Their MVP will miss roughly two-thirds of the season due to injury. Their defensive lynchpin is expected to miss the stretch run due to injury. A third starter and another key rotation player are both sidelined at the moment. Five other members of their opening night roster have been traded or released this season, requiring critical contributions from multiple newcomers. They also started their season 3-12 in a conference featuring 10 capable teams fighting for eight postseason spots.
Given all of that, what’s the best way to describe the Thunder’s position in the standings now, as they prepare for the final three weeks of the season? How about: “Sitting pretty.”
To be clear, the epic three-team race between the Thunder (41-30), Pelicans (37-33) and Suns (38-33) for the West’s final playoff spot isn’t over, but Oklahoma City moved firmly into the driver’s seat this weekend. A trio of wins over the Hawks, Heat and Lakers, coupled with the Pelicans’ losses to the Warriors and Clippers, moved the Thunder three games clear of the Suns and 3 1/2 games clear of the Pelicans for the No. 8 seed.
That’s still too tight for comfort, what with 11 games remaining on Oklahoma City’s schedule and so many missing bodies, but achieving any level of breathing room has been a tough task indeed.
A top-down look at the three teams’ winning percentages reveals both the massive early-season hole that Oklahoma City fell into when both Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook were sidelined with injuries and the persistent closeness of the three challengers since mid-December.
If Oklahoma City does emerge from this group, it will come only after a nip-and-tuck slog that lasted for four solid months. The Thunder clearly aren’t alone with their midseason adversity here: the Suns blew up their roster at the trade deadline by trading away Goran Dragic, Isaiah Thomas and Miles Plumlee and lost Brandon Knight to an ankle injury, while the Pelicans have dealt with various injuries to Anthony Davis, Jrue Holiday, Tyreke Evans, Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon.
(Mandatory gripe: all three teams would be at least the No. 6 seed and jogging care-free through all of this if they were in the East.)
Both popular projection models – ESPN.com’s and Basketball-Reference.com’s – now strongly favor the Thunder to secure the final playoff spot. The chart below compares the three teams by their season-long offensive rating, defensive rating, strength of schedule to date, and point differential (MOV). It also lists their playoff odds from both models, with Oklahoma City approaching 90 percent certainty according to both.
The snap take conclusion from glancing at the major indicators would be that Oklahoma City is in line for the No. 8 seed because it’s had better balance than its two competitors. That’s a little misleading, though, because there have been at least three major phases of the Thunder’s season: 1) Apocalypse (No Durant and Westbrook), 2) Normalcy (Durant and Westbrook are both back), and 3) Brave New World (Westbrook goes it alone without Durant after the break).
To no one’s great surprise, Oklahoma City was flat-out atrocious in phase one and fantastic in phase two (the Thunder were 18-9 with Durant in the lineup). The most interesting story comes in phase three, though, as Westbrook has taken his game to new heights, strung together a boatload of triple doubles and guided the Thunder to a 12-5 record since the All-Star break with Durant on the shelf due to a foot injury.
Westbrook’s individual production during that time deserves its own paragraph:
Westbrook (post-All-Star): 31.6 PPG, 11.3 APG, 9.7 RPG, 2.3 SPG, 110.6 Offensive Rating
Lost a bit in the gushing (and deserved) individual statistical comparisons to Michael Jordan and others is how Westbrook’s everywhere-at-once brilliance has powered the Thunder’s team attack. Since the All-Star break, only the Cavaliers, Spurs and Warriors have posted higher offensive ratings than the Thunder’s 108 mark. The midseason arrivals of Enes Kanter and Kyle Singler and the recent torrid shooting of Anthony Morrow have provided boosts, and Westbrook has done the rest—remaking Oklahoma City as an all-offense, no-defense outfit along the way.
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Comparing the Thunder, Pelicans and Suns based on point differential – for both the full season and since the All-Star break – shows a meaningful separation has taken place.
Although Oklahoma City’s numbers include Ibaka’s post All-Star contributions, the relative quality of play between the Thunder and the other two teams is large enough to feel confident that this is indeed the Thunder’s race to lose.
That sentiment is reinforced by a glance ahead at the remaining schedules for all three teams. All three have it tough, the Suns most of all, and that parity in difficulty obviously favors the current front-runner. Here's a look at how the three schedules play out, including games against teams that are currently in the playoffs or the lottery and games that will be at home or on the road.
If Oklahoma City continues winning at its post All-Star pace, it would finish with 48 wins, requiring New Orleans to finish 11-1 and Phoenix to finish at least 10-1 to move back into the playoff picture.
That’s asking way too much of either team: The Pelicans still have games left against the Rockets (twice), Blazers, Warriors, Grizzlies and Spurs, while the Suns face a murderer’s row that includes the Warriors, Hawks, Spurs, Clippers, Blazers (twice), and the Mavericks. What’s more, New Orleans and Phoenix will play each other on April 10, guaranteeing a loss for one of the two teams.
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Even if the Thunder simply finish 6-6, that will require a 9-3 close from the Pelicans (who own the tiebreaker thanks to a 3-1 head-to-head record) and/or at least an 8-3 closing from the Suns. Those hypothetical records are way more achievable than the ones mentioned above, especially if some of the West’s locked-in playoff teams rest their stars over the last week or two of the season, but it would still be asking both New Orleans and Phoenix to generate a level of momentum that neither team has displayed since the All-Star break.
Long story short: The Thunder, thanks largely to Westbrook, are flying higher than their competition and they now must simply hang on, rather than run uphill, for the final three weeks. Perhaps something positive can be taken from this nightmare season after all, at least until they look ahead to see which team they will face in the first round of the playoffs.