OKC Thunder Are Team to Beat Again in the West
There are plenty of title contenders in the Western Conference, but none of them possess the complete package like the Oklahoma City Thunder. Once again, the Thunder are the team to beat, and here are some of the biggest reasons for that.
It all starts with the duo of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. The two superstars are offensive juggernauts, and both of them can score 50 points in any game. They put so much pressure on opposing defenses, and the pair carries OKC's championship aspirations on its shoulders.
There are, however, other factors that play a role in OKC's success. For starters, the team has a lot of experience playing together. In a season full of new contenders that are incorporating major pieces (e.g. Doc Rivers, Dwight Howard and Andre Iguodala), the Thunder's continuity is going to serve them well.
Without further ado, here is a complete breakdown of the five biggest factors that have the Oklahoma City Thunder standing on top of the rest of the Western Conference.
As of December 12, 2013, the Thunder were undefeated at home, and that excellent performance in OKC has been one of their biggest strengths in recent years. In their regular-season home games since the 2010-11 season, OKC has gone 100-25 (.800 winning percentage).
Making it through the Western Conference will most likely require a trip through Oklahoma City, and that's a daunting obstacle for any team.
The crowd is a huge factor for the young team as it fuels game-changing runs and can turn around the momentum of a game in mere seconds.
It's difficult to win just one game in the Chesapeake Energy Arena, so no team is looking forward to the prospect of playing three or four games there in a playoff series.
One of the biggest unknowns for the Thunder entering this season was what they should expect from their bench. Not only did they lose Kevin Martin, their third-leading scorer from last year, in the offseason, but OKC would be relying on young and inexperienced players to carry their second unit.
So far, so good.
The second unit is averaging 33 points per game this season (four more points than last year) according to HoopsStats.com, but its effect goes beyond the scoreboard.
Every bench player brings great energy to the table in addition to his talent.
No player reflects that statement more than Nick Collison. He's the perfect glue guy, and he makes so many hustle plays that change the course of games.
In addition, Reggie Jackson has been absolutely fabulous as the leader of the reserves. His numbers don't show it, but he's been very comfortable running the show, and he's shown great maturity and decision-making.
There are more young guns playing big roles for OKC. Jeremy Lamb, Steven Adams and Perry Jones are all showing their tremendous potential and contributing right now for this team.
Youth is a strong suit of the Thunder bench right now and, if that continues to be the case, it's very dangerous for the other Western contenders given how dynamic the starting lineup is.
The inexperience might be a negative factor in the playoffs, but for right now the bench is a valuable asset.
The Miami Heat tend to favor a small-ball style of basketball, but they had a difficult time getting past the Indiana Pacers in last year's Eastern Conference Finals. Having an identity is crucial for a team, but sometimes another team will be able to capitalize on your weaknesses, just like the Pacers did last year.
That's why OKC's versatility is so important for their candidacy as a title contender.
Head coach Scott Brooks can trot out a number of different lineups, which will be problematic for opposing teams in the playoffs.
Their starting lineup is a traditional one with two big men (Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins), and the Thunder go two deep at the center and power forward positions (Steven Adams and Nick Collison).
In addition, OKC can go with a smaller lineup which features only one "true" big and Kevin Durant or Perry Jones as the 4.
Adding another layer to the puzzle is the variety that Coach Brooks has at his disposal in the backcourt. He can employ a small, quick lineup featuring two (or even three) point guards with Russell Westbrook and Reggie Jackson on the court at the same time.
On the contrary, Brooks can utilize lineups that emphasize length on the perimeter with the likes of Thabo Sefolosha and Jeremy Lamb manning the wings.
Furthermore, Kevin Durant is such a good ball-handler and playmaker that he can be a "point forward" without Westbrook or Jackson on the court.
With so many different weapons at his disposal, Coach Brooks can use different approaches and capitalize on his opponent's weaknesses. Flexibility hasn't been Brooks' strong suit in the past, but he's shown promising signs this season.
OKC's versatility makes it a nightmare to face them over the course of a seven-game series because there are so many possible adjustments to be made.
There are plenty of "contenders" in the West, but only the San Antonio Spurs have more experience than OKC—a strange thought considering how young the Thunder are.
The Los Angeles Clippers are adjusting to the coaching style of Doc Rivers, and they haven't made it out of the second round in franchise history.
The Portland Trail Blazers have shocked everyone with their white-hot start, but how will they fare when the going gets tough in the playoffs?
Likewise, the Golden State Warriors are loaded with talent, but they are still learning the ropes of being a contender.
The Houston Rockets are trying to build chemistry with Dwight Howard, and they'll likely have a new piece to work with if Omer Asik gets traded.
The Oklahoma City Thunder have been there and done that. They've been to the NBA Finals, they know how to play with each other and they've experienced (and overcome) adversity together in the postseason.
That experience is going to pay dividends in the playoffs.
Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook
All of the aforementioned factors play a part in OKC's title hopes, but the biggest reason why the Thunder are the team to beat is the combination of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.
Durant is the best offensive player in the league. He's a walking mismatch and can't be covered by any one player not named LeBron James.
Similarly, Westbrook puts so much pressure on any defense. He relentlessly attacks the rim, drawing fouls and collapsing the defense.
Teamwork, defense and coaching are all critical pieces of the championship puzzle, but it's ultimately the superstars that win playoff series.
There isn't a superstar duo that's better than Durant and Westbrook. Together, they are unguardable and make the Thunder instant contenders.