A look at some advanced stats and overall efficiency suggests the Oklahoma City Thunder are still the best team in the Western conference, let alone the NBA, but their over-reliance on the individual skills of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, not to mention their struggles in head-to-head games against the conference’s best teams suggests reaching the Finals for a second consecutive season isn’t going to be this easy.
Why? Because even if Durant and Westbrook are the best offensive duo in the NBA, it doesn’t make the Thunder the best team in the league or even in the conference. It’s still unclear if they’ll finish first, although last season they didn’t need home court advantage to defeat the Spurs in six games; that same home court advantage didn’t help them one bit against the Miami Heat in the Finals.
And when the playoffs come, and defenses become a little bit harder to cut through, missing James Harden might become something real. The Thunder have done very well to replace the third piece of that extremely talented offensive triangle by Serge Ibaka improving his offensive output and bringing in Kevin Martin. Martin is averaging 14 points per game this season, but the Thunder will need a bit more versatility from him than just catch-and-shoot, something Harden was able to bring to the table – a third playmaker, something Martin isn’t, and if a team manages to halt Kevin Durant and make Westbrook the only guy left on the court with the ability to make plays, the Thunder will suffer.
Another issue is the road to the Finals which might be tougher this time around, probably including a combination of the Spurs, Grizzlies and Nuggets in the second round and conference final, not looking too good for the Thunder. Why? Because they’re 2-2 against the Spurs, 1-2 against the Grizzlies and 1-3 against Denver, evening out to 7-7 thanks to their record against the Los Angeles Clippers, the weakest of their potential second round or later opponents.
The Spurs and Grizzlies provide the exact problem mentioned above, regarding the need for offensive versatility, which isn’t exactly the way the Thunder operate, not just because of Martin. In an Iso-oriented offense, which is mostly that and screen & shoots, hoping that the game develops into a fast affair in which Westbrook and Durant can speed by their opponents, it’s easier focusing on one individual and taking him out of the equation, or at least limiting him. While no one can completely stop Durant or Westbrook, trying to shift the game toward the shot-loving point guard sounds like a good choice in a pick-your-poison kind of way.
Each team out of the Nuggets, Spurs and Grizzlies provides a different set of problems for Oklahoma City. Their turnovers are something the Nuggets have thrived on during the regular season, while the Spurs and the Grizzlies, combined, have taken OKC’s offensive efficiency down by an average of 7 points compared to their average against the rest of the league this season.
The Thunder have their own advantages against the others – they’re a better defensive team than usually given credit for, especially when Durant and Westbrook are focused on that end of the floor. Denver are without Galo and might be missing Ty Lawson in the playoffs. Memphis are an offensive mess at times, while the Spurs are without Parker and Ginboili at the moment. Everyone has their own problems, but it seems that the Thunder, despite their two young and shining superstars, are in for a tougher rode towards that NBA title in 2013, and that’s even before we mentioned the Miami Heat.