Oklahoma City Thunder – How Much Better Can They Get

There’s no getting around it. As of now, almost halfway through the 2012-2013 NBA season, the Oklahoma City Thunder are playing like the best team in the league, with a record to show for it, and go beyond the star power of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.

From 23-59, to 50-32 and a first round playoff loss, to 55-27 and reaching the conference final on to 47-19 (shortened season), making the NBA finals and losing. This year they’re 30-8, best in the NBA at the moment, 78.9%, better than ever for this team.

The Thunder’s offense in terms of points per possession and points per game is the best in the NBA. Well, they actually score 0.4 points less than the Rockets, but win by an average of 9.2 points per game, better than both the Clippers and the Spurs. When it comes to effciency, their at the top of the league, averaging 112.7 points per 100 possessions. They’re also sixth in the NBA when it comes to defensive possessions, allowing 102.9 points. Their net per-possession difference is a +9.8, which is third in the NBA over the past decade. To curb the enthusiasm, only one of the teams in the top 10 won the NBA title, the Boston Celtics in the 2007-2008 season, who also have the best net per-possession over the last decade.

Kevin Durant, on his way to a 50/40/90 season, is probably the main reason. Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka improving, each in his own way, are other major factors. But what else? The Thunder’s defense rates as the best of the Durant era, owing to a number of possible explanations.

Pretty much the same group of players, together for a few years, learning each year from their ending’s mistakes. Discipline on defense has been a big key this year, especially when it comes to Westbrook and Kevin Durant. In the Durant era (since the 2007-2008 season, still as the Seattle Supersonics), the team has improved its defensive rating each and every season – from allowing 109.5 points per possession in 2008 to 104.6 in 2010 and finally 102.9 this season.

The big question is can the Thunder keep up this level, which ranks as high as the most dominant regular season teams of the past decade. Again, sometimes knowing when to let go during the regular season is a key to playoff success, but none of the teams that have been this good were also this young, with all their key players (Durant, Ibaka and Westbrook) 24 or younger.

The Clippers have been similarly dominant, 0.5 games behind the Thunder, but with a much tougher schedule. Both have the ability to run up large winning margins in a hurry and both have enjoyed relatively good health among their star players. The Thunder aren’t alone in this race to perfection and Western dominance, and certainly not alone in seeing themselves as potential NBA champions this season. What they do have, that other teams don’t, is a top-heavy individual talent, the best in the NBA.

Hat tip: The Point Forward