After Oklahoma City reached the 2012 NBA Finals, James Harden set expectations.
“A dynasty is being built here,” Harden said.
It sure appeared to be trending that way.
The 2010 Thunder were the youngest playoff team in NBA history. In fact, they were so young, they kept the same core, and the 2011 Thunder became the second-youngest playoff team in NBA history. The 2012 Thunder were the youngest NBA Finals team in decades.
The Thunder were a nova.
But like all stars, their enormous and powerful fire eventually burned out.
Oklahoma City closed a chapter by agreeing yesterday to trade Russell Westbrook to the Rockets for Chris Paul. The Thunder have now completely turned over their roster since the 2012 Finals, leaving Harden’s proclamation unfulfilled.
Harden was the first to go. When he didn’t agree to a contract extension, Oklahoma City traded him to Houston in 2012. Durant left for the Warriors in 2016. Ibaka got traded to the Magic the same summer. Now, Westbrook exits.
After ascending so far so quickly, the Thunder not winning a title with any of those players is a historic disappointment.
Oklahoma City’s average age (weighted by postseason playing time) was 22.9 in 2011 and 23.8 in 2011. It was still just 25.7 in 2012, when the Thunder lost to the Heat in the NBA Finals.
Just four teams since the NBA-ABA merger have reached the Finals while so young. The other three eventually won a title.
The youngest NBA Finals teams since the merger:
2012 Oklahoma City Thunder: 25.7
1986 Houston Rockets: 25.4
1977 Portland Trail Blazers: 24.2
1977 Philadelphia 76ers: 25.5
The 1977 Portland Trail Blazers won the championship that year.
The 1977 runner-up 76ers had Julius Erving, who was in his first NBA season. He helped Philadelphia return to the Finals in 1980 (loss), 1982 (loss) and 1983 (win).
In an incredible example of the staying power of a young NBA Finals team, the Rockets lost momentum after the 1986 Finals. In the next seven years, they had four first-round exits and two second-round exits and once missed the playoffs entirely. But because Hakeem Olajuwon was just 23 in 1986, he remained a superstar long enough to lead Houston to titles in 1994 and 1995.
It seemed the Thunder might have similar staying power.
Oklahoma City re-tooled around Durant and Westbrook after trading Harden. That edition of the team peaked with a 3-1 lead over the Warriors in the 2016 Western Conference finals.
Then, the Thunder built around Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. Then, Westbrook and George without Anthony. Those teams fizzled with first-round losses. Oklahoma City trading George to the Clippers ended that plan.
Now, dealing Westbrook closes an entire era.
The Thunder accomplished plenty in this period. Only the Spurs have a better regular-season winning percentage in the last 10 years. Oklahoma City reached four straight Western Conference finals. When healthy, the Thunder were a mainstay that deep into the playoffs.
But they never won even a single title, a blemish that would’ve once seemed so unlikely.