The Thunder won’t be planning any championship parades just yet, not when this group has yet to win a single playoff series.
– ESPN’s John Hollinger
You need extensive playoff experience to win an NBA title. It's an assumption so taken for granted that it barely merits an aside in Hollinger's article about the Thunder. But is it true?
The conventional wisdom is that teams have a natural "maturation" process. That you don't become a title contender overnight, that it takes years to build up the necessary shared playoff experience to understand "what it takes" to win a title.
In this telling, the act of winning 16 basketball games over the course of two months takes on metaphorical significance. Playing a role on a team that wins four playoff series in a row becomes a symbol of personal integrity and character, and failing to do so reveals some sort of underlying flaw.
Devean George parlayed PER's of 6.2, 12.6 and 11.4 during the Lakers' three-peat into a career as a veteran with "championship experience." Conversely, never winning a title becomes an asterisk on the legacy of great players.
But at the end of the day, basketball is just a game of ten guys in tank-tops and shorts running around a hard-wood floor trying to throw a ball through a raised cylinder. And to win a game, you have to throw the ball into your opponent's cylinder more often than he throws it into yours.
None of this changes in the playoffs: the court is still 94 feet long; the rims are still 10 feet high. It's still the same game.
So when we talk about championship experience, are we confusing causation with correlation? Are teams better because they have playoff experience, or does that experience merely show they were good in the first place?
The 2007-2008 Boston Celtics were assembled in one offseason, with Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen coming over in trades. While their best players (Pierce, Garnett and Allen) were long-time NBA vets, their starting five, with Rajon Rondo and Kendrick Perkins flanking the "Big Three," had never been in a playoff series before.
Offensively, Rondo's lack of a jumper was off-set by three Hall-of-Famers who were near-automatic from the perimeter, while their inability to create easy looks due to age was offset by one of the NBA's most athletic point guards, who could get into the lane and draw defensive attention at will.
They played the Lakers in the NBA Finals, a team with only three players (Derek Fisher, Kobe and Lamar Odom) who'd won a playoff series before that season.
But the midseason acquisition of Pau Gasol, a long, mobile and skilled seven-footer, instantly transformed the Lakers from also-rans to title contenders.
They lost to the new-look Celtics but haven't lost a playoff series since.
While many credit intangibles for the Lakers and Celtics' success (Boston's veterans sacrificing individual statistics and espousing a "ubuntu" philosophy of team unity, Kobe learning how to lead a team while infusing the Lakers bigs with toughness they never had before) aren't the tangible reasons (Boston's defensive length and offensive skill, the Lakers' combination of three 6'10+ skilled big men and one of the best shooting guards of all time) just as plausible, if not more so?
As fans, we tend to overrate the importance of intangibles (desire, experience and chemistry) and underrate the importance of tangibles (size, skill and speed).
The NBA playoffs become a vehicle where we project our morality on a glorified ball-throwing contest: somehow it became LeBron's fault that none of his point guards could guard Rajon Rondo last year, Dirk's fault that none of his centers could guard Tim Duncan or Shaq.
We use moral narratives to explain the world around us. When man first looked upon the stars, we had no concept of astronomy, so we created stories to explain how the constellations came to be.
The NBA, like any other culture, has a series of founding myths and creation stories. And no story is more important to the modern NBA than the myth of Michael Jordan: the young hero from a small town in North Carolina who overcomes the non-believers (the coach who cut him in high school, the team who passed him in the draft) to become the best player in the world.
But like any archetypal hero, he has to be humbled before he can finish his journey. He has to be tested and brought to his knees by a daunting foe (the Bad Boy Pistons), with success only coming when a wise old sage (Phil Jackson) convinces him to trust his teammates (running the Triangle).
And just as a hero has to overcome a conflict to finish his journey, a player must face hardship before he can become a "champion", he must have playoff experience. Since Westbrook and Durant haven't established themselves as NBA characters yet, people assume they can't win a title this year. It doesn't fit the narrative.
But great players are great players, they don't adjust to the playoffs, the playoffs adjust to them. In his first playoff appearance, a 22-year old Chris Paul averaged 24 points and 11 assists on 50% shooting over 12 games. At 21, LeBron James averaged 30 points, 8 rebounds and 5 assists in 48% shooting over 13 playoff games and Tim Duncan averaged 21 points and 9 rebounds on 52% shooting over nine.
** I remember Dallas fans celebrating in 2007 because they were facing New Orleans in the first round. It was the match-up they wanted, because the Hornets had no playoff experience! But the calendar switching didn't make Chris Paul any slower or Jason Kidd any faster, and New Orleans dispatched a vastly more experienced Dallas team in five games. **
Talent is more important than age in the playoffs.
In crunch-time, the Thunder often use a line-up of Russell Westbrook (22), James Harden (21), Kevin Durant (22), Serge Ibaka (21) and Kendrick Perkins (26). LeBron and Paul put up all-time great performances at the same age; it wasn't a lack of experience that did them in, it was a lack of talent around them.
Oklahoma City's loss to the Lakers in last year's playoffs had a lot more to do with their size than with their age. They were starting Nenad Krstic and Jeff Green against Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum, and the results were all too predictable.
It would have been easy for the Thunder to stand pat and keep their core together. No one would have faulted them. And at some point in the playoffs, their lack of interior defense would have cost them.
But Sam Presti looked out around the rest of the NBA and he didn't see any Goliaths looming. So he went all-in, grabbing the missing piece in Kendrick Perkins, a 6'10 280 brick-wall of a center, and the best low-post defender in the NBA.
They are set up for a playoff-run much like the 2004 Pistons and the 2008 Lakers, both of whom acquired game-changing big men (Rasheed Wallace and Pau Gasol) at midseason and began rolling immediately.
The Thunder have the talent to win it all this year. And if they don't, it will be because a playoff opponent matches up well with them, not because they lack championship experience.