Originally posted on The Sports Post  |  Last updated 10/2/13
There’s a little known curse in the NBA. It involves the few players who are so good so quickly that they manage to lead their team to the NBA Finals before their 28th birthday. Over the past 20 years, six players aged 27 or younger have been the undisputed best player on a team that loses in the Finals. Those six players were Shaquille O’Neal, Gary Payton, Allen Iverson, LeBron James, Dwight Howard and Kevin Durant. Everyone on that list has two things in common. The first is that they’re all going to end up in the Hall of Fame. The second? Not one of them made the Finals again as the best player on their original team. Four of them have rings, but O’Neal, Payton and James won them on new teams. Iverson and Howard made one Finals and lost, and never made it back. Kevin Durant missed a shot last year. There are no certainties in the NBA. Championship windows close in the most random, the most bizarre, and the cruelest of ways. Don’t believe me? Look at what happened to the teams of the original five: Shaq: Relationship with Penny Hardaway deteriorated so badly that they couldn’t coexist in Orlando, so he left for Los Angeles to have the same relationship with Kobe Bryant. Hardaway never played in the Finals again, and Orlando didn’t get past the first round until Howard’s arrival. Payton:  Shawn Kemp forced a trade to Cleveland and proceeded to ruin his career with drugs. He never played in the Finals again. Seattle doesn’t even have a team anymore, but when they did, they didn’t get past the second round. Iverson:  Billy King made a series of horrendous trades that ruined any semblance of cap flexibility Philly had, ruining Iverson’s prime. King has never led a team to the Finals, and Philadelphia hasn’t made it past the second round. James: The roster around James never formed, forcing him to leave for a better team and forcing Cleveland into a rebuild. Besides O’Neal and Leon Powe (both of whom won their rings before playing with James), no member of the 2009-2010 Cavaliers has won a ring, and since LeBron’s exit, the Cavs haven’t made the playoffs once. Howard: A combination of poor management, small market and his own indecisiveness ruined Dwight’s relationship with the Magic. Only Rashard Lewis and Tyronn Lue from that team have rings -- neither as starters -- and the Magic never made it past the Eastern Conference Finals with Howard again. Having a young star, or even multiple young stars, is no guarantee for success. In fact, more often than not, your team has been broken up within five years of that initial Finals trip. Four out of the five changed teams within five years, and the fifth (Payton) was traded in year six. Which brings us to Kevin Durant. Everyone assumed that the Thunder would make several trips back to the Finals after losing their first to LeBron and the Heat. It was such a certainty that Sam Presti felt comfortable trading James Harden for pennies on the dollar. And then weird things started to happen. Having a young star, or even multiple young stars, is no guarantee for success. Harden morphed into the best all-around shooting guard in basketball, becoming the perfect complement to Durant only after leaving his shadow. The Raptors started playing like a playoff team, turning the true prize of the Harden trade (their unprotected lottery pick) into a far less valuable asset. Jeremy Lamb, the presumed prize of the Harden trade, couldn’t even find the court. Kendrick Perkins, one of the biggest financial motivators for the Harden trade, morphed into the single least effective offensive player in all of basketball who played 25 minutes or more. But all of those things were largely secondary matters. The team won 60 games and both Durant and Russell Westbrook were healthy. Until they weren’t. Westbrook hurt his knee in the second game of the playoffs. He missed the rest of the season and is now going to miss the first 4-6 weeks of the 2013-14 season. Durant put the team on his back, but Scott Brooks was utterly exposed by Memphis for his over-reliance on the two stars rather than an actual system. Now we’re heading into the season with Harden and Howard in Houston, an improved Clippers team with a real coach in Los Angeles, and the big bad Spurs looming as the defending conference champions. The Thunder might be the fourth-best team in a conference they won only two years ago. What’s worse, they might lose it to a team that’s being led by their former sixth man. This is not an overreaction; this is the decimation of a team that seemed poised to win multiple championships as recently as last spring. Remember how ineffective the Thunder offense became without Westbrook? That’s what we’re going to see until some time between Thanksgiving and Christmas. We can’t even be sure of how good Westbrook will be when he comes back. Westbrook’s skill is tied as closely with his athleticism as any player in the NBA. How much would it hurt him to lose a few inches off of his vertical or gain a tenth of a second on his 40 time? Westbrook had never been injured in any sort of major or even minor way before this season. We’ve never seen him react to an injury. Do we know he’ll be back to 100% right away? At all? The Thunder might now be the fourth-best team in a conference they won only two years ago.  History tells us that this Westbrook injury, along with the Harden trade, is not a fluke. Young contenders love finding ways to screw it up. This is just one of the many random, bizarre and cruel things we’ve seen happen to teams like the Thunder in the past. Maybe it’s just destiny that things had to happen this way. Maybe it’s a lesson in crowning championships before they’re ready. And what about Durant? How happy is he with his bosses for playing the small-market victim despite being one of the most profitable teams in the NBA? What’s going to happen when Thabo Sefolosha needs a new contract in July and Reggie Jackson does in 2015? Hell, we’ve even seen rumors of Sam Presti jumping ship. I think the Thunder are in a lot more trouble than they want to admit. I think Russell Westbrook’s injury is going to be a recurring storyline all season and that Scott Brooks will continue to fail as an offensive coordinator. I think that by around February or March, for the first time, we’re going to start to hear rumblings out of Oklahoma City that not everyone is as happy as they seem. Oklahoma City’s championship window isn’t closed, but it’s not wide open either. As currently constructed, I don’t think that this Thunder team can win a championship. I think that someone has to go. It’s not Durant, and it’s not Westbrook. It’s Scott Brooks. He has four to six weeks to prove he can come up with an offense that isn’t just “give the ball to Kevin and Russell, they’ll figure it out.” If he can’t do that, then he needs to go. Until then, the Thunder need to hope that Durant is good enough to prove history wrong.
Kevin Durant has...RUSSELL MANIA!
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