Call me Nostradamus. A couple of years back I told a colleague that the Los Angeles Lakers would run the NBA’s Western Conference for the next two or three seasons. They were fresh off their trade for Paul Gasol, and Kobe Bryant was the frontrunner for the NBA’s 2008 MVP Award. Their roster was littered with tall, versatile and skilled athletes, and historic head coach Phil Jackson was pulling the strings and calling the shots. The Lakers, in fact, ran through the NBA Western Conference that year with a 12-3 playoff record before succumbing to a ridiculously focused Boston Celtics team in the NBA Finals.

The Lakers made it back to the Finals the next year, but didn’t run through the West with the same authority. A 12-6 record in the western playoffs showed some chinks in the armor but handling the Orlando Magic, 4-1, to claim the 2009 crown brushed any worries aside.

Now it’s year three, and that “two or three seasons” run I predicted for them is coming to a close. Bryant’s legs look dead, the roster isn’t as deep as its 2008 version and the championship hunger appears to be happily satisfied. After dropping consecutive playoff games to their opening round opponent, the Oklahoma City Thunder, Lakers lovers have to be concerned. But somewhere behind that worry, Lakers fans as well as the world are watching this series in awe thinking, “Wow, this Thunder team is really good.”

I told my colleague back in 2008 that Los Angeles would run the West for a few seasons, but when I look at the Thunder I can’t help but think that they might run the entire NBA for a few years. When you talk about young and talented, Oklahoma City jumps to the forefront. Small forward Kevin Durant’s skills are starting to rival the Kobe’s and the Carmelo Anthony’s of the league, and he’s creeping on the doorsteps of LeBron James’ as well. Durant has been ridiculous all season, setting career highs in scoring – in which he led the league – and rebounding with averages of 30 points and 7.6 rebounds per night. He’s using the opening round against the Lakers as his official launch party to NBA stardom and he’s only 21.

Durant shoots from the perimeter like a guard and crashes the boards like a center. His 19 rebounds against the Lakers in the Thunder’s first playoff win on April 22 was the only thing more impressive than his 29 points. While Durant can be a one-man wrecking crew at times, he often doesn’t have to be. Running mate Russell Westbrook might be too young (21 years old) to be mentioned alongside the best point guards in the league but he probably should be.

Westbrook has flat out destroyed opposing Lakers guards – who doesn’t? – scoring more than 21 points per game in the series and his assist-to-turnover ratio has been impressive at 5.25 to 1.5. His size – 6-feet-3-inches tall, 187 pounds – and speed puts him in elite company with the Deron Williams, Rajon Rondos and Derrick Roses of the league in terms of superior athletic point guards. He’s not afraid to help out on the glass – 6.5 rebounds per game in the series – and locking up point guards on the defensive end is probably his best trait.

Durant and Westbrook’s dynamic duo is backed by a nucleus of young glue players. Swing forward Jeff Green is only 23, and rookie reserve guard James Harden and Congo import Serge Ibaka are both 20. You’d have to look to 29-year-old fringe center Nick Collison to find the oldest member of Oklahoma City’s rotation and its coach, NBA’s Coach of the Year, Scott Brooks, is only 44. Everything’s young in Oklahoma City. Even the franchise itself is only two years into its existence after moving from Seattle in 2008 (sorry Super Sonic fans).

That youth could also be the Thunder’s downfall against the veteran-laden Lakers. Feel good youth stories are always nice until experience typically trumps it. I’m not going to say I fully expect Los Angeles to beat Oklahoma City but the odds are in their favor. I will say this though: If the Thunder keeps improving at this rate, this will probably be the last season that the odds and Oklahoma City aren’t on the same side.


Stephen D. Riley

Special to the AFRO