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Thunder conduct season in shadows of two Western Conference titans

In trying to keep pacing with the Warriors and Spurs, the Thunder must also compete with history. 

The WarriorsSpurs, and Thunder have been the three best NBA teams this season. They’ve also played three of the four easiest schedules to date, in part due to how little they’ve played one another; aside from the Thunder and Spurs meeting in their season opener, the West’s elite clubs have danced through their respective schedules without meeting. It seems the NBA’s schedule-making algorithm, built to weigh thousands of variables in travel and balance, stacked the back half of the season slate with matchups of high-stakes intrigue. The wait is excruciating.

Particularly so in the case of the Thunder, whose membership in this group, while deserved, is fit with an asterisk. There can be no question that Oklahoma City is an excellent team; its net rating (+8.5) would be good enough for top-three standing in most any NBA season, just as it is this year. Of note, however, is the distance between the Thunder and their top-flight contemporaries. San Antonio and Golden State have separated themselves by pushing beyond the thresholds of elite play and well into untouched territory. The former is responsible for the most dominant month (+20.4 in December) of pro basketball ever recorded. The latter sprinted out to the best start (24-0) the NBA has ever seen. It’s hard to keep pace with history, even for a team that otherwise qualifies as elite in every way.

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This is the Thunder’s lot. The stakes of this season, Kevin Durant’s last under contract, are self-evident. Oklahoma City general manager Sam Presti only confirmed them by replacing Scott Brooks as head coach with Billy Donovan, trading first-round picks for Dion Waiters and Enes Kanter, and matching a maximum offer made to Kanter in restricted free agency. The sum of those moves has made OKC the most compelling challenger to the established order of the conference, if also a team of somewhat dubious upward mobility. We’ve seen the higher gears of the Warriors and Spurs over the span of weeks and months. The best of the Thunder—those violent, breathtaking surges of athleticism and scoring—tends to be more fleeting.

To blame are the complications in Oklahoma City’s best and worst lineups. Groups featuring both Durant and Russell Westbrook are dominant on balance. Yet within this particular Thunder iteration, every mix of players that could surround them comes with a built-in glitch; Waiters has been a mess for the Thunder yet finishes games regularly; Andre Roberson, useful as he is defensively, projects as an implosive non-threat on offense; Anthony Morrow is an excellent shooter whom about a half-dozen coaches have found reason not to rely on; and Cameron Payne, who has come on strong lately, is a rookie who has yet to translate his time on the floor into a net positive. Those pieces are survivable in a regular season where their weaknesses bleed into the Thunder foreground. Give an opposing coaching staff a window to prepare and a seven-game series to adjust, however, and they’ll find ways to discredit and challenge any of the Thunder’s unfavorable backcourt options.  

Most opponents would still be at the mercy of Oklahoma City’s stars, both of whom would be able to max out their minutes in a playoff setting. Durant, in particular, has averaged upwards of 42 minutes in four of his five playoff runs. Another six minutes of Durant allows the Thunder to reap the benefit of staggering his minutes with Westbrook’s while also maximizing their opportunities to play together—a tidy resolution for a recurring problem. That said, the Warriors and Spurs are unique in their ability to exhaust even opposing superstars by demanding their full defensive engagement and challenging their offensive resolve. Kawhi Leonard and Andre Iguodala will make Durant’s every shot attempt an ordeal. Stephen Curry and Tony Parker’s off-ball movement will test Westbrook’s awareness and willingness to fight through screens. Golden State and San Antonio are where they are in the standings precisely because they can withstand a superstar-driven onslaught through specific foils and systemic strength.

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The Thunder still have the means to be fully competitive in those matchups, though the playoff minutes skew toward high-end rotation doesn’t stand to help as much as it should. So many fixtures in Oklahoma City’s rotation are one-dimensional or untrustworthy, with Durant, Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, and Steven Adams standing as the only consistent exceptions. Even Enes Kanter, whose productivity makes him a PER standout, is best used with caution. Donovan has been wisely selective in his use of Kanter, which calls into question how much he might actually play in games or a series against the Warriors. Kanter is exactly the kind of big man that Golden State likes to pick on.  He would be targeted for high pick-and-roll after high pick-and-roll, where his defensive ineptitude would be put on full display. Kanter’s post-up opportunities would be fronted and swarmed, bringing the Thunder to bank on the playmaking ability of a notoriously reluctant (and ineffective) passer. To feed him against Draymond Green, Festus Ezeli, or Andrew Bogut is to walk willingly into the Warriors’ snare.

Can Oklahoma City even afford, though, to pare back the minutes of an ill-suited player for the length of a high-effort series against the Warriors? This is the problem the Thunder run into: Every intellectual exercise that could minimize a weakness or maximize an advantage against the West’s elite runs aground on the limitations of a shallow roster. The group proclaimed to be the deepest Thunder team in years suffers from painful gaps—or in the case of the all-bench unit, sweeping imperfection. Donovan has given Oklahoma City’s reserves (typically grouped as Kanter, Morrow, Waiters, and Nick Collison, with Payne recently taking the place of D.J. Augustin) every opportunity to grow together. Their yield in return has been pitiful. Although Payne brings a marked improvement on Augustin’s play, there is nothing transformational about his presence here. The defense is still a problem. The offense is still stunted. And thus there are still minutes in most every game where the Thunder accept a significant operating loss.

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Durant and Westbrook are stellar enough to give the Thunder something precious: an opportunity to fight its way through any series. Yet even a few minutes of that all-bench lineup could prove fatal against opponents like the Warriors or the Spurs, who have a way of collapsing an opponent’s lead or expanding their own in a matter of minutes. Even at its best, OKC’s margin for error could come down to the space of a few Waiters possessions, a particular Kanter matchup, or a handful of open Roberson three-pointers. This, even for a team so excellent as the Thunder, must be terrifying. Oklahoma City has the kind of joint superstar talent to make every supporting player in its cast better. Unfortunately, even that fundamental basketball augmentation can only be stretched so far.

Moving beyond that constraint will require a developmental breakthrough or a notable acquisition—neither of which would come easily. All the same, you can’t shut the door on a team of this caliber in January. The insanity of this NBA season is captured in how we talk about the Thunder: By virtue of the fact that two other Western Conference teams have been empirically better, a great one is characterized largely by its flaws. Westbrook has been every bit as spectacular as he was last season. Durant has made his full recovery from injury to devastating effect. Still the Thunder conduct their season in the shadows of titans, with every Spur or Warrior win serving as an irritating reminder that the conference finals have only room for two.

Beating one historically great team in a series along the way is still within the Thunder’s ridiculous range of ability. Beating two—as would be necessary for a No. 3 seed—would seem to steer uncomfortably close to impossibility.