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Are Oklahoma City Thunder Nothing but Tragic Foil to NBA's Big-Market Giants?

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Are Oklahoma City Thunder Nothing but Tragic Foil to NBA's Big-Market Giants?
Rob Carr/Getty Images
As long as these three guys are still around, the Thunder can't be counted out.

Following the Oklahoma City Thunder's loss to the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals and the subsequent trading of James Harden, a question was raised: Is Oklahoma City nothing but the “little guy” that gets set up for the big-market teams of the league to knock down?

Could a team that was poised to win multiple titles be nothing more than the New Jersey Nets or Sacramento Kings of the 2000s? A team that can get close, but never get there?

I won't drag this out. The answer is no. The Thunder are absolutely still set up to take home a few trophies.

The loss to Miami in the Finals wasn't originally perceived as that bad—OKC was still young, Miami had the best player in the league in LeBron James and the overall margin of victory (just 20 points) suggested that the Thunder could hang with the champs. They'd be back.

But the Harden trade...that shook everything up. Suddenly, the Thunder went from surefire contender to fringe contender (or so we thought). After the trade, Grantland's Bill Simmons wrote:

Less than 100 hours ago, I thought the Thunder were headed for another Finals and another chance at toppling LeBron and Wade. That's not happening with Jeremy Lamb and Kevin Martin. Instead, they made a different kind of history: becoming the first NBA contender that ever jeopardized multiple titles for financial reasons and financial reasons only. It's never happened before.

And that was the general consensus. But now, just over a month later, a lot of the emotion is gone, and it's easier to take a step back and look around. And all signs point to the Thunder being just fine.

Unlike most super-teams, Oklahoma City isn't going to attract a lot of marquee free agents. Yet the Thunder are still built to compete for this year's title, and considering their current roster and all of the assets they have, should compete for the rest of the decade.

No game shows OKC's midseason growth like this whipping of the Charlotte Bobcats.
The Thunder sit at 14-4 right now—five games ahead of anyone else in the Northwest Division. They have the highest point differential (+ 9.8) of any team in the league, the seventh-highest Defensive Rating (an estimate of points allowed per 100 possessions) in the league at 102.0 and the second-highest Offensive Rating at 112.5 (All stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference).

What's even scarier is that the Thunder have gotten better as the season has gone on, beating their last four opponents by an average of 25 points per game. Part of the Thunder's hot start can be attributed to a fairly weak schedule thus far (18th overall), but they still certainly don't look like a team that jeopardized multiple titles with a bad trade.

If you look to the future and analyze the Thunder specifically in terms of assets, they're actually set up far better than a lot of non-contenders. The Thunder have two legitimate lottery talents riding the bench in Perry Jones III and Jeremy Lamb and a potential 2013 lottery pick from the Toronto Raptors (top-three and 15-to-30 protected this year).

That gives Thunder general manager Sam Presti a great deal of roster flexibility moving forward. Exactly what Presti decides to do will hinge upon how willing Kevin Martin is to re-sign for a discount, but Presti's not usually one to stand pat at the trade deadline.

Of course, he could choose to roll the dice with the pick and both rookies, but a big trade isn't at all out of the question (Anderson Varejao's name has been popping up quite a bit).

But the real reason that the Oklahoma City Thunder are still capable of being more than just the punching bag of the big markets isn't the picks, the rookies, the quiet brilliance of Kevin Martin or OKC's excellent role players. 

No, it really just comes down to the fact that the Thunder have a trio of young guys named Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka—three guys who already play at or near All-Star level and are nowhere near scratching the ceiling of their talents.

Last year, Serge Ibaka was a breathtaking shot-blocker who was overshadowed by his more talented peers on offense. He showed that he had a solid mid-range jumper and an ability to finish around the rim, but was never given many opportunities next to OKC's trio of perimeter scorers. He ultimately finished the season with 9.1 points on 7.4 shots per game.

Brett Deering/Getty Images
Ibaka has become a legitimate offensive force.

But this year, Ibaka's drastically improved his offensive game, scoring 14.3 points on 10.2 shots per game, and actually boosting his shooting percentage from 53.5 percent to 59 percent despite the increase in shots.

Ibaka's defensive game has taken a jump forward as well.

His blocks are down this year, but Serge has gotten noticeably better in terms of decision-making. He no longer leaves his man in order to chase down crazy weak-side blocks, something he did frequently last year and something that usually resulted in an offensive rebound and quick two points for the opponent.

Westbrook has also made some pretty big strides. The league's most controversial point guard was under a lot of scrutiny this season, the general opinion being that he'd hoist up roughly 40,000 shots per game, refuse to pass the ball to Kevin Durant even when quintuple-teamed and be the worst point guard in league history. That's what it seemed like everyone was saying, anyways.

But on the contrary, Russ has actually been a revelation so far this season. He's not shooting the ball particularly well (just 41 percent so far), but he's shooting a career-high 35 percent on treys and has upped his assists to 8.7 per game, also a career-best.

More than that though, Russ just looks different this season. He's still a little too reckless with the ball and still takes those crazy mid-range pull-ups in transition that make basketball purists pull out their hair.

But it seems like there's a commitment to getting other guys going that hasn't been there in seasons past. Last season, there were possessions where you knew that no one but Russ was going to touch the ball. That's just the way it was.

Those possessions have been almost non-existent this year.

When he drives, it genuinely seems like he's looking for a corner shooter or a big man to dump it off to rather than to force an off-balance layup attempt.

Westbrook swears that he's not doing anything different, telling NewsOK.com's Darnell Mayberry:

Guys are just making shots. The only way you get assists is if guys make shots.

But say what he will, his game's different this year, and it's a major reason that the Thunder have jumped from dead last in assists per game last year to seventh overall this year.

Durant's first career triple-double is a sign of his continued growth.

Finally, there's Kevin Durant. Durant was considered the near-consensus No. 2 player in the league behind LeBron last year, and he's gotten worlds better since then.

Durant is passing and rebounding like never before (4.3 assists and 8.7 boards per game), has improved his defense to an astonishing degree and is averaging 26.2 points per game on over 51 percent from the field, 43 percent from three-point land and 89.5 percent on free throws.

The only person in league history who has submitted a 50-40-90 year with at least 26 points per game is a guy named Larry Bird (who did it twice). Durant's playing at a historic level.

You can't say enough about KD. NBA.com's Sekou Smith recently ranked him No. 1 in the MVP race, writing:

Any lingering questions as to whether or not Durant's game was still evolving have been answered. This is the only player with an all-around skill set to rival LeBron James. And his ceiling might even be a tad higher than that of the reigning MVP.

The Thunder have gotten better and better as the season has progressed.

So, no, the Thunder aren't set up to be the tragic victim of the league's recent big-market movement. Not as long as they have Serge Ibaka, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant on the roster.

Who knows if the Thunder will win multiple titles, or even just one title?

Maybe Dwight Howard turns it on over the next few seasons and shreds everyone. Maybe Chris Paul and Blake Griffin become John Stockton and Karl Malone for the present generation. Or maybe LeBron James hits yet another level. You never know.

But the Thunder are as well-positioned, if not better positioned than anyone else to be the last one standing for years to come. That much is clear.

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