Who Will Win the West? The Case For Oklahoma City

Posted: 02/05/2015 by levcohen in Basketball

This year is shaping up to be the most wide-open in recent years in the NBA. The two best teams in the NBA this year – by far – have been the Warriors and Hawks, neither of whom has had much playoff success. Both teams were knocked out in the first round of the playoffs last season, and neither was supposed to be the dominance forces they have been this season. So they’ve been pleasant surprises this year, but nobody is anointing either as the champions of their respective conferences. That means that there are plenty of teams who have a chance at reaching the NBA finals. With all due respect to Phoenix, New Orleans, and Milwaukee, I think eight teams can win it from the Western Conference (the top seven and OKC) and five from the Eastern Conference. Since I don’t have a lot to write about with the NFL season done, the MLB season in its dead-zone and the NCAA tourney still a solid month off, I’ll be focusing on each of the 13 teams and their chances to reach the NBA Finals, with a few hockey posts sprinkled in. Of course, the likelihood is that over the next few weeks an injury or something else will occur, so it might end up being 10 or 11 posts. Either way, due to the openness of the NBA, there are far more teams who can dare to dream than there usually are. Last year at this time, for example, the only teams being considered contenders were the Heat, Pacers, Spurs, and Thunder. The Clippers started to enter the talk as an under-the-radar pick at around this time last season, but that’s it. This year, would you be surprised to see Portland make it? A little, maybe, but it wouldn’t shock me. How about Houston, Toronto, or even 25-24 OKC? Some teams should be and are favored over others, but any of the 13 teams I’ve mentioned could make it. I’m going to start with Oklahoma City’s case, because they are currently the greatest outlier of the 13 teams.

With 33 games left in the season, the Thunder, who have been in the mix for the top seed annually in the last handful of years, are 2.5 games behind the Suns in the three team race for the eighth seed. There are a few things to worry about if you are one of the many people who would prefer to see the Thunder in the playoffs. First and foremost is the health of superstar Kevin Durant. If the Thunder want to have any chance of making the playoffs, they need Durant to get and stay healthy. Durant’s played in only 22 of the Thunder’s 49 games this season and has even missed 10 of 32 games since he got “healthy.” But Durant’s health isn’t the only problem.

Even with a healthy Durant, OKC’s offense has been out of sync. A seven game winning streak against mostly sub-par competition aside, the Thunder just haven’t looked great. They are 14-8 with Durant in the lineup, which, while good, is nowhere near the type of winning percentage they are used to. They won 72% of their games last year, 73% two years ago, and 71% three seasons ago and would probably need to do something like that to make the playoffs. With just 33 games left, the Thunder probably need to reach 48-49 wins, as the Suns and/or Pelicans are likely to get into the 47 range. That means they’ll have to close 23-10 or 24-9 (70%-72% wins) against a pretty average schedule. At this point, it seems like at best a 50-50 proposition. But…

If the Thunder make it, the Warriors are going to have a much tougher first round matchup than they would have hoped for or expected as the top seed. They’ll be entering the playoffs clicking on all cylinders and will basically be the same team they have been over the past few years. When healthy, they have two of the five best players and scorers in the NBA in Durant and Russell Westbrook, who has some absolutely unbelievable stretches and can take over a game like nobody else. And in the playoffs, the team with the best player or two usually wins out, last season aside.

So in a nutshell, this is basically the case for the Thunder: they get Durant back tomorrow night, defeat the Pelicans to leapfrog them into ninth place, and never look back. They close the season on a 25-8 streak, with Durant’s minutes being slowly ramped up until he gets back to his 40 minute per game norm. Westbrook gets the best of the less athletic Stephen Curry in a head-to-head matchup between perhaps the two best point guards in the league and Serge Ibaka roasts Andrew Bogut down low. Then, you have to like a round two matchup against the Clippers simply because Durant would just have his way with LA’s wing players. A conference finals against Memphis would be the toughest possible outcome, but after knocking off Golden State and LA, would you really be able to doubt the Thunder? I know I wouldn’t. Their defense has actually been pretty good all season and a Durant-led offense immediately faults into the top 10.

Is this scenario far-fetched? Not at all. The hardest part for the team with the highest upside in basketball might be making the playoffs. If they can find their groove and get Durant healthy, they’ll instantly be one of the favorites. The rest of the NBA better hope that doesn’t happen.


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