When he was just 23 and in his second year in the NFL, Dan Marino led the Miami Dolphins to Super Bowl XIX and lost to the San Francisco 49ers. With so much talent and so much time ahead in his eventual Hall of Fame career, Marino was expected to make many more trips and win a few titles before he called it quits.
Marino retired in 1999 as one of the most prolific quarterbacks in NFL history, but not only did he never win a ring, he never made it back to a Super Bowl.
Kevin Durant was born less than four years after Marino’s lone chance in the championship game, but the 23-year-old still doesn’t want to hear anyone tell him he’ll have more chances to win a title with Oklahoma City if the Thunder fails to upend the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals.
“That’s the one thing I hate is when people say that,” Durant said on Saturday. “Because we’re young, most of the guys are 22, 23, and people are going to say we’ll be here next year or the year after that. But nothing is guaranteed. With the way this league is going, so many great teams, you never know.”
The greatest never-was in recent NBA history happened in Orlando, where Shaquille O’Neal and Anfernee Hardaway led the Magic to the 1995 NBA Finals. Hakeem Olajuwon and the Houston Rockets swept Orlando in four games, but the Magic had a seemingly promising future and was expected to be a potential dynasty with two 23-year-old all-stars who were compared to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson.
O’Neal was a dunking, rapping, celebrity-in-waiting who had the size and skill to dominate. Hardaway was a phenomenal athlete and playmaker whose personality was packaged in a puppet voiced by Chris Rock.
Michael Jordan and the 72-win Chicago Bulls made sure that O’Neal and Hardaway wouldn’t return to the Finals the next year. A month later, O’Neal was on his way to the Los Angeles Lakers.
The Magic wouldn’t get back to the NBA Finals until 2009, when a 23-year-old Dwight Howard led the franchise back to the precipice of a title. Will Howard ever get back? Who knows? Three years since that Finals trip, Howard has had back surgery, the Magic already has fired the coach and the general manager responsible for that success, and Howard is wavering about his future with the organization.
LeBron James was just 22 when he led the Cleveland Cavaliers to the NBA Finals in 2007. Five years later, Cleveland is nowhere close to being a championship contender, now that James has moved on to Miami.
Oklahoma City appears to be in great position to own the Western Conference for many years. Durant is a three-time scoring champion and a two-time MVP runner-up. Russell Westbrook is a two-time all-star. James Harden is the sixth man of the year and Serge Ibaka led the NBA in blocked shots. All four players are under 24.
Durant and Westbrook are both signed to maximum salaried extensions, but Harden and Ibaka will be restricted free agents in 2013, leaving the Thunder with tough financial decisions going forward. But Durant doesn’t want to waste the current chance to win a championship because of what might happen in years to come.
“This is a great opportunity for us. We have to seize the moment and be ready,” Durant said. “You know, just like I say, you never know. Injuries might play a factor the next few years or whatever. You never know what happens in this league. I really can’t say that or be that arrogant to say we’ll be here next year for sure or the next few years for sure. We’ve got to take advantage of this moment.”