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State of the Thunder in 2018: Do they have championship potential?

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25 games in, are the true Thunder emerging?

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Brooklyn Nets Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports

The NBA Finals are a touchy subject for Thunder fans. In 2012, when the future seemed like it would be filled with championship rings, the Thunder made their first and only appearance against LeBron JamesMiami Heat, and were given the gentleman’s sweep, losing the series 4-1.

It’s funny how that loss at the game’s biggest stage never felt like the Thunder’s biggest loss; instead, it felt like an overachievement and a prelude. Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden were all in their early 20s, young deer in the headlights that was the freaking NBA Finals, playing against the greatest player of his generation in the prime of his career on one of the greatest teams ever assembled.

Since that loss, the Thunder have been on a wild ride. There’s no need to re-hash every painstaking detail, but for the next six years the team has been simply a really good team that never made it back. Kevin Durant’s departure certainly didn’t help, but Paul George’s arrival last season only yielded one more regular season win than the year before, and the same result in the playoffs: one round and out.

This summer, the Thunder faced a potential identity crisis. George was by no means a lock to stay, and Jerami Grant, a swiss army knife with a Vitruvian-like wingspan, was a free agent as well. Let them both leave and you’re stuck with Westbrook, Adams and some role players. We could all see how that formula would end. But bring back George and Grant, and you risk middling playoff results and a luxury task that would rival the production costs of a Game of Thrones season.

The Thunder were ultimately able to bring the band back together, and while doing so was a testament to the strong culture Sam Presti and Russell Westbrook have cultivated, their work was far from done. Westbrook had a knee procedure mere weeks before the regular season, Andre Roberson has suffered like forty setbacks on his knee injury, and William Donovan’s squad was already in an 0-4 stinkhole. Things were...not great, Bob.

But all that was then, and this is now. Since that horrid start, the Thunder have rocketed to a 17-8 record, boasted the best defense in the NBA by a healthy margin, and have finally shown some semblance of life from their bench, which now boasts offseason acquisition Dennis Schroder, who has been phenomenal as a secondary playmaker and slithery scorer.

Other than a confounding loss a few nights ago to a lackluster Bulls squad, this Thunder group has figured out a winning formula. Roberson is still nursing that injured knee (he suffered yet another setback and should be re-evaluated in a month), and while in years past the Thunder defense might have dissolved to dust without him, they are best in the league with the youthful Terrance Ferguson taking his place.

But true success can never be measured by just record. The Thunder usually are fine in that department. In their first season without KD they somehow strung together 47 wins. But how they are winning now lets the mind wander and wonder if this could turn into something far greater than the first or second round.

OKC’s starting lineup of Russ-Ferguson-George-Grant-Adams has been a wrecking ball, outscoring opponents by over 19 points per 100 possessions, while posting the best offensive and defensive efficiency numbers in the league. Things are clicking with this group. Roles are so clearly defined, unlike last season when there was a certain 6’8 chucker was clogging things up (sorry Melo, I’m sure you meant well). Russ and PG are the clear alphas of the team, while Adams backbones the defense and sets bone crushing screens to open up the offense. Grant and Ferguson have played their parts as low-usage players who dutifully switch screens and knock down enough threes to keep defenses honest. Then, Schroder comes off the bench to act as a mini-Russ and wreak havoc, while a rejuvenated Nerlens Noel provides solid rim protection and rim-running ability while Adams rests. Oh, and don’t forget rookie Hamidou Diallo, who has been such a pleasant surprise as an energy ball for an already buzzing Thunder team.

OKC can match up with anyone defensively, and while their offense has not been the most efficient in the league (it hovers around league average), they are only a Russ or PG explosion away from rendering that stat useless. We still have not seen this team at full strength, and if Roberson can get back to playing all-world defense by the time the playoffs come around, the Thunder will be a true force to be reckoned with.

The Western Conference may be deep, but other than the Warriors, who have had their own struggles, there are no great teams yet to emerge like last season. Houston has, to put it bluntly, been a catastrophe. Utah wouldn’t even be in the playoffs right now, and the Thunder just spanked them in a delicious revenge game. The Clippers are highly seeded, but no star power is a much bigger issue come playoff time than the regular season. And while the Nuggets have been a nice surprise, they are riddled with injuries and are not physically imposing on the perimeter.

The Thunder have had success recently against Golden State in the regular season. Their length matches up well with KD, Klay and Iggy. A healthy Russ and Steph can go blow for blow. Roberson and George will give Durant and Klay fits and Adams has historically imposed his will to great effect against the Dubs in the past. Even the 24-year-old Grant will be a load to deal with for the rapidly aging Draymond Green.

Again, the Warriors are still the clear favorites, and even if the Thunder managed to make it through the West, they would have to conquer one of Toronto, Philly, Milwaukee or Boston.

Nothing is guaranteed in the NBA; Thunder fans should know this perhaps better than anyone. But this latest iteration of the Thunder has been a force to be reckoned with. Let’s see how far they can go.


Which team represents the biggest threat to the Warriors’ championship dominance?

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