Why OKC Thunder Remain the Top Dog in the Western Conference

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Why OKC Thunder Remain the Top Dog in the Western Conference
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant

Knee jerk reactions and early predictions attempting to beat the street are a part of professional sports.

Since general manager Sam Presti traded James Harden to the Houston Rockets on Oct. 27, Presti and the Oklahoma City Thunder have been no exception.

But any talk of the Thunder not being the top dog in the NBA’s Western Conference—when it’s all said and done—is premature and probably inaccurate.

There are just too many variables and unknown moving parts with the rest of the cream of the West.

The Thunder were ahead of the curve last year when they were led by a triad of 20-something-year-old kids who brought them to the NBA Finals. So obviously, breaking up that trio opens the team up to second-guessing.

However, James Harden was a part of the Thunder.

Yes, he was a big part.

Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
James Harden

But he, by himself, was not the Thunder. And the reasons why the Thunder won the NBA’s Western Conference last season are the same reasons why they will have a chance to win the conference once again this year.

Today, the three most important players on the Thunder roster are Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka. Durant and Westbrook are each 24 years old and Ibaka only just recently celebrated his 23rd birthday.

The Los Angeles Lakers, San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Clippers are the three biggest threats to the Thunder repeating as conference champions, but key rotation players on each those teams—Steve Nash, Manu Ginobili and Blake Griffin—are already battling injuries.

Some like Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan are concerned with not getting injured, while others—such as Dwight Howard and Lamar Odom—are still hoping to get back into tip-top basketball shape.

The Lakers, Spurs and Clippers all want to be what the Thunder are: 100 percent Healthy.

Last season, Durant, Harden and Ibaka each played all 66 games and unlike the other contenders in the West, there’s no reason to think that will change this season.

As always, a roll of an ankle or tear of a muscle or ligament can occur without warning, but their health is noteworthy and something to consider. The NBA season is 82 games long and old guys generally don’t get healthier as we approach the playoffs.

Certainly, getting to the playoffs required good defense and though the departure of Harden hurts, its defensive stalwarts—Ibaka, Thabo Sefolosha and Kendrick Perkins—remain with the club.

The Thunder held opponents to 42.7 percent field-goal shooting last season and through four games this season, it’s holding opponents to 43 percent.

No difference.

Brett Deering/Getty Images
Serge Ibaka

The 32.7 defensive rebounds they averaged as a team last season is up to 35 this season.

Again, no difference.

And the 18.7 team assists they averaged per game last season? That was dead last in the entire league. This season, thus far, they’re assisting on 21 baskets per game and that makes them No. 18 in the league.

If that’s not enough, the Thunder—while scoring less this season—are also giving up fewer points.

It’s early for sure, but if it’s not too early to be calling the Harden trade a mistake and determining the Thunder to be a one hit wonder, it’s not too early to say this:

In some of the most important areas in which a successful basketball team needs to excel—field-goal percentage, rebounds, assists and points allowed—the Thunder are the same team they were last year, and in some ways, they are better.

Now, in today’s NBA, free agency has become such a spectacle because this generation’s All-Star-caliber players are willing to sacrifice money to give themselves an opportunity to win. But we’ve fallen into the unfortunate habit of anointing offseason winners and losers based on who they acquire over the offseason.

We’ve fallen into the habit of ignoring things such as chemistry, camaraderie and practice.

Sometimes, the best move is the move you don’t make. There’s something to be said for continuity and there’s something to be said of young superstars—Durant and Westbrook—whose best days are clearly ahead of them.

With the exception of Dwight Howard and Blake Griffin—both of whom are battling lingering injuries—the Lakers, Spurs and Clippers do not have those types of players.

The Thunder just so happen to have arguably the two best sub-25-year-old players in the league.

Durant won last season’s scoring title by scoring 28 points per game, but this season, he’s averaging just fewer than 21. But his rebounds and assists are through the roof, his 5.8 assists per game and 12.3 rebounds per game are far above last season’s averages of 3.5 and eight, respectively.

The same can be said of Westbrook, who is averaging seven assists per game this season compared to 5.5 last season.

The Thunder may be the same team, but thus far, Durant and Westbrook are not the same players. They’re growing and improving and their best days are ahead.

As a team, the best days for the Thunder may be ahead, as well.

Daniel Shirey-US PRESSWIRE
James Harden -- In Rockets Red

Harden is gone and he’ll have the opportunity to show how good he can really be as the leader of the Houston Rockets. But last season, he only averaged 10.1 shot attempts per game. He shot 49 percent from the field and scored about 17 points per game on average and that certainly makes him one of the league’s more efficient shooting guards.

Playing with Durant and Westbrook, though, probably helped Harden be that efficient player, so it’s reasonable to think that Kevin Martin—Harden’s replacement—can enjoy increased efficiency, as well.

Through four games this season, Martin is averaging 19.3 points on just 10 shot attempts per game. He’s hitting 51 percent of his shots and he’s accomplishing all of that in just 28 minutes per game. Those numbers are eerily similar to what Harden accomplished with the Thunder.

Martin isn’t nearly the playmaker off the dribble that Harden is, but the return of Eric Maynor—a true point guard—won’t require him to be. Maynor may not be as adept as creating off the dribble as Harden either, but he and Martin will each be able to respectively focus on creating and scoring. That's a good thing.

Together, Martin and Maynor can provide the Thunder with what Harden did. And while it’s true that Harden may go on to average 30 points per game and become a perennial All-Star, he simply wouldn’t have had the opportunity to do so on the Thunder. He would have always been the sixth man and third offensive option.

Everything written above was done so for the purpose of suggesting that the Thunder will be the same team this season that they were last season. And for that reason, it will, once again, be one of the top teams in the conference.

That’s especially true since all of the aforementioned threats have deficiencies which could prove fatal to attempts to overthrow Durant’s gang.

The Lakers still lack the perimeter speed and athleticism to stop Westbrook, and Kendrick Perkins is one of the best single coverage post defenders in the league, so he'll give Howard problems. At this stage in their respective careers, Durant is a more efficient scorer than Bryant, as well.

Soobum Im-US PRESSWIRE
The San Antonio Spurs

The Clippers still don’t have a reliable post-up presence and the Spurs are older.

Though the Thunder still have a few missing pieces on its roster, the flexibility that Presti retained by trading Harden is worth something as well. In return, he received a lottery pick in Jeremy Lamb and additional future draft picks.

Presti has a young team with young superstars, an efficient sixth man, flexibility and the assets to make a trade or two. Like the Clippers, the Thunder also lack a dependable post-up option, but they are in position to acquire one if need be.

The Thunder have astute management and young superstars. They have been managed well and continue to be one of the NBA’s model franchises.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

And like it or not, despite their somewhat slow start, the Thunder are poised to remain one of the top dogs in the NBA’s Western Conference.

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