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Western Conference leading Thunder: are they legitimate yet this season?

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Three weeks into the season, the Thunder are more of a contender than a pretender.

Oklahoma City Thunder v Golden State Warriors Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

Three weeks into the 2016-17 NBA regular season and the Oklahoma City Thunder sit alone atop the Western Conference standings.

Entering this season, the talk surrounding Thunder organization was more questions than anyone had answers. The Thunder endured a summer full of change including a free agent player leaving for a team in California, a draft night trade that sent Thunder fan favorite Serge Ibaka to the Orlando Magic and newcomer Victor Oladipo returning in the deal, along with rookie Domantas Sabonis, and last but not least, all-world point guard Russell Westbrook electing to re-up with the team.

The Thunder were not ranked anywhere as a major player to make noise this year in the regular season or the playoffs. Most experts pegged them to win around 45 games, which would likely place them somewhere in the 6-8 seed for the playoffs. It is still very early, but all indications are that this team is not just Russell Westbrook and a bunch of guys that Kevin Durant abandoned. What the Oklahoma City Thunder is, is a completely re-invented team with a sizable chip on its shoulder. They have nothing to lose and everything to prove, at least in the rest of the NBA's eyes and most likely in the public perception as well.

But in the words of #0, Why Not?

Why not the Thunder? Because they don't have four all stars or three superstars or what the Skip Baylesses of the world decided was enough to win?

A quick guide to how things have shaken out so far for OKC

  • Edged out The Process and the Sixers on the road in the season opener.
  • Westbrook dropped a 51 point triple double effort in an overtime win during the home opener.
  • Grinded their way to a W against the frisky Lakers.
  • While the world was watching a ridiculous game seven in the World Series, the Thunder went to LA and valiantly defeated the Clippers.
  • On the second night of a back-to-back, the Thunder ran out of gas in the second quarter against the Warriors and were never able to recover.
  • The next two games were full scale assaults on the Timberwolves and the Heat, which resulted in two victories.

It doesn't matter how many threes KD hit against OKC. It is one game. The league has already seen that the armor of the Warriors is not without their own vulnerabilities. This season is not a foregone conclusion. The Finals are not set. This is why they play the games. It is a long, grueling year and so much can and will happen between the start and the finish.

The 6-1 Thunder are currently in first place in the Western Conference and it is not by accident. Make no mistake, OKC is still a title contender, albeit a dark horse. Even the average basketball fan can detect contenders and pretenders. All it takes is to know what to look for.

Teams that can grind out hard wins against both good and bad teams are more often contenders than they are pretenders. If a team with a ton of expectations somehow finds ways to lose to bad teams, they are usually pretenders. There are a lot of tells that NBA teams give over the course of a season but the big picture is that there are safe ways to tell who is able to overcome the odds and who is not.

Westbrook can get out of control sometimes. Kanter can be a turnstile on the defensive end. No one is really a sniper from beyond the arc. Adams is really hairy. This team has its flaws, absolutely, but OKC is winning and they are doing it in different ways each night. When a game calls for their bigs to dominate the paint like they did against the Heat, they will be up to the task. If Westbrook needs to takeover a game in order to demolish the hopes and dreams of an opponent on any given night, he can. OKC can score, OKC can rebound, and OKC can defend.

OKC fans ask what to expect from the Thunder this season:

Cameron Payne could make an impact in the second unit for OKC once he returns from his foot injury, but it won't be enough to push them over the edge. Payne will likely be more useful as a trade piece when he is finally healthy.

The Thunder are a contender in the NBA, though more offense never hurt anyone except opposing defenses.

If Alex Abrines can develop a role in the offense and earn a few more minutes, he could be a factor in the later portions of the season and in the postseason. He is a shooter and it is going to take time to get settled into the offense. Abrines is still super young, so there are a lot of different moving parts in his situation but he is always interesting to watch when he is on the floor.

The Thunder don't actually need to make a trade to get to the next level, they just need to make the transition to the new identity of the team.

The Rudy Gay rumors have not gone quietly into the night though and it would significantly improve their small forward depth and scoring droughts when Westbrook is not on the floor.

Warriors in 6. It is important to be realistic.

***

There is no secret formula to a championship. There is a partial blueprint and the Thunder possess the necessary elements. A contender needs superstar ability, defense, a solid rebounding effort night in and night out, character and hunger. Westbrook and company have shown they are hungry to win and eager to prove every doubter and cupcake wrong.