If you’re overlooking the Oklahoma City Thunder in this year’s playoff picture, you're making a mistake.
No less a kingmaker than Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant recently said that the Thunder, along with the Chicago Bulls, were the team playing the best basketball in the league other than the defending champs. "Right now Chicago is obviously playing at an extremely high level," Bryant said. "For some reason, the Thunder go below the radar in the public opinion, but they’re not under the radar in our mind’s eye by any stretch of the imagination."
Nobody truly worries the Lakers, but there are plenty of good reasons the Thunder are on L.A.’s radar, and you can bet the Western Conference’s other top seeds are just as concerned with what’s developed in Oklahoma. The Thunder have gone from upstart to contender in the last 12 months, a tag they’ll wear as long as their two All-Stars, forward Kevin Durant and guard Russell Westbrook, remain healthy.
It all starts for OKC on the offensive end, where the Thunder are a top five team from an efficency standpoint. At 27.8 points per game, Durant sits atop of the league’s scoring table for the second straight season, but it’s his ability to score night in and night out – detailed here -- that sets him apart from the rest of the league. Durant’s consistency, which is leads and bounds better than any of the league's other top scorers, stems from his versatility, his range and his ability to get to the free throw line. He, not LeBron James or Derrick Rose, is the league's most potent offensive weapon.
It’s not just Durant that powers Oklahoma City’s offensive engine. Westbrook has made the giant leap from above average to uber-elite, a player whose efficiency stats rival Chris Paul's and Rose's and put him among the league’s best floor generals. That this improvement – which should land him the NBA’s Most Improved Player award – hasn’t come at the expense of Durant’s game makes the 2011 Thunder so much more dangerous than the 2010 version. Indeed, while Westbrook has increased his scoring from 16.1 points to 22 points per game, he's also bumped his assist numbers up slightly, to 8.3 per game. Few teams in recent NBA history, let alone this season, have a combination that has proven it can score as efficiently and consistently as Durant and Westbrook. That they both present one-on-one match-up problems for everyone – Westbrook because of his quickness, strength and rebounding ability; Durant because of his length, ball-handling and range – makes them that much more deadly.
To underscore this point, consider that there are just three teams with a pair of stars in the top 10 of player efficiency. The Miami Heat with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, the Los Angeles Lakers with Bryant and Paul Gasol, and the Thunder with Durant and Westbrook. That's as elite as it gets.
Around those two cornerstone pieces, Thunder GM Sam Presti has assembled the rest of the roster, as one opposing scout recently put it, “the right way.” Building through the draft and making careful, timely trades, Presti has assembled an eight man rotation that rivals everyone but the Lakers in terms of talent and cohesion. Center Kendrick Perkins, acquired from the Boston Celtics in a trade deadline move, brings it all together, filling space in the paint, providing defensive toughness, rebounding and experience. Next to Perkins the Thunder have Serge Ibaka, who is now free to roam and patrol the lane on defense and has ramped up his scoring and rebounding production in a greater role this year. Glue guy Nick Collison rounds out the frontcourt, shooter James Harden (who has really come on since the Perkins trade) provides the bench scoring, Thabo Sefalosha fills the perimeter defensive stopper role and backup point guard Eric Maynor is capable of spelling Westbrook.
Taken together, the group has no obvious holes or weaknesses: there’s size, strength, length, versatility, low-post defense, perimeter defense, leadership, experience, top-end scoring ability, and play-making. Best of all, there are overlapping attributes without redundancy. Each of the players is needed, at least for this season, and none is extraneous. It’s no accident that this group is headed for the most wins the Thunder/Sonics franchise has seen in 14 years.
The strong regular season performance has the Thunder in line for a Northwest Division crown and the West's No. 4 seed. That will almost certainly mean a first round match-up with the new-look Denver Nuggets, another dangerous, well-balanced team that has made a strong post-deadline push after dealing franchise forward Carmelo Anthony. Team defense has been Oklahoma City’s bugaboo this year, as they are merely average from an efficiency standpoint. That will pose a problem in a series with the Nuggets, who currently possess the league’s best offense and who get scoring contributions from up and down their roster.
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In the playoffs, star power has a way of winning out, and the Thunder will enter a playoff series, for the first time, with the biggest stars, guys who know how to get to the free throw line and dictate the course of a game. Thanks to Perkins’ addition, they’ve now got sufficient bodies to bang with the Nuggets bigs, they have more than enough athleticism to match-up with new Nuggets Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler, and they have Harden to help keep the bench scoring from being totally one-sided. The only person who could stop Durant in this series would be himself, either by getting frustrated and forcing the issue or by settling for three-pointers in lieu of better, more aggressive looks.
Should the Thunder advance past the Nuggets, as I expect they will, the current race for the No. 1 spot between the faltering San Antonio Spurs and the surging Los Angeles Lakers makes all the difference in the world. The Thunder are a nightmare match-up for San Antonio, as they possess the game-changing athleticism to play above and past San Antonio’s role players while also being able to keep pace offensively with the Spurs' halfcourt machine. Other than the requisites -- home court advantage, big-game experience and Tim Duncan down low -- the Spurs don’t have any obvious match-up advantages. Westbrook is Tony Parker’s equal, the Thunder have multiple guys to throw at Manu Ginobili and they possess the best shot-maker in the series in Durant.
The Spurs are limping into the playoffs, dealing with a rash of injuries. A young, hungry, focused Thunder team is not a squad you want to try to get healthy against. Oklahoma City wouldn’t be favored in a series against the Spurs but it would be really close, and the Spurs would be sweating bullets.
Catching the Lakers in the second round, however, would be trouble for OKC. The Lakers not only have the experience factor and head-to-head result from last year’s playoffs in their favor, their frontline is significantly better than the Thunder’s and they’ve got the one Western Conference player who is as dynamic offensively as Durant, in Bryant. They would have homecourt advantage, a more experienced coach, multiple looks to throw at Westbrook, a Durant-stopper in Ron Artest, an offensive system that is as good as any in the league and more efficient than Oklahoma City’s, and a deeper, bigger, more physical roster. The Lakers have taken notice of the Thunder, as Bryant said, but there’s no fear factor there. All the key match-ups are either even or in L.A.’s favor.
It’s abundantly clear that the Thunder are the West’s ascendant team in the face of aging giants like the Lakers, Spurs and Dallas Mavericks. They’re poised to win a series, and maybe two if San Antonio maintains the top seed.
But, eventually, the Lakers loom. The Thunder aren’t ready for all that, at least not this year. Soon it will be a different story.