There’s a reason why the push for Kevin Durant to be MVP has teeth. The Thunder is currently the third best team in the league and only a hair behind the Spurs for best in the West. They are a defensive juggernaut at heart, but they play at a fast pace, 6th overall, and have real explosive potential on offense thanks to the NBA’s scoring leader and, when healthy, the hyper-aggressive point guard play of Russell Westbrook. Actually Westbrook’s extended absences this year have turned the Thunder into a team with multiple personalities. Unfortunately for the league, both personalities are deadly on the basketball court. Russ adds a creative and relentless pressure to the Thunder attack when he’s available, and when he’s not, his backup Reggie Jackson steers the ship with great efficiency and plays good defense on the perimeter. Strictly speaking though, OKC’s excellent record with so much missed time from their starting All-Star point guard has to be factored. If Russ can get fully healthy in time to reintegrate for their playoff run, this team can be even more dangerous than the numbers.
Speaking of numbers, the team stats are fantastic. The Thunder ranks third overall in Simple Rating System, third in Margin of Victory, and fifth in Strength of Schedule. They have the 7th best offense by points scored per possession and the 4th best defense as ranked by points allowed per possession. On offense they are top 10 in effective field goal percentage, offensive rebound percentage, and free throws made per field goal attempt (3 of Dean Oliver’s famous 4 factors). Defensively they are third overall in opponent effective field goal percentage and eighth in defensive rebound percentage, so just like Indiana, they excel at keeping the opponent’s made field goals to a minimum and limiting second chance points. However, also like Indiana, they are not good at turning the opponent over, and they have a fairly high turnover rate themselves (bottom 11 in the league).
The reason that the defensive numbers are so reminiscent of the Pacers is probably because they are built a lot like the Pacers with good size at every position, a commitment to defensive position, and one of the league’s best shotblockers on the back line in Serge Ibaka. Serge is also a reason the offense has been so steady in the absence of Westbrook. Ibaka is not much of a one-on-one scoring threat, but he is absolutely deadeye on midrange jump shots, and he’s a serious threat on quick catch and finish cuts around the rim. For those old enough to remember the first Bulls dynasty prior to Michael Jordan’s departure to play baseball, Serge is playing a lot like a more athletically gifted Horace Grant.
On offense the team is heavily reliant on one-on-one and pick and roll action by Durant, Jackson, and, when available, Westbrook. They have a solid drive and kick system, and they also do a good job finding their bigs like Kendrick Perkins and the rookie Steven Adams on the move around the rim. Their only good facilitator from the power positions is Nick Collison, and their best offensive units have historically tended to include him. The Thunder, and specifically their coach, has been criticized for a lack of creativity in offensive sets and player rotations, but considering the overall lack of creative players in the absence of Russell Westbrook, a 7th best rating overall against a very tough schedule is pretty impressive. Maybe we should just chalk that up to Durant’s amazing exploits, but if so, then kudos to Coach Brooks for empowering KD to put this team on his shoulders.
The prognosis for OKC is entirely wrapped up in the health of Westbrook. Like any other contending team, losing their second best player is pretty devastating when it comes to making a deep playoff run. Defensive excellence and Durant’s explosiveness may carry them through a couple rounds, but getting past the better teams in the West without Russ’s contributions seems impossible. Hopefully for fans of great basketball, Westbrook is back in time for the Thunder to make a solid run. If he is, and the team is firing on all cylinders, they are a legit contender to win a title, maybe not favorites but nipping at the heels of the Spurs and Heat and every bit as capable as Indiana. They will have the best player in any series they play unless and until they meet the Heat in the Finals, and having the best player goes a long way in this league.