The NBA Finals concluded last week, and LeBron James won his first title with the Miami Heat. While congratulations are in order for the Heat, they are not the team I want to discuss today.
I want to discuss the team that lost to the Heat in the Finals: The Oklahoma City Thunder.
The Thunder may have walked away in defeat, but they did capture another title. They are now the sporting world’s latest Up-and-Coming Team.
Every so often, a team comes along that the American public decides is going to be the next great team. The Up-and-Coming team will typically have a young core, led by a player who is rapidly becoming one of – if not the – greatest stars in the game.
The anointing often occurs after the team unexpectedly wins an important playoff game or goes on an extended playoff run. The assumption is that the team will continue to improve, culminating in a championship within the next couple of seasons.
The Thunder are a perfect example. They are led by Kevin Durant, who most people would easily rank as one of the best players in the NBA. Durant is surrounded by a talented roster, including other young stars Russell Westbrook and James Harden.
Last season, the Thunder lost in the Western Conference finals. This season, they advanced a step further and made it to the NBA Finals. Considering their youth, talent, and achievements to date, it is logical to think that they will continue to progress and will soon be NBA champions.
It doesn’t always work out that way.
As a Philadelphia sports fan, I can remember following two Up-and-Coming Teams in the past 20 years.
In the 1995 playoffs, the Philadelphia Flyers unexpectedly made it to the Eastern Conference finals. The Flyers were led by a Eric Lindros, a young star who won the MVP that season and looked like he would soon be the “Best Player in Hockey” – if he wasn’t already.
Heading into the 1995-1996 season, the Flyers were the trendy pick to win the Stanley Cup. So what happened?
Lindros never quite seized that “Best Player” title the way he was expected to. Instead, frequent injuries and clashes with team management kept him from reaching his full potential.
Mostly due to Lindros’ issues, the Flyers were never able to take that final step. After a disappointing second-round loss in the 1996 playoffs, the team made it to the Stanley Cup Finals a year later, only to be swept by the Detroit Red Wings.
After a few more seasons of disappointment, Lindros was traded away.
In 2002, another Philadelphia athlete looked like he was ready to lead his team to championship glory. Donovan McNabb was emerging as a star quarterback, and under his guidance, the Philadelphia Eagles looked like they would soon bring home the franchises’ first Super Bowl victory.
After the Eagles lost a very close 2002 NFC Championship Game to the heavily favored St. Louis Rams, it seemed inevitable that they would be bringing home a title within the next few seasons.
But something happened on the path to greatness. The Eagles lost in the NFC Championship Game the next two seasons. They did make it to the Super Bowl the following year, but once again they tasted defeat.
After that, injuries, age, and bad personnel decisions broke up the heart of that Eagles team. They were no longer an Up-and-Coming team. Instead, they were just another team that fell short.
So why do some Up-and-Coming teams never fulfill their potential? Here are the most common causes for their failure:
Up-and-Coming teams are generally filled with younger players who have relatively inexpensive contracts. But as they get older, they tend to also get more expensive. There simply might not be enough money to go around.
The Up-and-Coming teams are usually headlined by a top star who is surrounded by a strong supporting cast. But what happens when those supporting stars begin to feel like they are talented enough to be the main star? What happens if they no longer want to defer to the top star? And perhaps most importantly, what happens when they want to be paid like a top star?
Poor management decisions
Sometimes, in their quest to get an Up-and-Coming team over the hump, the team’s management will make moves that are a bit risky. They’ll bring in a few players who they hope will be “The Final Piece of the Puzzle.” Sometimes, these moves pay off. But other times, the newcomers will disrupt the team’s chemistry on both the field of play and in the locker room.
Failure to improve
Sometimes, despite being dubbed an Up-and-Coming team, that is simply not a team’s destiny. Not every young player improves. Some athletes peak early and plateau. Maybe what we had seem from them was the best we were ever going to get.
So while the Thunder might look like the Next Big Thing in the NBA, there are definite warning signs indicating that they might not fulfill that promise.
Kevin Durant might continue to improve his game, but considering his already high level of play, it isn’t clear how much more improvement we will actually see from him. And there are already some questions about how well Durant and Westbrook’s games mesh on the court. Will Westbrook continue to be okay with being Durant’s sidekick?
The Thunder are also at a disadvantage playing in a small market. Right now, due to their status as a title contender, the Thunder seems like a good destination for NBA players. But in the future, the lure of a bigger market (and more money) might cause some of their core players to leave.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle between the Thunder and their destiny is the Miami Heat. LeBron James and company aren’t going to be going away any time soon.
So a word of warning to all the Thunder fans out there. Your team may currently be an Up-and-Coming team, but it doesn’t take long for Up-and-Coming to become a never-was.