The question with the Oklahoma City Thunder right now is where they fit in the title picture. They are, essentially, the "bubble" team in terms of contenders. The Warriors are obviously there. They're the best team in the league, on pace for 70-plus wins. The San Antonio Spurs are there, and they're right behind the Warriors. The Cavaliers are there, mostly as a product of the fact that they are almost certain to make the Finals for a second straight year due to the lack of elite-level teams in the Eastern Conference -- though the firing of David Blatt and subsequent hiring of Tyrron Lue does throw a mid-season wrinkle into the equation.

Then there's OKC.

There's a perceived gap between the extremely consistent and top-end brilliance of the two best teams in the Western Conference and the Thunder. That gap has been there since the start of the season. Their offense remains primarily "Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are awesome" with a few other twists, and their defense was a huge question mark for the first month of the season. To win the title, particularly with the kinds of offenses you'll face, you need an elite defense. The Thunder instead struggled early. Early on, I thought OKC had a broken roster with an inconsistent mindset, and that's hard to repair. But as they've evolved, and digging a bit deeper, you get to a better understanding of what's really gone on. 

ADAPT AND SURVIVE

Kevin Durant commented that in his mind, it had to do with new schemes that coach Billy Donovan had taken over. Since that time, the Thunder have gone from ninth in defensive efficiency in November, to sixth in December. Through the first 20 days of January, the Thunder have been the third-best defense in the league. Their overall season ranking now stands as the eighth-best, finally in the top-ten after a win vs. the Nuggets Tuesday in which they held Denver to 42 percent from the field. 

Billy Donovan says that the big changes have come with making their pick-and-roll defense more adaptable. 

"There's been some changes," Donovan said before Tuesday night's win. "We're not trying to reinvent the wheel. But there are some different things that we're doing in pick-and-roll coverages. I think in those coverages we're getting use to positioning and where we're supposed to be. It's hard to play one pick-and-roll coverage, because two different players in the pick-and-roll are totally different. Some times you've got a really great offensive guard that you want to bring up two people on the ball and sometimes you've got a stretch four man that if you bring two people up, they throw it back.

"As we've gone on, our guys have gotten more comfortable with those coverages. Screening sets and play calls, those guys have all seen those before as NBA players, but I do think we're seeing our guys get more comfortable with multiple coverages instead of just one coverage." 

Last season, OKC was showing hard on pick-and-rolls, no matter what, and that left some of their personnel vulnerable. It was an inflexible system, one that as Donovan describes, isn't compatible in today's NBA. The Thunder are currently ranked eighth in pick-and-roll defense, via Synergy Sports. The changes in how to cover have meant big things for one of the most polarizing players in the league, a guy who might be the key to OKC making a real run at the title. 

ENES THE MENACE

When the Thunder matched Portland's four-year, $70 million offer sheet for Kanter this summer, I blew a gasket. It was a question of investor value vs. market value, as I explored later in the summer. It's still a tricky situation. If Kevin Durant leaves, and presumably Russell Westbrook leaves the year after, OKC is starting over with Dion Waiters and Enes Kanter and that's a complete disaster. However, in terms of keeping a valuable piece of a title contender, it's pretty smart. How this plays out is largely attached to factors that have very little to do with Kanter. 

In the more immediate, however, the concern was Kanter defensively. It cannot be overstated how bad Kanter was last year. It wasn't Nikola Vucevic "not very good," it was "someone call the authorities and set up a perimeter around this hazmat zone" bad. 

The Thunder were a full 9.1 points worse on defense with Kanter on the floor last season. He simply gets lost far too easily. Part of the issue, however, was with that pick-and-roll coverage that forced the immobile Kanter to show hard, which is like trying to get a giraffe to corral sheep. Instead, the Thunder are dropping Kanter consistently, allowing him to contain the ball handler and giving him more opportunities to recover on the roll man. 

Again, the effort is there with Kanter. He contains Foye coming off the pick and contests all the way to the rim, forcing a bad miss:

And depending on the ball-handler, he's even stepping out to contest the jumper after dropping, as he does here on Will Barton.

As a result, Kanter's allowing just 33 percent shooting from the ball-handler in the pick-and-roll. He's containing the guys that OKC has put in front of him and that's a major step forward. Kanter's defensive rating on-court this season is 106.4. That's bad. It got worse over the last month. However, that overall number is better than last year's 110.4 figure. It's about getting by with Kanter. 

The problem of course is that you can do that in the regular season vs. Randy Foye or Jeremy Lin. OKC's goals are higher; they're focused on beating the Warriors and Spurs. That's a bit more difficult when it's Tony Parker or Stephen Curry coming off those screens. 

Imagine Golden State's shooters here: 

So that won't work.

Or Tony Parker getting to the rack here:

On his podcast, ESPN's Zach Lowe remarked on something about Kevin Love that got me thinking about Kanter. Lowe mentioned that against the Warriors, you can't "hide" Love on anyone because the Warriors will "hunt" him down and use his man in the pick-and-roll. Kanter's going to face the same problem. 

There is a counter, however. Kanter's dominant in offensive rebounding. And dominant is really the word. Kanter's averaging seven offensive rebounds per 100 possessions this season. So he's able to counter smaller lineups like Golden State uses by simply pounding the glass. The concern there is that you have to have guys who can rim run. Guess what? Kanter can. 

The key, if OKC gets Golden State -- which they definitely should opt for given the chance, more on that in a minute -- is going to be Adams, Ibaka, and Kanter beating Draymond Green and Festus Ezeli in the small lineups on the offensive glass, hammering them with size and skill to force Golden State to go to more traditional lineups. If they can't beat Green, it's a moot point, and it might be a moot point anyway, because the Warriors simply shoot the lights out on contested shots, but it at least provides a formula. 

One of the other solutions for OKC is pairing Kanter with fellow center Steven Adams -- something that the team has started to figure out. The thought going into the season was that Serge Ibaka could cover for Kanter's defensive troubles, but that pairing gives up 109.9 points per 100 possessions. It's only 37 minutes, but the Kanter-Adams combo has given up just a 100.1 defensive rating. They're finding solutions in unlikely places. 

They need Kanter's offense vs. Golden State or San Antonio. Finding ways to cover for his defense, and getting his best effort when they can't, will be crucial in a possible series. 

WARRIORS OR SPURS

This tidbit from HoopsHabit caught my eye:

Since December 3, Oklahoma City is 21-4.
For perspective, the Warriors are 19-4 since December 3. In other words, the Thunder have been keeping the pace—and then some—with the best team in the NBA since they began to realize how to play as a unit.

Source: Oklahoma City Thunder Quietly Back as One of NBA's Elite

Now, in that span, the Warriors have beaten the Cavaliers once and destroyed them in their second meeting, while OKC lost to the Cavs. Another of those losses came to the Bulls, who Golden State annihilated. In short, the Warriors' performance vs. top teams has been better than OKC's. The Thunder do have that opening night win vs. San Antonio, but the Spurs hadn't even really started to figure out their new squad at that point. 

There's still a measure by which even with all this success in record and net points per 100 possessions, OKC is lagging behind. They have a chance to improve on that over the next 40 days with a March schedule loaded with contenders. We'll find out pretty quickly if all the progress they've made only matters vs. the average NBA team and not the best, which has been Cleveland's downfall as of late. 

Of course, if we assume OKC is unlikely to catch San Antonio or Golden State for a top two seed and homecourt in the first two rounds, then there does need to be some examination of which team they'd rather face. The Warriors are the defending champions on a historic pace. However, they present a much more favorable matchup for the Thunder than San Antonio does.

The Spurs grind the game out, countering OKC's athleticism with defensive prowess and the ability to match their size with superior big skill, and Parker's pick-and-roll work would likely create mayhem for both Kanter and their help defenders. Oh, and they've got Kawhi Leonard to throw at Kevin Durant and take out a huge chunk of OKC's offensive design. 

Meanwhile, the problem with the Warriors for most teams, along with the fact that they are a superb defensive team that can run the floor in an instant and feature the best shooters -- off the dribble no less -- in NBA history, is that most teams simply can't match their firepower. Memphis had a defensive strategy against them, but didn't have the weapons to keep up once the Warriors made their key adjustment of not guarding Tony Allen. The Cavaliers without Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love were able to grind and disrupt Golden State's offense but didn't have any individual scorers, sp the Warriors threw four defenders at LeBron James on every possession. 

The Thunder, however, can keep pace. You can't make a defensive adjustment to "solve" Durant and Westbrook. They're too good individually and together, and their role players are good enough to make you pay if you recklessly throw help at them. There is no Tony Allen on the Thunder, not even Kyle Singler or Andre Roberson. If they can get the kind of work from Kanter described above, and if they can get the best version of Durant and Westbrook, which we haven't seen since 2012, OKC can at least push Golden State. Make no mistake, the Warriros are definitively better, and might blow them out because, well, they're the Warriors. But contrast that with San Antonio, and OKC might want to think about aiming for the Warriors' side of the bracket, as insane as that sounds. 

Watching OKC up close, I came away convinced that the Thunder are in much better position to contend for a title than I may have thought. They're not "right there" with the Warriors and Spurs, but if you're hoping for an unexpected twist in the NBA playoffs in five months, OKC could be the team to throw a wrench in the works. 

Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook have the Thunder roaring. (USATSI)
Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook have the Thunder roaring. (USATSI)