With the season restarting at the end of the month, fans and experts view the Thunder as a dark horse candidate to make a deep playoff run. Before the season was stopped, the Thunder were seen as one of the more surprising teams in the league. Oklahoma City were projected to be a lottery team; the Thunder are battling for home court advantage.
There are eight distinct arguments that relate to the Thunder making a run. The argument is balanced with four pros and four cons. The Thunder are in a position where a deep playoff run is a feasible reality.
Why the Thunder will make a playoff run:
1) Three Guard Lineup:
There were question marks placed upon the three guard lineup. Many wondered whether this lineup could survive defensively. This unit has become the Thunder’s biggest strength. Chris Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Dennis Schroder have been excellent together.
The three guard lineup ranks 2nd in the NBA in Net Rating at +28.6 in 401 minutes played together. The total minutes played shows that this is not just a case of a small sample size producing anomalous results.
The Thunder have gone to this lineup every time they need to close out a game. Oklahoma City have been very successful in doing so. The Thunder have four of the top 28 total points clutch scorers. The three guards and Danilo Gallinari are all on the clutch scoring list.
Coach Donovan has the ability to use three guards who can create their own shot and create for others. It has been the right formula for this team’s success and the formula should carry into the playoffs.
2) Balanced scoring:
The Thunder have five players who average double digit points. Four of these players take over 12 shots a game. These four players have the ability to create their own offense. There are few players on the Thunder who rely on others to set them up. The balanced scoring attack on this team will be a huge reason in the Thunder being able to win a playoff series,
Rotations shorten during the playoffs. It becomes important to have a team’s best players out there as much as possible. The Thunder have plenty of depth in the playmaking department. This depth will be important in playoff series; multiple shot creators allow players relief from their playmaking duties.
3) Clutch Play:
The league defines clutch time as a situation where a team is within five points in the final five minutes of a game. The Thunder have the most clutch wins and has played in the most clutch games. OKC are comfortable in situations when the game tightens up and each possession becomes more valuable. It is one of the reason why the Thunder have performed so well in clutch situations.
The Thunder have the best Net Rating in clutch minutes in the league. OKC’s NetRTG stands at a staggering +30.2 in 171 clutch minutes. The Milwaukee Bucks are second in the league with a NetRTG of +22.3, this figure is significantly less than the Thunder’s net rating.
Chris Paul has arguably been the best player in the NBA in clutch situations this season. Paul leads the league in points and minutes. The players know their roles on the team. The understanding of team hierarchy shows in these situations; there is clarity when the game hangs in the balance. Thunder fans have heard the debate for years, who gets the ball in closing time? This season, it is clear. Chris Paul is the closer.
It is difficult to compare regular season games to playoff games; this comparison is apples to oranges in many respects. However, the Thunder’s performance in high stress situations should be a good indicator on how the team will perform in similar scenarios in the playoffs.
4) No HCA:
Home-court advantage will be eliminated in Orlando. This could serve as a benefit for teams such as the Thunder. The Thunder were 20-11 on the road this season and displayed the ability to play and win in hostile environments.
However, all of the games in Orlando are being played on neutral sites. The lack of a crowd will reduce home court advantage and shrink the competitiveness gap. This mean teams who performed well at home such as the Lakers, Clippers and Nuggets will no longer have such a large edge.
Why they will not make a playoff run:
1) Lack of star:
Playoff success of a team can be boiled down to one influential point; Which team has more stars? In the Thunder’s case, the team is not laden with stars. Chris Paul has been really good this season and deserves an All-NBA nod but there are no stars outside of Paul.
There is also the question of Paul’s mileage and age. Can you really choose the 35 year old point guard over the star players of other playoff teams? I do not think so for any of the other top seven teams in the West.
A balanced scoring attack, reliable vets and young players is great but that will only take a team so far in the playoffs. Star power is a necessity for deep playoffs runs. Championship aspirations stop and start with franchise players; this has been the reality for at least the last twenty years.
2) Lack of bench:
Outside of Dennis Schroder, the rest of the Thunder’s bench is full of question marks. Nerlens Noel is a good rim running backup big however Nerlens could be played off the court against certain matchups due to his lack of shooting.
Terrance Ferguson has been disappointing this season. It seems that the off court issues have been a distraction to Ferguson. This would explain the regression with his shooting. Hamidou Diallo can be a spark plug off the bench but his shooting limitations will limit his playing time. Abdel Nader and Mike Muscala are good third stringers who will not see many minutes in the playoffs.
The biggest wildcards to me will be Darius Bazley and Andre Roberson. Bazley has taken this season stoppage seriously and packed on muscle. It is important to note this stoppage will have lasted longer than a typical NBA offseason. There is usually a big jump made by rookies in terms of production from their first season to their sophomore season. It is possible that Bazley has made a leap during the hiatus.
Billy Donovan recently stated that Roberson feels good and has made significant progress in his recovery. There is a chance that Roberson could potentially play in Orlando. Roberson being able to come back at 50% of the player that he was before his injury would be a huge boost to the Thunder. OKC lack of wing depth on the bench and Andre’s return would go some way to filling that gap.
3) Three month layoff:
Nobody knows how teams will look like when they get back from the extended hiatus. The stoppage could hurt a team like the Thunder who won 12 of their last 16 games. The Thunder were really finding their groove as a team.
Will the team have to spend the first few regular season games finding that chemistry again? This could be a real possibility and opens up another question, how much of that lost chemistry will hurt their seeding if the Thunder get off to a slow start?
The COVID-19 pandemic situation is fluid at best. It is difficult to say how things will look like a month from now if the season is able to restart. The Thunder, like the other 21 teams, could either benefit or suffer from these strange circumstances. Nobody will really know what will happen until we get to that point.
4) Season being canceled:
This reads like a tongue in cheek reason but there is rapid growth in COVID-19 cases in Florida. The state shattered their record today for most daily cases at over 10,000. Adam Silver recently stated that the season being canceled is a real possibility if there’s an outbreak among NBA players.
The season being cancelled would mean the Thunder might not even get an opportunity to get past the first round for the first time in four years. This reality occurring will leave a sour taste in the mouth for all NBA fans. This season would go down as one of the biggest what-if scenarios in sports history.