Youth is wasted on the young – the inexperience of the Oklahoma City Thunder

Following the Oklahoma City Thunder’s consecutive losses in Games 2 and 3 of the NBA Finals, there has predictably been talk in the media about the Thunder’s youth and inexperience. Perhaps just as predictably, there was the backlash from twitter and the blogosphere about the mainstream media’s tired use of old clichés which supposedly have no bearing on reality. That is, the practice of substituting ‘narratives’ in place of objective analysis. One such opinion came from the great Eric Freeman from Ball Don’t Lie, who linked to his piece in The Classical from a week ago on twitter.

Usually I too am bored by the lazy use of narratives to explain NBA phenomena, as well as the selective cherry-picking of information and facts to fit these narratives. In this particular situation however, traditional wisdom has some merit. To win in the NBA, you do need experience, and history backs this up. The average age of Finals teams over the last 20 years is 28.1. When adjusted for playing time, it’s actually a little higher at 28.6. The average age of Finals MVPs since 1981 is 29.5 years old. Put simply, the NBA playoffs are an old man’s game. Meanwhile, this precocious young Thunder team have an average age of 25.8, and their weighted average age is 25.4 (Miami on the other hand have an average age of 28.6, with a weighted average age of 28.5). They are the youngest Finals participant of the last 20 years, and if they go on to win, they would be the youngest Championship team by almost a full year.

While age shouldn’t be used as a narrative crutch to explain the ‘typical’ stages and cycles a championship contender is “supposed” to go through, when you think about it there are real reasons why old teams win titles. In the regular season, young teams can go on rolls beating up on weaker teams, and getting “schedule” wins on the strength of their younger legs. But the playoffs are a completely different beast – the talent level gets higher and higher as you progress, and the seven game format requires constant adjustments and counter adjustments not just game to game, but sometimes from play to play.

Its not about a narrative where youngsters must ‘wait their turn’ – it’s a practical reality that the deeper you go in the playoffs, playing better and better teams, the margin for error becomes thinner and thinner, and oftentimes games will come down to a few critical plays. Championships are won by teams that can manage and take advantage of these moments. Teams with more experience can still play with confidence when the other team throws a curveball at them, and play with consistent effort regardless of the result. ESPN analyst Jalen Rose talked about how young teams’ energy levels often fluctuate depending on their offense and whether or not their shots are falling. Contrast that with the Miami Heat, who missed 26 of their 31 shot attempts from outside the paint in Game 3 and turned the ball over 9 times in the fourth quarter, but maintained their defensive intensity and ground out a victory. Experienced teams are better equipped to maintain the balance between keeping cool heads and playing with desperation.

It’s also about the chemistry borne out of playing together with the same or similar core of players who have aged together (or failing that, playing with smart experienced players who are able to create that chemistry in a shorter time frame through their superior basketball IQ, like for example the 2008 Celtics). This chemistry allows you to click with the precision required so as not to err in execution. It means that in those situations where you gotta get a bucket, you can execute a diagrammed play perfectly out of a timeout; and when you need a stop, your guys move as if on a string in rotating and recovering on defense. It’s the split second difference between an alley oop and a turnover out of bounds, or an open shot and a contested one. Experience gives you the understanding of how to come out like Miami did in Game 2, knowing that they had to start strong early to take the raucous OKC crowd out of the game (much like how the Dallas Mavericks played Game 3 of the WCF last year, in fact), and then the ability to keep a cool head and hold on to the win even as OKC roared back into the game. It’s the ability to quickly implement and execute adjustments both tactically and mentally so as not to let up and allow themselves to get blown out.

Veterans will also be able to handle rotation changes with more professionalism and not let it affect their confidence or play on the court. Jeff Van Gundy made the point that if coaches changed their rotations too much, it sends the wrong message to the locker room. But at the same time, one of the key coaching moves Rick Carlisle made last year was benching DeShawn Stevenson and inserting JJ Barea into the starting lineup midway through the Finals. DeShawn took it like a pro and came off the bench to provide a fresh defender to throw at LeBron, and JJ was ready for his opportunity and produced. While a younger team (like say, the 2007 version of the Mavericks) may not have handled drastic adjustments like that as well,  the 2011 Mavs were not phased in the slightest. All parties stayed ready like the seasoned pros that they were, and it was a key factor in their championship victory last year.

This is not to say that age is the be-all or end-all of playoff success. The better team will (almost always) win. But that’s precisely the point – the deeper you get in the playoffs, the harder it will be to distinguish between who the superior team is, and factors like experience and veteran know-how can prove to be the deciding factor. The Thunder beat more experienced teams to get here, but in hindsight, look at how it happened: it wasn’t through gritty execution. They fucked around for 2-3 quarters before they overwhelmed the older teams with athleticism late in the game when they’d go on one of their by-now trademark runs. The Mavs and Lakers had experience, but lacked the talent to keep up with OKC. San Antonio came close, but their role players let them down. Now they are finally up against a team of comparable talent – an opponent who boast the best player in the game and 3 of the best 20 players in the league. Now, they can’t get away with the stretches of bad basketball that they could overcome with one of their trademark come-from-behind runs, and every mistake is amplified.

It makes sense – imagine trying to handle pressure and spotlight of playing in front of a world audience at age 22/23, all while fighting that inner voice of complacency which tells you ‘you’ll be back’ (in contrast with the more urgent mental clock of last year’s Mavs, or this year’s Heat).

It’s here that I cover my ass by acknowledging that the Thunder are still far from out of this series, and with just one win in Miami they can reclaim home-court advantage. I should also re-iterate that I’m not saying it’s impossible for the Thunder to win the series as a young team or that experience is necessarily a pre-requisite of championship success. However, they are up against 20 years of league history suggesting they just aren’t ready for prime time yet. If there’s any team that can buck the trend though, this particular group of fearless and hungry young practitioners of YOLO-ball would have to be my best bet to do it.

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