According to Vegas, the Oklahoma City Thunder currently have the sixth best odds to win a championship this year at 25/1; however, of the five teams ahead of the Thunder, only one is from the same loaded western conference: the Golden State Warriors (2/5 odds).
With that being said, the biggest obstacle the Thunder must overcome in order to truly have a shot at winning the title would be the Warriors. Currently, the Warriors are first in the west with a 41-16 record while the Thunder are third at 37-20. With the toughest remaining schedule in the league, the Thunder will really need to rally in order to either take the second seed from Denver or remain at third since Portland is only behind three games and have a relatively easy schedule. If successful, the playoff implications for them will be the ultimate prize. Because of the way the playoff bracket works, should the Thunder remain above the fourth seed, they will not only be able to avoid the Warriors until the conference finals, but will receive a home court advantage for the earlier rounds. Regardless, they will almost certainly face one another at some point during the playoffs. And while it isn’t necessarily guaranteed, if they manage do manage to beat the Warriors, barring any major upsets, the title will likely be theirs.
So that just begs the question, can the Thunder defeat the Warriors?
Here are some of the basic facts:
- Both teams are currently 1-1 in head to head match-ups with the Warriors winning the first game 108-100 while the Thunder won the second game 123-95.
- Neither team really likes the other since Kevin Durant left the Thunder during free agency in 2016 to sign with the Warriors, who they were up 3-1 on in the conference finals that same year. This elevated tension brings out a level of energy that wouldn’t exist with any other match-up.
- Both teams only play each other one more time in mid-March, a month or so before the playoffs
- Are an elite defensive team (#3 with a 105.2 defensive rating) and are #1 in steals, offensive rebounds, deflections (2/5 from Thunder), points off turnovers (20.7) and turnovers caused.
- Have an offensive rating of 110.4 (#13).
- Have two superstars in Westbrook and George.
- Have the best “backup point guard” (he is a starter level player) in the league in Dennis Schroder.
- Have one of the deepest benches and rotations.
- Have been injury prone.
- Half-court sets are anywhere from below average to average.
- Lack shooters (floor spacing), although George, Grant, Schroder and Ferguson have all been shooting pretty well this season.
- Are still missing their best defender, especially at the perimeter, in Andre Roberson.
- Are an elite offensive team and are #1 offensive rating (116), blocks (6.5; legitimately shocked) and assist percentage.
- Have a defensive rating of 109.2 (#15).
- Have added Demarcus Cousins (back from injury), giving them 5 all-star caliber starters, two of which are former MVPs (Curry and Durant).
- Have won 3 championships in 4 years (2015, 2017, 2018).
- Are the deadliest 3-point shooting team in the league, although the stats don’t necessarily show it.
- Are capable of erasing large deficits or creating them in an instant.
- Don’t really have a bench or depth outside of their starters.
- Never really had much of a problem with injuries.
While the Warriors clearly have more talented players, looking at the stats, specifically offensive and defensive rating, I was incredibly surprised to find that both teams are actually pretty evenly matched. In essence, the Warriors score more, but give up more. The Thunder on the other hand, are the opposite. They score less, but subsequently give up less.
Despite this, it’s obvious that the Warriors are cruising. On top of that, with the addition of Cousins into the lineup, it is likely that they’ll begin to also concede less points, as one of their major weaknesses prior to his debut was at the center position. Make no mistake though, the Thunder have shown time and time again this season that they are legitimate contenders. With a bench consisting of solid role players like Dennis Schroder (15.5 PPG), Nerlens Noel (5.1 PPG, 4.7 RPG, 1.8 STL, 1.9 BLK), Markieff Morris (11.5 PPG, 5.1 RPG), Abdel Nader (3.9 PPG), and Hamidou Diallo (4.2 PPG)/Deonte Burton (3.5 PPG)/Raymond Felton (5.5 PPG) (all interchangeable) and a gritty defensive identity, the Thunder give themselves a chance to win every single night, even when things aren’t going their way.
Couple that with the fact that George is having an MVP worthy season, Westbrook is deferring more, shooting less, and defending at a higher level, Adams is absolutely killing the offensive glass, Grant has made significant strides as a player to average a career best in points, rebounds and steals while developing a solid 3-point shot and Ferguson becoming the 3 and D player they badly needed, and it’s not surprising why the Thunder are in many ways equal to the Warriors. No, they don’t have 5 all-star level players on their team, but what they do have are two superstars, at least six other players that understand and excel at their roles, and a tough defensive identity.
What will also be an interesting dynamic will be turnovers. The Warriors are currently #11 in turnovers, and the Thunder are notorious for their transition offense. On top of that, ever since Kevin Durant departed from Oklahoma City to the join Warriors after they mounted a comeback from a 3-1 deficit in the playoffs to win, the rivalry between these two teams brings about some of the most electrifying and intense games of basketball.
The Warriors, however, are no slouches, as evidenced four consecutive finals appearances. On top of that, during the playoffs, rotations typically tighten, so depth become less of an issue. However, the starters still have to rest, so as long as the Warriors’s bench can at least break even, they will also always have a chance to win. More than ever though, their margin for error has become narrower and narrower.
PG: Westbrook v. Curry
For the point guard match-up between Westbrook and Curry, it could arguably go either way. While Westbrook is absolutely abysmal at shooting the basketball this season, especially from 3, he is faster, stronger, and more athletic than Curry. Furthermore, he is currently the best rebounding guard, one of the best playmakers, and can be a lockdown defender. Curry on the other hand, is a lights out shooter with some of the best handles in the game and is a great finisher at the rim. Curry is also a relatively average defender, but is typically hidden on defense. In that sense, while Westbrook will guard him on one end, he will likely be guarding Ferguson or Schroder on the other end. Given that both play different styles and excel at that, theoretically, they would cancel one another out, however, Curry will have the advantage due to his offensive prowess.
SG: Ferguson/Schroder v. Thompson
Just like the point guard match-up, the shooting guard match-up is also more complex than it initially seems. While Ferguson has started for the Thunder all season, and will start for them in the playoffs, when not playing the back-up point guard role, Schroder typically absorbs a good portion of his minutes at shooting guard. On top of that, Oklahoma City’s closing lineup all season has consisted of: Westbrook, Schroder, George, Grant, and Adams. With that being said, both Ferguson and Schroder will inevitably match-up with Klay on the defensive end. Because Ferguson is long and athletic, he should be relatively effective at locking down Klay. Schroder on the other hand, is smaller and at a noticeable disadvantage, however, between him and Ferguson, he is the better offensive player. While they will be defending Klay, Klay will likely be tasked with defending Westbrook, as he typically guards the opposition’s best guard. With that being said, between what Ferguson and Schroder bring to the table, being a balance of offense and defense, the match-up should be relatively even, although Klay will have a slight advantage.
SF: George v. Durant
Unlike the previous match-ups, the small forward battle will be positional, meaning that both George and Durant will go head-to-head against one another all game long. And as the best players in their respective teams, although it can be argued that Curry is just as good if not better than Durant, what happens between these two will more than likely decide the outcome of the game. With that being said, despite having a height advantage over George, the match-up couldn’t be more even. Both George and Durant not only excel at scoring from 3, the mid-range, and in the paint, but are high level defenders in different ways. While George has excellent hands, regularly striping, stealing, or deflecting the ball, Durant is better at disrupting shots with his incredible wingspan and blocking shots. If both play to the level fans expect, in theory, they will negate one another, however, if say, Durant gets hot, in either scenario, I still wouldn’t count the Thunder out. This is because they play team defense at an elite level and good defense will always give you a chance to win, regardless of the situation. On the other hand, if George gets hot, it will be much tougher for the Warriors to stop him as they aren’t necessarily known or revered for their defense as evidenced by being ranked 15th.
PF: Grant v. Green
Out of every match-up, this is in my opinion, the simplest to gauge. While Green is arguably one of the best, if not the best defenders for the Warriors, aside from assists, he doesn’t really provide any offense. With that being said, despite not being the same caliber of defender as Green, Grant is not only an incredibly good defender and excellent at blocking shots, but is superior offensively. While he isn’t an offensive juggernaut like George or Durant, Grant is able to play through contact exceptionally well in the paint and is hitting 37% of his 3-point attempts. That being said, Grant has the clear advantage in this match-up.
C: Adams v. Cousins
In terms of match-ups, the center position will be straightforward: Adams v. Cousins the whole night, offense and defensive. With that being said, both players are among the best rebounders in the game and are solid defensively. As such, regarding that aspect, they should be evenly matched, although Cousins will likely have an advantage as he is more agile and athletic. Offensively, Cousins is also more talented than Adams, however, because he has to share the ball with 3 other stars in Curry, Klay, and Durant and is prone to getting into foul trouble so the match-up should actually be relatively even. On top of that, because Adams has shown that he can be the third option for the Thunder at times (although he hasn’t played like it recently) and with Westbrook and George being the only primary offensive threats (when Schroder isn’t on the floor with them or Grant isn’t doing well), he will likely have a greater number of touches than Cousins. Considering everything, unless the Warriors make a concerted effort to play through Cousins, both should essentially neutralize one another.
Bench: Schroder/Ferguson, Morris, Noel v. Iguodala/Jerebko, Cook, Looney/Bell
Since the Warriors appear to be still experimenting with their bench unit, a few individuals are currently interchangeable. Still, in a head-to-head match-up, the Thunder’s depth is greater than that of the Warriors, regardless of who plays.
All things considered, I think that the Thunder actually have a legitimate shot at beating the Warriors and winning the title this year. Will it be easy? Of course not, but judging from how the Warriors have faltered this season, the fact that the Warriors are unlikely to stay together due to financial reasons, and that many teams have bolstered their rosters considerably over the last few years, this is the year to make that push. Not just for the Thunder, but the 76ers, Bucks, Raptors, Celtics and even Houston.
That being said, do you think the Thunder can win a championship this year? Or for that matter, do you think someone other than the Warriors will win this year?