The window, many assume, is wide open.
For the Oklahoma City Thunder, a trip to the NBA Finals each June is supposed to be a tradition, a trek the franchise takes from now into the foreseeable future.
If only the NBA worked that way.
The Thunder fell short in its inaugural Finals appearance, losing in five games to the Miami Heat. But with a stable of young talent, the widespread belief is Oklahoma City will be back … and soon.
History, however, warns that franchises on the losing end of the Finals face a difficult time getting back.
Since the league expanded to 29 franchises in 1995, only two teams that lost in the Finals have gotten back the next year and won it all — the Heat this year and the Los Angeles Lakers, who won back-to-back titles immediately after losing the 2008 Finals.
Over that same span, nine franchises — Boston, Utah, New York, Indiana, Philadelphia, New Jersey, Detroit, Cleveland and Orlando — are still seeking a return trip to the Finals after season-ending losses in the championship round. Seattle, which made it to the Finals in 1996, never saw another Finals trip as the Sonics.
It took two teams, the 2004 Lakers and the 2006 Dallas Mavericks, four and five years, respectively, to return to the Finals after losses in the last round. Two other teams, the 1997 Utah Jazz and the 2002 New Jersey Nets, returned to the Finals the following year and lost again.
It's now the Thunder's turn to test the strength of its sustainability.
“Everyone within the walls of our organization understands and respects that every season is unique,” said Thunder general manager Sam Presti. “There's so many variables that impact a team and organization that are uncontrollable, forces that are simply part of the cycles of professional sports. No matter how a season ends, be it high or low, there will be a need to recommit to the process again, from square one, with a builder's mentality.
“There's nothing promised, and we aren't entitled to anything other than the same number of days to improve as the other 29 teams.”
Since the 1996 Finals, three reigning conference champions — Indiana in 2000, Philadelphia in 2001 and Dallas in 2006 — came back and lost in the first round. Five others lost in the second round.
It's a harsh reality, one that kept the league's ultimate prize from some of the game's greats, names like Shawn Kemp, Karl Malone, John Stockton, Patrick Ewing and Allen Iverson.
That's why LeBron James, on the day he sat one win shy of capping his first championship, stressed what an honor it was for him to be back on the Finals stage.
“This is my third crack at it,” James said Wednesday. “I'm blessed because a lot of people, first of all, never go to the Finals. Second of all, if they go, they never go back.”
Steve Nash is currently the poster child for that misfortune. Nash has played in a record 118 playoff games and has never reached the NBA Finals. That alone should illustrate how fortunate the Thunder was this season.
Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka got their first view of the mountaintop just 38 playoff games into their careers.
But even getting there with regularity guarantees nothing.
Malone played in a record 193 playoff games without playing in the Finals for the championship-winning team. Stockton, his old running mate, is second on that list with 182 playoff games played.
They were one of the best duos in NBA history and still couldn't get it done despite reaching the Finals twice.
Their careers very well could be cautionary tales for Durant and Westbrook, both of whom are still just 23 and under contract for the next four and five years, respectively. For the Thunder's two All-Stars, the clock is ticking, even if it might appear that they have a wide open window to capture multiple championships.
The good news is neither seems worried about windows.
They want to win and win now.
“Whether we would have won or lost, I was going to come back this summer, everybody was going to come back this summer, and work extremely hard,” Durant said. “We've got to keep working, and hopefully next year we come back stronger.”
Said Westbrook: “We've got to be the guys that come back and push everybody next season. … We want to come back and be better, and that's one thing I love about this team.”
A look at the losing teams in the NBA Finals since 1996 and how they've fared since.
YEAR-LOSER-NEXT YEAR-FINALS SINCE
1996-Sonics-Lost semifinals-0 (in Seattle)
1999-New York-Lost East Finals-0
2000-Indiana-Lost first round-0
2001-Philadelphia-Lost first round-0
2002-New Jersey-Lost Finals-0
2003-New Jersey-Lost semifinals-0
2005-Detroit-Lost East Finals-0
2006-Dallas-Lost First round-1
2009-Orlando-Lost East Finals-0
By Darnell Mayberry