The Oklahoma City Thunder currently possess the best record in the Western Conference right now with a record of 42-16. They are picked by many to win the Western Conference this year due to their youth, explosiveness, and their deadly one-two punch of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. The Thunder are currently second in the NBA in scoring averaging 102.72 points per game, first in field goal percentage shooting 47.4% from the field, first in free throw percentage shooting 80.2% from the charity stripe, and 11th in 3-point percentage shooting 36.0% from beyond the arc. In short, the Thunder are a very good offensive team. They have 2 guys in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook who can go off at any moment and take over a game.
Having two guys who can do that gives them a huge advantage over most of their opponents. But the Thunder aren't winning 42 games because they have two great scorers. The Golden State Warriors had to part ways with a back-court consisting of Monta Ellis and Stephen Curry, two players who know how to score the basketball. The Thunder are a more complete team than people realize, and have more going on than just Westbrook and Durant.
First off, they have a third guy who can score the rock off the bench, and that would be James Harden. While Kevin Durant averages 27.5 points per game and Russell Westbrook averages 24.2, James Harden averages a solid 16.7 points per game. Harden's scoring off the bench is critical for the Thunder because it helps take pressure off Westbrook and Durant in the scoring department, as well as ensuring that the ball flows better. Harden takes a fair amount of shots himself, and makes it a lot harder for teams to double Kevin Durant or Russell Westbrook.
Averaging 31.7 minutes per game, Harden is third in minutes played behind Westbrook and Durant. He is essentially playing starters minutes, but comes off the bench to help give the team a little bit of a spark mid way through the first quarter. Him coming off the bench is also able to more easily ensure that the Thunder always have a good scorer on the court.I.e. when they want to rest Durant or Westbrook, they can have Harden out there playing, since he will be more refreshed.
In addition to Harden, Westbrook and Durant also have the luxury of having some guys in the paint who can really plug it up and play good interior defense. If there is any weakness in the Thunder's game, it is defense and their bench. They rank 15th in points allowed, giving up 96.35 points per game, which makes them a mid pack team in scoring defense. But their interior defense is pretty solid with Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka in the middle. Ibaka is averaging 3.55 blocks per game, which puts Ibaka up there with the greatest of shot blockers. Mark Eaton who played 11 seasons for the Utah Jazz from 1982-1993 averaged 3.5 blocks per game for his career, which is #1 all time in NBA history. Ibaka is blocking shots at rates that few people have. Perkins is averaging 1.18 blocks per game, nothing near Ibaka's level, but he still helps plug up the middle. As a team in full, the Thunder rank number one in blocks per game, averaging 8.07 blocks per game. That is largely due to Ibaka and Perkins.
The Thunder are also a solid rebounding team, ranking 8th in rebounds per game (43.19). So rebounding doesn't account for their poor scoring defense. The reason their scoring defense isn't so good is due to their uptempo style of play. They rank 17th in steals per game (7.52) but then they also ranked 3rd in field goal percentage allowed. Their opponents shoot a field goal percentage of 42.6%, which means they defend shots pretty well. Somehow, the Thunder still give up a decent amount of points, but they rebound, shot block, and defend shots well. So it means that they give up more points mainly because of their uptempo style of play.
As far as their bench goes, it isn't too impressive once you go beyond Harden. The highest ranked scorer off the bench beyond Harden is Daequan Cook, who is averaging only 5.4 points per game. To be truly honest, outside of Harden, Durant, and Westbrook, nobody on the Thunder really is asked to score. Ibaka averages a shad under 9 points per game, but most of those are off put-backs, dunks, and foul shots.
The offense is and outside-in offense. Most of their scoring comes on the perimeter. Perimeter jump shooting teams like the Thunder rarely win titles because their shots are lower percentage. But the Thunder are so far defying logic in that department, since they have the best record in the Western Conference, and the second best record in the NBA.
But the season is not over yet, and the playoffs are yet to start. The Thunder still have a ways to go before they win the Western Conference. There are a couple teams out there who can beat them in a 7 game series. What I will do in this article is list all possible teams out West who may face the Thunder in the playoffs, and tell you whether or not they have a legitimate shot of dethroning the Thunder come playoff time.
The first team I'll discuss is the Utah Jazz. The Jazz are currently seeded 9th out West with a record of 31-28. They rank 5th in scoring averaging 99.09 points per game, and 22nd in scoring defense, giving up 98.92 points per game. They also rank 4th in rebounding averaging 43.83 rebounds per game. The Jazz are a team with a lot of youth. That is why there is a lot of hope in Utah. Players like Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter, Alec Burks, and Gordon Hayward are all in their 1st or 2nd years in the NBA, and all promise to be future stars in the NBA.
But can the Jazz realistically beat the Thunder in a 7 game series? The answer is probably not, but lets keep something in mind about the Jazz. They are young, athletic, and play in a very tough arena. The Jazz are tough to beat at home. Especially in the playoffs. Plus, unlike the Thunder, the Jazz play that pick 'n roll offense, and are a very inside and out team. Their top two scorers are Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson, both who are power forwards. Together, Jefferson and Millsap make for a tough front court. A young athletic team like Utah that plays opposite of OKC could give the Thunder some problems. Plus, the Jazz also have a deeper bench than the Thunder do. With CJ Miles, Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter, and Alec Burks coming off the bench. The Jazz youth, interior offense, and rebounding are why the Thunder should be afraid of facing the Jazz. Not only that, but the Jazz score at pace not far off from where the Thunder are at. If they met in a series I think Utah would take them at least 6 games, maybe 7 before losing in game 7 in Oklahoma City. Being a division team helps Utah as well, since they are familiar with the Thunder. As of right now, the Jazz are 1-2 against the Thunder.
The next team I'll discuss is the 10th seeded Phoenix Suns. The Suns have recently surged into the playoff mix with a 30-28 record, maybe getting the #8 seed out West. They are 11th in scoring at 97.81 points per game, and 20th in scoring defense at 97.66 points given up per game. They also rank 22nd in rebounding at 41.53 rebounds per game. The Suns are honestly lucky as hell to even be in the playoff mix, and they don't have much scoring beyond Steve Nash and Marcin Gortat. Gortat is a nice player and everything, but if he's your leading scorer, you are in trouble. He's averaging 15.8 points and 9.8 rebounds per game, which are solid numbers, but as of right now he is the #2 player on this team behind Steve Nash. Once you go beyond Nash and Gortat, you have Jared Dudly and Channing Frye, two guys who can both shoot and stretch the floor. But neither really scores well inside. Grant Hill is also done for the season, so they've lost his double digit scoring as well. They aren't very young either, something that the Thunder are. The truth is, the Thunder would love to face the Suns in the first round because they are an older team, they don't defend or rebound well, and they don't have a great #1 scoring option. They're offensive punch is gone. They also are 0-2 against the Thunder. Expect the Thunder to defeat the Suns in 5 games.
The next team is the Houston Rockets ranked 8th in the west with a record of 32-26, who rank 16th in rebounding (42.09 rpg), 8th in scoring with 98.29 points per game, and 19th in scoring defense 97.40 points allowed. Here is the problem with Houston, they don't have any elite scoring options. Kevin Martin and Luis Skola and score the ball pretty well, but neither is especially explosive. Kyle Lowry is a good point guard, who would give Westbrook some problems but the truth is, he is no Westbrook. They are 1-2 against the Thunder this season, so they have beaten the Thunder, but they lack the overall explosive power to defeat the Thunder. The only real edge the Rockets have is Kevin McHale. He's a very good coach and has championship experience. That could serve them well in the playoffs, but not well enough to knock out the Thunder.
The next team is the Denver Nuggets, who rank 7th out west with a record of 32-26. The Nuggets rank #1 in scoring averaging 103.71 points per game, and #29 in scoring defense, giving up 101.78 points per game. As for rebounding, they rank 7th averaging 43.22 rebounds per game. Currently 0-2 against the Thunder, the Nuggets don't pose much of a threat. They play utterly no defense, which means the Thunder would score a bucket of points against them in a 7 game series. While they themeslves do score very well, they don't have the offensive power to compete with OKC over a 7 game series. Their best player is Ty Lawson, who is having a solid season averaging 15.8 points and 6.7 assists per game. But he is nothing compared to what the Thunder have. If Ty Lawson is your best player, you aren't beating the Thunder in a 7 game series. Last season, they lost to the Thunder in 5 games in the first round of the playoffs, and I don't see why the results would be any different. Plus, they are banged up with Danilo Gallinari having injury problems, which makes them even less deep. Wilson Chandler is banged up as well. They are a fairly deep team going 12 guys deep, which would give the Thunder some problems, but the truth is, Denver lacks the fire power to give the Thunder any real problems.
Ranked 6th is the Dallas Mavericks who are 32-26. They are ranked 20th in scoring at 94.67 points per game, 7th in scoring defense 93.52 points allowed, and 12th in rebounding 42.62 boards per game. The only reason to think the Mavericks can beat the Thunder in a 7 game series is because they did last season. They are a solid defensive team, and if Dirk Nowitzki gets hot, then the Mavs are in trouble. But a lot of the key pieces from last year's team (Tyson Chandler, JJ Barea, and DeShawn Stevenson) are gone. Also, Lamar Odom is no longer gonna play for them due to his attitude problems. That really is rough for the Mavs, who thought he could be the missing ingredient in their repeat for a title. With their team having changed so much from last season, along with Odom's fall from grace, I think it's easy to say the Mavs will not knock out the Thunder unless Dirk Nowitzki goes nuts, and other players really step it up. This year, they are 1-3 against the Thunder, which is not at all an encouraging sign.
Ranked 5th is the 34-23 Memphis Grizzlies who took the Thunder 7 games last season. If there is a team that the Thunder don't wanna face in the playoffs, it's the Grizzlies. The Grizzlies are 19th in offensive scoring 95.18 points per game, but they are 6th in scoring defense 93.37 points allowed per game. Rebounding is also a strength of the Grizzlies, who average 42.22 per game ranked 15th in the NBA. The Grizzlies are a threat because they have an inside out style of game with Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph in the paint. Also they have Rudy Gay, who is an all-star caliber small forward. They took the Thunder 7 games with Gay hurt. If he's healthy come post season, look out for the Grizzlies with Conley, Mayo, Randolph, and Gasol to make a run. The big reason why I think the Grizzlies will oust the Thunder if they get the chance is due to their depth. They have 6 guys who score in double figures to the Thunder's 3. They have a much more balanced scoring attack, a deeper bench, and they play better defense. Not to mention they are just about as young as the Thunder are. If they meet the Thunder in a 7 game series, I personally see Memphis upsetting OKC. They are 1-2 against the Thunder this season, but they weren't at full strength in any of those games, and in their most recent game against the Thunder, they won @ OKC without Mike Conley.
Ranked 4th in the Western Conference are the 35-23 Los Angeles Clippers. They rank 13th in points scored (97.29 points per game), 14th in points allowed (94.98 points allowed per game), and 18th in rebounding (41.72 rebounds per game). They have a 2-1 record against the Thunder, which does lead me to believe the Clippers may have a shot at knocking out the Thunder. The reason why the Thunder should fear them is pretty obvious. Chris Paul is better than Russell Westbrook, and Blake Griffin is a force in the paint. Blake Griffin has scored 22, 7, and 16 points in those three games against Thunder, which means that Serge Ibaka is doing his job against B-Griff. In order to really have a good game in the paint against the Thunder you need to have another teammate who also scores well in the paint. The Clippers only have Griffin which allows him to get doubled and roughed up by Perkins and Ibaka. They need another good force in the paint, and their best option DeAndre Jordan hasn't yet arrived. He still needs a lot of growing to do. Teams like Utah and Memphis have two really good inside paint options that can wear down the Thunder's interior defense. Having just one paint player won't get it done.
But if there is a reason to believe in the Clippers, here is why: Chris Paul will outplay Russell Westbrook, Blake Griffin won't be contained, Nick Young will replace the production of Chauncey Billups, Mo Williams will get hot, and they overall will win because they have a slightly better bench. Like Memphis, they have 6 guys who score in double figures while the Thunder have 3. Teams that have more offensive weapons in totality like the Clippers give the Thunder problems. Plus, Chris Paul knows how to close ball games. Do they knock out the Thunder? I don't see why not. I like their chances for the same reason I like the Grizz. More balanced scoring. However, we haven't seen them take the Thunder to a game 7 like the Grizzlies have, which makes me a little less confident in the Clippers. But I give them good odds at doing it.
Ranked 3rd in the Western Conference are the 37-22 Los Angeles Lakers. They are 17th in Scoring averaging 96.78 points per game and 11th in points allowed at 94.64 points allowed per game. They are also # 2 in rebounding averaging 46.17 rebounds per game. The Lakers are also 0-2 against the Thunder this season. The Lakers on paper give the Thunder problems because they have Kobe Bryant who averages 28.1 points per game, and two great big guys in Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. They rebound very well and can out muscle the Thunder's post defense. They have been lacking a good point guard, but now they have Ramon Sessions, who is a legit point guard. He is averaging 13.5 points and 7.1 assists per game as a Laker. He seems to have given this team a real boost by helping them address an obvious weakness they had at the beginning of the Season. The Lakers haven't played the Thunder with Sessions at point, so until then, we can't make a fair prediction of how things will go. Will they beat the Thunder in a series? Probably not, but they got the size to do it, the closer to do it in Kobe, and a better point guard now. So, don't count the Lakers out, even though I think the Thunder probably knock them out in 6 games.
Ranked 2nd in the Western Conference is the 40-16 San Antonio Spurs. They are 3rd in scoring, averaging 101.68 points per game and 17th in points allowed, giving up 96.38 points per game. They also average 42.52 rebounds per game which is 13th in the NBA. They are also 2-1 against the Thunder. The Spurs are a team that the Thunder should be worried about for a few reasons. (A) They have more experience than the Thunder. (B) They are 2-1 against them and Manu Ginobili hasn't played in any of those games. (C) They have a very deep bench and a lot of it is youth. (D) Tony Parker is a great point guard who can match up with Westbrook. (E) They score the ball well. Also, if the Spurs get the #1 seed, then the Thunder could have to go on the road in a game 7. The reason why the Thunder probably beat the Spurs should they meet is they are younger and have the best player on the court. Kevin Durant is better than anybody on the Spurs. Is Russell Westbrook the #2 best player on the court? Probably, but I'm willing to call him and Tony Parker even. So in short, I think the Thunder win that series because they have the best player on the floor. But if this doesn't mean it wouldn't be close. The Spurs have more youth this year and are deeper than last season. Plus, they play very good team basketball. They play as a unit and are very disciplined. If the Thunder trip up at all, the Spurs would be right there to pick them apart. I expect the Thunder to win in 7 games.
My honest pick to win the West is the Memphis Grizzlies as of right now. I like their depth, size, versatility, and defensive abilities. But the Thunder should still be the favorites. They've been the best team all year out West and they deserve to be the team being chased. While they are really good for all the reasons I mentioned earlier, they are still young, and I'm not sure they are quite ready to take that leap to the NBA Finals. Remember that they nearly lost in 7 games to Memphis last season, and lost in 5 games to Dallas in the next round (conference finals). It's no "slam dunk" they win the west. There are a lot of teams that can knock them out and a lot of teams that very well may represent the West in the NBA Finals. It'll be interesting to see how this all shakes out.
Tuesday, April 10, 2012
Here are my power rankings as of today April 10. Enjoy!