of the West. Moreover, they have the worst conference record of the top right Western teams, which is not the best indicator either. This all seems to tell us that a deep playoff run is not in the cards for 2009-10 (unless the end with Utah in the first round).
2. Young Winners: Another interesting aspect of the Thunder is that it is quite rare to find a successful team with that is so young. I thought I’d take a look to see how many teams won 50-games with a top three core under 25 years old and no players of consequence over 29 (Nick Collison’s age) to see how other such teams did in the playoffs and beyond. Not many teams fit neatly into the definition but here are the teams with 50 or more wins that were relatively young:
-1979-80 Hawks (50-32): This team doesn’t quite fit into what we were looking for but were young. They had a core of young players: Fast Eddie Johnson (24 and is NOT the sixth man who played well for the Suns and Kings), Dan Roundfield (26), John Drew (25), and Tree Rollins (24). It was a classic Hubie Brown job squeezing a nice run out of a deep team. They lost in their first playoff series to the 76ers 4-1 and fell apart the next season (31-51) before the team dumped Drew for the rights to Dominique Wilkins. But players around 25 aren’t really that young and are much older than what we’ve seen from OKC.
-1987-88 Bulls (50-32): This is perhaps the best match for the Thunder. The Bulls first good team with Michael Jordan. MJ was only 24 but was putting up 35 ppg. The rest of the roster was also young: Charles Oakley (24), Sam Vincent (24), Brad Sellers (25), Scottie Pippen (22), and Horace Grant (22). The only older vets were Dave Corzine (31) and Rory Sparrow (29). Like the Thunder, the Bulls were defense first (3rd in efficiency) but were much more efficient on offense (9th). The Bulls took out a good Cavs team in Round 1 before falling to the Bad Boy Pistons 4-1. Like this year’s Thunder, the Bulls had a star and were expected to gradually improve but it was surprising to see them jump to 50 wins so quickly. Still, the Bulls were not a playoff stranger, having lost in the first round as an eight-seed the previous two seasons. The Bulls, of course, went on to be a dynasty but it took a few more years and the development of Pippen and Grant.
-1985-86 Rockets (51-31): The Rockets were the next big thing with the Twin Towers of Ralph Sampson (25) and Hakeem Olajuwon (23) leading the way. The next two regulars were also on the young side (Rodney McCray was 24 and Lewis Lloyd was 26). But this team did have some vets: (Robert Reid was 30 and John Lucas was 32 but was kicked off the team for drug issues after starting 65 games). The Rockets famously upset the Lakers and went to the NBA Finals before losing to the Celts in Houston’s second playoff appearance with this core. Sampson’s knee injury helped derail this team but before the Hakeem Rockets returned to title contention in the 1990s.
-1988-89 Knicks (52-30): Before he struggled in Boston, Rick Pitino was considered a hero in New York for turning around the Knicks, who were awful for years previously. In 1987-88, Pitino snuck the Knicks into the playoffs as an eight seed before they lost to Boston. The next season, the Knicks pressing style led them to a division title with a promising young team: Patrick Ewing (26), Charles Oakley (25), Mark Jackson (23), Gerald Wilkins (25), Johnny Newman (25), and Rod Strickland (22) was a nice core. The only older players were Trent Tucker (29) and Kiki Vandweghe (30). The Knicks made it to the second round before losing to the MJ Bulls 4-2. Pitino ditched New York for Kentucky after the season and the Knicks fell back into playoff fodder until Pat Riley’s arrival.
-1993-94 Orlando Magic (50-32): Orlando was teeming with young talent between Shaquille O’Neal (21), Penny Hardaway (22) and Nick Anderson (26). They did have more vets than OKC does though with Scott Skiles (29) and Jeff Turner (31). The Magic were swept out of the playoffs by the Reggie Miller Pacers. Orlando followed up with a Finals appearance in 1994-95 and the team only slumped after Shaq bolted for L.A. in 1995.
-1977-78 Portland Trailblazers (58-24): Portland was hardly a surprise team, as they had won the title in the previous season. But people forget just how young Portland still was with a core of Lionel Hollins (24), Johnny Davis (22), Bob Gross (24), Maurice Lucas (25), and, of course, Bill Walton (25). Walton’s broken foot ended this potential dynasty and caused Portland to get knocked out of the playoffs too. (The only reason the 1976-77 title team is not listed here was because they just missed winning 50 games).
So, what have we accomplished by looking for other young teams? Besides the fun stroll down memory lane was also learn that there have been very few good young teams and that none of the other teams on the list are quite as young as OKC is now. Hell, very few of these teams had one player under 24, let alone the three that the Thunder rely on. I am skeptical that OKC’s youth is a total roadblock to playoff success but we are watching a very rare feat from the Thunder.