It's always been a pick-your-poison scenario for the opposition, but never before have the Oklahoma City Thunder attacked with this many different lethal toxins.
While their championship talk usually (and rightfully) starts with MVP front-runner Kevin Durant and superstar sidekick Russell Westbrook, it's their versatile supporting cast that validates their position as full-fledged contenders.
General manager Sam Presti has given coach Scott Brooks a little bit of everything around the NBA's premier one-two punch. There's blue-collar grit, white-collar skill, veteran savvy and youthful athleticism. If Brooks needs a score, a stop, energy, efficiency, nastiness—whatever it is, he has someone willing and able to supply it.
That makes life so much easier in OKC, not just for Brooks, but also for his talented twosome:
Good indication of the Thunder's improved depth: KD and Westbrook are both averaging fewest minutes per game since their rookie seasons.— Anthony Slater (@anthonyVslater) December 24, 2013
It also gives the Thunder a top gear otherwise unseen outside of South Beach. Or lets them do something crazy like welcome the scorching San Antonio Spurs and their 19-game winning streak to Chesapeake Energy Arena and send them both packing with a statement-making 106-94 win as the Thunder did Thursday night.
"They're a hell of a basketball team," economical wordsmith Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said, via NBA.com's Randy Renner.
That right there is the key.
The Thunder have always had star power, a requisite for surviving in a superstars league. But now they have the complementary pieces in place to make a furious run down the path to the podium.
The Familiar Faces
Even while praising the supporting cast, the conversation still needs to commence at Durant and Westbrook. The two All-NBA talents are simply that good.
"He’s a great player, he does it all, rebounds, gets assists, he scores the ball, he can do whatever he wants on the floor,” Thunder swingman Jeremy Lamb said, via NBA.com's Jeff Caplan. “Late in games he pulls it out for us, makes clutch shots. Amazing."
Westbrook is a nightly triple-double threat (he has two already and a handful of close calls in 41 games this season) and a walking highlight reel.
The top scoring tandem in the NBA (53.4 points per game combined), they put constant pressure on a defense. Freakishly long and unfairly athletic, that pressure isn't relieved one bit at the opposite end.
The tension only builds as more players get involved.
Serge Ibaka, the de facto third wheel in OKC's Big Three, continues to grow as a two-way force.
His scoring average (career-best 15 points per game) is nearly a full six points higher than it stood just two seasons ago (9.1 in 2011-12). With a .536/.380/.774 slash line, he's emerging as a threat from anywhere on the floor.
Even with the added weapons in his offensive arsenal, he still does his best work at the opposite side. He's as intimidating as it gets in terms of rim protection, ranking second in both blocks per game (2.6) and block percentage (6.4). Impressive as they are, these numbers can't account for the countless number of shots he changes on a nightly basis:
Russell Westbrook on Serge Ibaka tonight: "He may have had two or three blocks, but he probably altered 25."— Anthony Slater (@anthonyVslater) April 4, 2014
Ibaka intimidates with strength and athleticism.
Kendrick Perkins, though, is a frontcourt bully transported in from some past NBA generation. Tough as nails and all kinds of nasty, he battles from the start of play until the whistle sounds—or even after one's blown:
With two personal fouls and technical on the same possession, Kendrick Perkins has now officially returned to the Thunder lineup.— Anthony Slater (@anthonyVslater) April 4, 2014
He's incredibly limited offensively (3.4 points on 44.2 percent shooting) and decent, at best, on the boards (nine rebounds per 36 minutes).
It's hard to quantify the intangibles he brings, but a couple numbers seem to do the trick: 11-8 (OKC's record in the 19 games he's missed, 44-11 when he's in the lineup) and 103.5 (the Thunder's defensive rating during the 17 games he sat out with a strained groin, more than three points higher than their season mark of 100.3).
Speaking of intangibles, I'd be remiss not to mention Mr. Intangibles, Nick Collison, here.
"Teammates trust him. Coaches cherish him. General managers long to land someone just like him," The Oklahoman's Darnell Mayberry wrote of OKC's consummate glue guy.
Collison is a productive blend of basketball IQ and a nonstop motor. He finds scoring chances within the offense (4.2 points on 56 percent shooting), occupies opponents by boxing them out for rebounds that don't always show up on his stat sheet (7.8 per 36 minutes) and throws his body around if a loose ball comes anywhere close to his vicinity.
He'll do whatever it takes to put his team in a good position, and he has the battle scars to prove his commitment:
Nick Collison is bleeding just a little bit pic.twitter.com/aaHELFL9Rj— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) April 4, 2014
Thabo Sefolosha brings more disruptive defensive length to the perimeter. Derek Fisher, 39 years young, is proving that a soft shooting touch doesn't age (39.4 three-point percentage).
The Thunder are checking off item after item on the championship checklist—and that's before breaking down their newer weapons.
The Added Artillery
Oklahoma City could've stopped its roster tinkering a while ago. This team has won 71.4 percent of its games since the start of the 2010-11 season, after all.
But the Thunder don't want to be really good. They have plans of being great.
After seeing Reggie Jackson shine in a replacement role for Westbrook last postseason, it almost doesn't seem right labeling him as one of the "new guys." That said, he's seeing twice as many minutes now (28.7) than he ever had before (14.2 in 2012-13).
Patience is clearly a virtue in this game, and few teams understand that better than the Thunder. Jackson has added more than 11 percentage points to his three-point success rate (33.5, 22.3 coming into the campaign), his assist percentage has soared (23.0, up from 19.9) and his turnover percentage has held almost steady (14.9, 14.8 for his career) despite seeing a massive uptick in usage (23.0, up from 18.6).
A compact (6'3", 208 lbs), supercharged athlete in the Westbrook mold, he's decimating defenses that have years of experience on him.
The Spurs just have no answer for Reggie Jackson. None.— Royce Young (@royceyoung) April 4, 2014
Rookie Steven Adams is cut from the Collison cloth, minus some of the smarts but with a full 7'0" frame to throw around.
Adams was pegged as a raw prospect coming out of the University of Pittsburgh, and he's encountered some predictable peaks and valleys.
Like Collison, Adams won't wow you with numbers (3.3 points, 4.2 rebounds in 14.9 minutes). But if you spend any time watching the Thunder, it won't take long for the New Zealand native to grab your attention.
Safe to say Steven Adams is the only Thunder center who completes that loose ball dive-secure-timeout. Nice play.— Anthony Slater (@anthonyVslater) March 26, 2014
Fellow freshman Andre Roberson has quietly carved out a bigger chunk of Brooks' rotation. After averaging just 7.5 minutes in 22 games before the All-Star break, he's logged 14.5 in 14 games since—starting each of the last 10 games.
Long (6'7", 210 lbs), athletic and defensive-minded, he's a sneaky-effective stand-in for Sefolosha (out since early March with a calf strain). The 22-year-old can't stretch the floor (he's 2-of-11 from three on the season), but his movement off the ball still requires a close watch by the defense.
"Dre does a great job of cutting,” Westbrook said, via Anthony Slater of The Oklahoman. “His basketball IQ is high."
Caron Butler is still finding his way with this offense (36.2 field-goal percentage), but he's already added some floor spacing (39.0 three-point percentage) and veteran toughness.
Sophomores Lamb (20.2 minutes) and Perry Jones III (12.4) have seen wild fluctuations in their playing time and, not surprisingly, their performance. But both have shown what they could bring to this team; Lamb as a supporting scorer (28 games with double-digit points), and Jones as an athletic, versatile defender.
As seems to often be the case in the NBA, the rich have certainly gotten richer.
Favorites to Win the Title?
Look, they've obviously done some remarkable things.
Durant might should become just the second MVP winner not named LeBron James since the King was first crowned in 2008-09. The Thunder have the NBA's second-best winning percentage (.743), seventh-best offensive rating (107.8) and fifth-best efficiency mark at the other end (100.3).
They've even made the San Antonio machine look human, not just with Thursday's win, but throughout the season:
The Thunder look like the best team in the Western Conference, especially when matched up with the team the standings say is the best out West.
"Oklahoma City is just too talented for San Antonio these days," Mayberry wrote. "The Thunder puts a ton of pressure on the Spurs, and San Antonio simply doesn’t have enough counters for OKC’s weapons."
But getting out of this conference is only half the battle. That only brings the opportunity to square off with the finest from the Eastern Conference, home of the two-time defending champion Miami Heat.
The @okcthunder is just the 3rd team to sweep the Spurs in a 4-game season series during the Duncan era ('97-98 Lakers & '09-10 Jazz)— NBA.com/Stats (@nbastats) April 4, 2014
So, it's impossible to label OKC as the "favorite."
But favorites don't always become champions. On-paper edges don't always equal on-court success.
The Thunder are on a very short list of contenders, and deservedly so. With two transcendent talents and a top-shelf support staff getting stronger by the day, this is as good as any team you'll find across the basketball landscape.
Is it better than all of the rest, though? I have a feeling we'll all get that answer in June.