The Oklahoma City Thunder have been quietly putting together a great season and currently sit atop a very hectic Western Conference.
Durant has been phenomenal all year and is proving why many thought he would be a front-runner for MVP. He's second in the league in scoring at 27.9 PPG and is making a push for his third-straight scoring title.
In just his fifth NBA season, Durant has been improving his game in all areas. So far this season, he has increased his averages from last year in shooting percentage (.499), three-point percentage (.375), rebounds (8.1), assists (3.6), blocks (1.2), steals (1.5) and (of course) points. When he came in the league, everyone knew Durant was a pure scorer, but he is starting to show us that he can do it all.
While it's nice that the Thunder are enjoying so much success in the regular season, all of that goes out the window once the playoffs start next month. Oklahoma City is a very young team (their oldest starters are 27) but they have added some valuable championship experience over the past couple of years by trading for Kendrick Perkins and signing five-time NBA champ Derek Fisher. Their leadership can and will help Durant and his young teammates take the next step to becoming matured players who can win in the playoffs.
Thunder GM Sam Presti has also done a nice job of surrounding Durant with nice talent who can take the team to the next level. Presti has built his team up through grooming young players for success and developing team chemistry through a consistent roster. Russell Westbrook and James Harden were both lottery picks who have proved to be the second and third-best players on the Thunder. Unlike situations in Orlando, Durant never has to worry about being the only one who can score for his team.
However, many question the chemistry between Durant and Westbrook, due to Westbrook's selfish play at times and a recent blowup between the two on the bench. Durant has stated that there is no conflict but also that they are both very passionate players who can get heated at times. Sam Presti has worked hard to institute a college-like camaraderie between the players, who are often hanging out with each other outside of the court. This unique type of team chemistry will undoubtedly help the Thunder in the playoffs when the pressure is at its highest.
The West is absolutely up in the air right now with how close every team is in the standings, but there isn't a team in the West that the Thunder haven't proved themselves against. Their biggest challenge lies in the San Antonio Spurs, a long-time dominant team with championship experience. The Spurs, while still very good, are an aged team playing in a lockout shortened season full of back-to-backs and back-to-back-to-backs which will take a toll on them come playoff time.
The same could be argued for the Los Angeles Lakers, who are poised to make a run in the playoffs themselves after a key acquisition of Ramon Sessions. The Thunder, however, are still a very young team who are more equipped to handle this hectic schedule while remaining energetic by the time the playoffs roll around.
In a possible NBA Finals preview, the Thunder played the Miami Heat this past Sunday night on a national stage. Durant turned in a very fine performance against the tough defense of LeBron James (29 PTS, 9 REB, 8 AST) and played some tough D of his own against LBJ holding him to 17 points on 8-of-18 shooting. The Thunder simply overwhelmed Miami this game in their 103-87 victory, even with Westbrook sitting a good portion of the game due to foul trouble. This game definitely sent a message to those out there who still think Miami is the favorite for the NBA crown.
Overall, Durant and the Thunder are the team to beat in the West right now and I predict they will be hosting a parade this summer in Oklahoma City with some hardware in hand.