Although there is much basketball left to play this season, if the first quarter of the season is any indication, the Oklahoma City Thunder have to be the favorites in the West to make the NBA Finals. Here I give the top eight reasons why the young, dynamic OKC team will make it back to the championship stage.
1. The number one reason is their improved defense and like the saying goes "defense wins championships." They are playing with a greater intensity on the defensive end than ever before. Last season they finished 17th in the league in defense but this season they currently rank in the top 10. In addition, they rank third in the NBA in opponent field goal percentage at 42.7. Last season they won many of their games with offense, this season they can beat you on both ends which will make them very dangerous come playoff time.
2. The area in which this team has probably improved the most since last season is ball movement. Last season OKC finished dead last in the league in assists but this season they rank in the top 10. Much of this has to do with the improved decision making of Russell Westbrook and him becoming a better facilitator. Their ball movement is a big reason for their improvement in offensive efficiency which leads me to point number three.
3. As good as the Thunder's offense was last season, this season it is even better. They are currently the most efficient offense in the NBA averaging 105.6 points per game. They are also second in field goal percentage as a team at 48.5 which is slightly higher than last year. They are also shooting the three at 41 percent, a huge improvement over last year when they shot just under 36 percent from beyond the arc. Last season OKC finished number one in free throw percentage as a team, they currently rank number one in this category again but the percentage is up from 80.6 last year to 84.5 so far this season. Combine this with their defense and it allows them many ways in which they can beat you.
4. One small worry I had with OKC last season heading into the playoffs was that they won a lot of close games and had quite a few come from behind victories but this season they have become more dominant. They rank number one in the NBA in point differential at 9.5 and in the games they've won their average margin of victory is over 11 points. All the reasons above have contributed to their dominance so far this season.
5. One of the keys to OKC's impressive start this season has been the improved play of their starting power forward Serge Ibaka. His improvement on the offensive end has significantly helped increase OKC's efficiency on offense and makes them a very difficult team to defend. Teams can no longer leave Ibaka open like they once could because if you do he'll make you pay. His improved scoring along with new sixth man Kevin Martin's takes some of the pressure off Durant and Westbrook to put up big points every game. In addition, it eases the pain of the James Harden trade for many OKC fans and the offense Harden once provided is not longer missed thanks to Ibaka and Martin. Ibaka is averaging over 14 points per game which is well above his career average of 9.1 and is shooting the ball at over 57 percent. He's also racking in a career high 8.2 rebounds per game to go along with it and this number has slowly been increasing since the beginning of the season. He's averaging three blocked shots a game and playing great basketball on both ends. At only 23 years old, he's progressing at a fast rate and will be a force to be reckoned with in the NBA for years to come.
6. The easily most criticized member of OKC is currently the only player in the NBA who ranks in the top 10 in points, assists and steals and his name is Russell Westbrook. For all those that questioned his ability to facilitate, he currently ranks in the top five in the league in assists averaging 8.8 assists per game which is also a career high. There is no doubt in my mind he is a championship point guard. To go along with the assists, he's averaging 21 ppg (6th in the NBA), 2.04 steals (fourth in the NBA) and 4.6 rebounds which is second among point guards. He's playing smarter this season and with more intensity on both ends of the floor. Combine that with his natural, un-human like athletic abilities and he is easily one of the most dangerous players in the league.
7. One of the biggest reasons I believe OKC will make it back to the NBA Finals is Kevin Durant. This young man is playing the best all around basketball of his career right now and is challenging Lebron James for best basketball player in the universe. He's currently averaging 27.7 ppg and shooting the ball at just under 52 percent which is a career high. He's also shooting from beyond the arc at 43.5 percent, another career high and shooting the free throw at 90 percent. We all know Durant can score though as he has won the last three scoring titles but the biggest improvement in his game this season has been his defense. He's averaging a career high 8.5 rebounds, 1.4 blocks and 1.5 steals. For the record those are slightly better defensive number than Lebron is currently putting up. He's also becoming a better facilitator averaging a career high 4.2 assists. And lets not forget he's still kid clutch and you can always count on him to bring the heat in the fourth quarter and close out games. Do I smell an MVP trophy?
8. The last and final reason I believe OKC will be back in the Finals is because who in the west is going to beat them? Lets go through some of the biggest threats. San Antonio Spurs? They are playing some great basketball but father time is starting to catch up with them. They are slowing down and I question if they can keep their legs under them in a seven game series with a team like OKC. Ultimately I think the Thunder's (or the Grizzlies or Clippers) speed and youth will cause them to suffer the same fate as last season. Memphis Grizzlies? A very tough basketball team but they are a superstar short. Most of the time you need a superstar to lead your team to a championship. You need a guy like Durant, Kobe Bryant, Lebron, who can put the team on their shoulders and carry them. Memphis doesn't have this. Los Angeles Clippers? Perhaps the Thunder's biggest threat however, I don't trust them in the playoffs. This is because as a unit they are not an experienced playoff team and experience counts as we saw last season. They won the first round last year just to get booted out by the Spurs, a veteran team who has played together a long time. OKC's core group (Durant, Westbrook, Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins, Thabo Sefalosha) have all been together several years now and have played many playoff series together which I think gives them the edge. Los Angeles Lakers? I only put them in this conversation because I will hear it from people if I don't. However, they are struggling to get to and stay at .500 right now and if the season ended today, they would miss the playoffs. If the Lakers do make playoffs and if they do play OKC, their defense is not good enough to stop OKC's offense. In addition, the Thunder are just too fast, too young and too deep for the Lakers plain and simple. Also, if Scott Brooks can out coach Greg Popovich, as he did last year in the conference finals, then he can definitely out coach Mike D'Antoni.
So that leaves me with my original question, who in the West can stop OKC from making it back to the Finals? Only time will tell but if they continue playing the way they have the only question will be who will they be facing.