While the basketball world was busy writing off the Oklahoma City Thunder as championship contenders, the small-market juggernaut was busy taking yet another step toward the podium.
After cutting ties with rising star James Harden prior to the start of last season, letting his replacement Kevin Martin walk in free agency and twice seeing Russell Westbrook go under the knife, this team remains entrenched in title discussions.
But there are still hurdles for this franchise to clear; hills that even mastermind Sam Presti, the franchise's general manager who left the San Antonio Spurs in 2007, cannot help it climb.
There's no denying that this team's ceiling extends all the way up to the Chesapeake Energy Arena's rafters—but the roadblocks are impossible to ignore.
Pieces to OKC's Championship Puzzle
Despite the glamorization of talented trios, OKC's championship picture is painted by the NBA's best dynamic duo.
Kevin Durant has been threatening LeBron James' throne for years and continues nipping at the King's heels. Already a three-time scoring champion, the 25-year-old is blazing through to a fourth crown, averaging a league-best 28.1 points per game.
But KD is more than just a point-producing machine. He now shares the wealth (4.8 assists) more than he ever has. His thievery also checks in at a career rate (1.6 steals), his work on the glass matches his previous high (8.0 rebounds) and he's swatting just under one shot a night (0.9 blocks).
He's (barely) fallen out of the vaunted 50/40/90 ranks, which is the only way to nitpick his otherwise brilliant .490/.424/.886 shooting slash.
Durant's a full-fledged MVP candidate...and arguably not the only one on this roster.
Russell Westbrook's campaign may never reach the hardware-securing stage, but he should still be in the discussion. If sharing the floor with Durant wasn't harmful enough, he's also had to overcome a pair of offseason knee surgeries.
His return was a little rockier than he would have liked. As B /R's Jared Dubin noted, "he seemed anxious to prove just how'back' he was, and to do that by driving to the basket and finishing through the trees. "
Westbrook's stat sheet predictably suffered. But the further he's moved away from that return, the more he's looked like his former All-Star self—maybe even better.
|Russell Westbrook Finding His Rhythm|
|First 10 Games||5.4||5.1||20.0||38.8||29.3|
|Last 15 Games||8.0||6.5||22.2||44.9||31.9|
With incredible hops and the moxie to take and make big shots, he's deservedly praised for his offensive skills. What's been a bit overlooked, though, is his ability to change the outcome of a game at the opposite end. Even opposing coaches have been lavish with their praise, as Indiana Pacers head coach Frank Vogel showed, via The Oklahoman's Anthony Slater:
He's just got elite athleticism, the ability to contain, the ability to pressure, the ability to disrupt with his hands and force turnovers. Even his ability to switch onto bigger players and not be exploited just gives the coach a great deal of luxury and flexibility in terms of the things you can do defensively.
That's what makes this group so special. It's a force at both ends of the floor.
OKC holds top-five standings in both offensive (106.7 points per 100 possessions, fourth) and defensive (97.8 points allowed per 100 possessions, second) ratings. Few teams can turn stops into buckets as quickly as the Thunder.
This is truly one of the league's elite teams. But again, this is not the only hand in the NBA's championship pot.
The West is Loaded
With the firepower that this conference possesses, it feels like the old Wild West.
The Denver Nuggets have a winning record (14-13) and would be watching the playoffs at home if they started today—the depth in the West is scary.
Not only does the conference hold eight of the NBA's top-10 records, it also owns 11 of the 14 best net ratings. In other words, there are no padded win columns in this conference, just a number of worthy competitors all vying for the same spot.
The San Antonio Spurs, the reigning conference champions, remain the team to beat until proven otherwise. And there plenty of teams willing to try to knock them off that prominent perch—and can.
With a compelling MVP case from LaMarcus Aldridge and the continued development of reigning Rookie of the Year Damian Lillard, the Portland Trail Blazers look like they're in it for the long haul. The Houston Rockets, Los Angeles Clippers and Golden State Warriors should only get better with time as their offseason acquisitions become more comfortable in their new homes.
Whoever claims the final playoff tickets out West will be anything but an easy out.
The Phoenix Suns can run teams ragged. The Dallas Mavericks found a pick-your-poison combo with Dirk Nowitzki and the suddenly efficient, he-might-really-have-it-all Monta Ellis. Anthony Davis and Kevin Love continue to climb the superstar ladder, while the New Orleans Pelicans and Minnesota Timberwolves (respectively) have surrounded them with strong supporting casts to ease their ascents.
Don't forget about the reinforcements that will only further congest this star-studded field. The Nuggets (Danilo Gallinari, JaVale McGee), Memphis Grizzlies (Marc Gasol) and Los Angeles Lakers (Kobe Bryant and, cross your fingers, Steve Nash) all have help on the way.
There will be no furious sprint to the finish line. Just the last, grueling leg of the NBA's Ironman race.
It's a test of speed, strength, skill and endurance; a series of mental prowess, physical challenges and emotional roller coasters.
The prize for being named best of the West? Just a seven-game date with one of two teams that might actually be better than anything this conference has to offer.
Top-Heavy East Still Poses Some Major Threats
The Thunder are all-too-familiar with the the class of the Eastern Conference.
After all, OKC is still just two seasons removed from a crushing five-game defeat by the Miami Heat in the 2012 NBA Finals.
The East has become an extreme quality-over-quantity group. The entire conference holds just three winning records—that's as many as each of the West's three divisions has.
But the quality that it possesses is brilliant.
The Heat, who have since added another championship banner to their collection since knocking off the Thunder, are world beaters once again. Thank the best player on the planet, and Durant's old training partner, LeBron James for that elite status.
The four-time MVP could be adding to his trophy case again this season. He's pacing the Heat in points (25.2), rebounds (6.9) and assists (6.5), all while shooting a mind-numbing 59.5 percent from the field and 39.8 percent from deep.
Dwayne Wade is a supremely talented sidekick, at least when his knees allow him to play. The 31-year-old has a James-esque stat line with 20.0 points (on a career-best 54.7 percent shooting), 4.8 rebounds and 5.0 assists.
Throw in the league's best third wheel, Chris Bosh, and a slew of shooters, and it's obvious why Miami remains the favorite in the overall championship race.
The Heat can dominate at either end of the floor. Their net rating (plus-9.2 points per 100 possessions) is better than what any West Conference team has to offer.
And it's not even the best out East.
That belongs to the Indiana Pacers (plus-9.5), a blue-collar team with white-collar talent.
Paul George, the reigning Most Improved Player, has made yet another dramatic rise. The 23-year-old has overloaded his stat sheets (23.9 points, 5.9 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 2.0 steals), all while setting career bests in every shooting category (.469 /.409 /.859).
Lance Stephenson (13.4 points, 6.7 rebounds, 5.1 assists) could keep the M.I.P. award in the Circle City. Roy Hibbert (2.8 blocks, 41.3 field-goal percentage allowed at the rim, via NBA.com's SportVU player tracking) could bring even more hardware to town, as the big man continues making noise in the Defensive Player of the Year race.
Between Miami's experienced, star-studded cast and Indiana's imposing size, the Thunder will be tested in every aspect of the game if they reach the championship stage. But OKC may have its own trick up its sleeve.
Thunder's Youth : Blessing or Curse?
To me, this is what makes OKC's championship ceiling so compelling. This roster is loaded with rising stars, most of whom have yet to come close to playing their best basketball.
Inexperience isn't typically a coveted trait in a title pursuit. But OKC's biggest stars—Durant, Westbrook and Serge Ibaka —have all played on the game's biggest stage before.
It's the supporting cast that might be a bit wide-eyed when the lights turn up. That, or this potent group of youngsters might continue playing with a poise beyond its years:
Knowing this franchise, it's probably a good bet to put your money on the latter.
"It's to the point now where it just doesn't seem fair that the Thunder's picks always seem to pan out," USA Today's Sam Amick wrote.
That's why 23-year-old Reggie Jackson's hands can be trusted. He may not have Harden's play-making skills or Martin's perimeter stroke, but OKC's new sixth man gives this team another athletic scorer (12.5 points).
Or why no one should be surprised by the steady improvement of Jeremy Lamb, one of the prominent pieces Presti got back for Harden. After splitting his rookie season between the NBA and the D-League, the 21-year-old looks more than comfortable on this stage. He's converted 46.8 percent of his shots from the field and 39.8 percent of his three-point attempts.
OKC's superior drafting skills even give reason behind the hope for Steven Adams and Perry Jones to contribute this season. Adams, another product of the Harden trade, is still raw, but the 7-footer has already shown that he can strengthen this froncourt. Jones, a sophomore, adds versatility to the group with the size (6'11", 235 lbs.) to play in the paint and the skills to step out to the perimeter.
The talent in OKC is tremendous, and still growing.
But that's a process that must continue for the rest of the season.
While the outside threats are real, the Thunder's biggest championship obstacle could be themselves. Even though it seems like it on some nights, KD and Westbrook can't win a title on their own.