The Oklahoma City Thunder picked the wrong year to put it all on the line.
And that's not really their fault; it's just how the timing worked out.
OKC knew Kevin Durant's impending unrestricted free agency would create a crossroads, and it did what it could to maximize its chances of keeping him. Winning a title would logically have the most "please stay" appeal to KD, and the Thunder traded and signed their way into a roster that, in theory, would give Durant his best shot at a ring since he reached the Finals back in 2012.
All this puts the Thunder in the unenviable position of being objectively dominant and comparatively imperfect, simultaneously elite and doomed. In any other year, OKC might be a title favorite, yet the term "hopeless case" feels more appropriate in this one.
As Sports Illustrated's Rob Mahoney put it: "The insanity of this NBA season is captured in how we talk about the Thunder: By virtue of the fact that two other Western Conference teams have been empirically better, a great one is characterized largely by its flaws."
When Flaws Aren't Fair
"Flaws" is a relative term.
How damaging can a shortcoming really be on a team posting an average margin of victory that approaches double digits? Is anything really a hindrance on a squad featuring a pair of All-Star starters who rate, by any reasonable metric, as two of the five best players in the entire league?
All we used to know about the Thunder was that, at full strength, they were an absolute, no-questions-asked contender. The problem was always an injury at an inopportune time: Westbrook's torn meniscus in 2012-13, Serge Ibaka's calf the year after that, Durant's lost season in 2014-15.
The irony now is all three of OKC's key components (we've been remiss in not mentioning Ibaka until just now; nobody else is a floor-stretching, rim-protecting force of his quality) are perfectly healthy. But the Warriors and Spurs somehow make even the strongest specimens look frail.
San Antonio's December performance, in which it outscored opponents by 20.4 points per 100 possessions, was the most dominant month by any team since 1996. The Warriors ran out to a 24-0 start, are on pace for over 70 wins and just woke up after a lull to crush the Cleveland Cavaliers and Chicago Bulls in back-to-back games by over 30 points apiece.
This year's Thunder, healthy as they are, aren't competing against the kinds of teams they used to. The Spurs and Warriors are something different—something, based on history, no one has ever had to face in the same season.
We can get that hyperbolic about it because it's true. End the season today, and the Spurs would have the highest average margin of victory in league history, per Basketball-Reference.com. The Warriors would be fifth. There's never been another year in which two teams rated so highly in the same campaign.
This is a rough time to be a third banana.
Oklahoma City will face the Warriors on Feb. 6 and 27, with another matchup against the Cavs sandwiched in between on Feb. 21. March will bring another set of measuring-stick contests.
|Feb. 21||Cavaliers||Oklahoma City|
|Feb. 27||Warriors||Oklahoma City|
|Mar. 12||Spurs||San Antonio|
|Mar. 26||Spurs||Oklahoma City|
The big tests are yet to come.
Frustration Won't Fix It
Understandably, the Thunder don't like being confronted with that unsavory truth. Durant bristled at the idea of OKC residing outside the upper echelon occupied by San Antonio, Golden State and even Cleveland, per Royce Young of ESPN.com:
Man, the [media and experts are] always trying to nitpick us. I mean, they don't like us. They don't like how Russell [Westbrook] talks to the media, they don't like how I talk to the media. So obviously, yeah, they're not going to give us the benefit of the doubt...They don't mean nothing, the critics. Their opinions, everybody has one, but we don't really care about them. Every day we're just going to keep grinding this thing out. We feel like we can compete with anybody.
You can forgive Durant for his frustration on one point: Cleveland is at least as flawed as the Thunder. Of course, when you look at the circumstances in which Durant and the Thunder might meet the Cavaliers, it's easy to give the edge to the guys from the East.
That's because getting to the Finals, where the Cavs will almost certainly be waiting, would require the Thunder to topple both San Antonio and Golden State in a seven-game series. Unless one of those two slips into the third spot in the West, that's the route OKC has to take.
David slew Goliath, sure, so anything's possible. But he didn't have a second giant to kill immediately afterward.
If the Thunder somehow achieve those upsets of biblical proportion, they'll have to do it with clearly exploitable weaknesses. Yes, there are those pesky flaws again.
Enes Kanter, Anthony Morrow, Dion Waiters, Andre Roberson and just about anyone else likely to play significant supporting minutes for Oklahoma City have genuine NBA skills in specific areas. But all feature imperfections that will make them targets in one way or another. Kanter can't guard, and neither can Morrow. Teams will dare Waiters to shoot, taking attempts away from OKC's big guns. And Roberson can be totally ignored on offense.
Even if the Thunder successfully hide all of their defective parts, they'll still have to do the impossible with a two-star scheme that is unusually taxing on Durant and Westbrook. Offensively, OKC's reliance on superhuman talent (and not so much intelligent scheming) makes it easier to guard—especially if you've got Kawhi Leonard, Draymond Green or Andre Iguodala to deploy.
Whatever changes Billy Donovan was supposed to bring to Oklahoma City's attack haven't materialized. It's not a be-all, end-all metric, but the Thunder are actually passing less frequently per game under Donovan than they did last year under Scott Brooks' much-maligned stagnant scheme. In fact, nobody in the NBA averages fewer passes per game than the Thunder this season.
The Thunder could pursue a trade, or they could try to tweak their system to make themselves less predictable or harder to defend in a playoff series. But it's difficult to see any alterations being enough to fundamentally change how this team plays.
With talents as transcendent as Durant and Westbrook, it makes sense to turn them loose in one-on-one matchups or basic handoff actions. The way OKC plays is actually kind of logical, and it would probably mark it as a favorite most years.
The Thunder are what they are, and what they are is great.
It's just that great might not be good enough.
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