During their first-round series with the Mavericks, a reporter asked the Thunder's Russell Westbrook whether he thought James Harden was a "max player". Russell refused to answer--he said, instead, "no more questions for that guy".
The Thunder and Spurs WCF matchup is likely to be one of the best WCFs in a long time. Match of two styles not as conflicting as you think. Mavs tend to save their best playoff matchups for the Western Semifinals. Old pros, young stars.
On one level, despite the Spurs extremely robust last two years, it looks like what we have is an old giant, still strong, and a new one with a lot ahead. And that is probably not untrue—any team with Kevin Durant, and probably Russell Westbrook, is going to have a present, let alone a future.
So why might this be the last time, or second to last time, the Thunder are this good? And why might the Spurs still have a bit of a future left?
How bout this: James Harden is making less than 5 million a year and has a qualifying option in ’13-’14, which means other teams can offer for him at that time. And the Thunder just extended Russell Westbrook for 5 years, 80 mil. So, yeah, Harden-Durant-Westbrook is probably near its finish. Ibaka’s a free agent in ’14, too.
Obviously I’m not saying the Thunder are done for. The future is a foreign place, as is the past, and we don’t know who the Thunder might draft or sign or trade for. We don’t even know for sure that Harden’s gone, I’m only guessing that his asking price will be more than the Thunder, with two max guys, with the new salary cap looming, are willing to pay.
But are the odds in favor of the Thunder going on a Spurs like run over the next decade? Even if we disregard the fact that no one ever has or likely could, the answer is resounding no.
Start with a question: Why have the Spurs been so good for so long? The answer, obviously, is complex, but you can start with the contracts. Manu Ginobili is ALMOST crucial to the Spurs attack, but not so much that the Spurs didn’t win a bunch in the half a season he missed this year. Tony Parker is undoubtedly the Spurs’ MVP this year, but his career averages, 17-6, don’t exactly wow anybody.
More importantly, and more uniquely, these two guys KNOW where they stand. In an NBA which is to ego what pizza is to the Ninja Turtles, that’s refreshing, but it’s more than that. It’s crucial. Together, they’re making under 25 mil this year, while Duncan’s making 22 by himself, and you haven’t heard a peep from either.
Did you know that Tim Duncan is going to be an unrestricted free agent next year? No? It’s because there isn’t a person on Earth who expects him to sign anywhere else, and it is NOT going to be for 20 million a year, and you won’t hear a peep out of him. If Manu wants to be a Spur, after his contract is up in two years, he will be. And he will make less. And if he doesn’t, more money for Kawhi Leonard.
Their attitude is nice, but it’s not about their attitude. It’s about logistics. The Spurs system is sustainable, the Thunder’s isn’t. Because you can’t have three max guys. If you can have them once, you can’t have them forever. You can do what the Heat did. You can throw 15 mil at three guys, and hope you can find some competent players from the increasingly large band of ring-chasers we’re getting in each new offseason. But you can do that for five years, if you extend them all at the same time, which the Thunder can’t, and didn’t. You can’t do it for ten.
The Spurs’ big three has been there for ten years. Neither Manu nor Parker were there for Duncan’s first title, but both have three rings. It’s because of how lucky all three have been, and how smart the front office has been—hell, it’s because the Spurs big three has a point guard, a two guard, and a center/pf, as opposed to OKC’s PG, SG and SF, where the PG’s assists dropped from 8 to 5.5 this year. Start a team with a PG, an SG and a C, and you’ll do pretty well. But it’s also because of a clear understanding, and respect, for the roles each plays on their team and their desire to keep doing so. And so they did. For a decade, and for three titles.
I may be 100% wrong, but I don’t think that James Harden and OKC Thunder management see his role on the team the same way. I don’t know if Ibaka and Thunder management feel the same way. I do know that with two 23 year olds making 15 mil for the foreseeable future, the Thunder will always have just 30 mil (+ Mid-Levels, Vet Mins, Exceptions, - current players and who knows what), to make a team with.
Obviously, the Spurs WILL be on their way out, sooner or later. Duncan's not only got a few years on Dirk, he's got a chronic knee issue and plantar fascitis, which never goes away. But, never having had a Durant AND a Westbrook, they've had something the Thunder may already have no chance at--the longue duree, an incredible run like nobody's ever seen.
Whether this year, next year, or the next, I have no doubt that the young guys, long denied by the Spurs-Lakers-Celtics-Mavs run of the last ten years, will be the ones who start dominating the postseason. But will the Thunder, who play less team basketball than anybody and have a combustible salary situation staring them in their face, be among them? Time will tell.
Basketball is a sport that relies on single players more than any other one--there are five players on the court at a given time, and they often have defined roles. Because, then, the departure or addition of one player can make all the difference in the world, it can be very hard to tell a dynasty on the rise from something that’s already on its way out.
If the Thunder don’t win this one, in a season tailor made for 23 year olds, or the next one, they might find they’re over before they’ve begun--and we might, once again, be wrong, about who's done and who's still coming.