The Thunder are 7-3 in their last 10 games, they now possess a record of 22-23 and are tied for the 8th seed in the Western Conference. OKC are only half a game behind the 6th seed. After a combined record of 46-108 in the last two seasons, the optimism in Oklahoma City is higher than it has been in a long time. This team is young and fun and the Thunder faithful are loving it.
The Thunder have turned the corner in their rebuild and are not following expectations. We all thought this was a season where Victor Wembanyama and Scoot Henderson would be in sight. Instead, the Thunder are looking at the postseason and wondering what could be.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander will be heading to Salt Lake City for the All-Star game in February, but this is not JUST the SGA show. Second-year player Josh Giddey has broken out in the last six weeks.
He has taken his game to a whole new level since the beginning of December; he is averaging 18 points, 8 rebounds and 6 assists on scarcely believable shooting splits of 51/39/91. Giddey’s ascension has finally provided Gilgeous-Alexander with a running mate who draws attention from the opposing team. The opposition can no longer just focus on one guy and it is opening up the entire offense.
It is not just Giddey either, Jalen Williams has been playing some fantastic, efficient basketball as well. Kenrich Williams is leading the NBA in charges drawn and is the mistake-free role player that every team in the NBA would love to have. Lu Dort has turned his season around and is shooting 41% from three in the last 15 games.
Isaiah Joe has been the most pleasant of surprises. The Thunder picked him up on a cheap deal in free agency before the beginning of the season after Philly chose not to agree a new contract with the former Razorback. Joe has been a flamethrower for the Thunder and is shooting 44% from three!
This is not a one-man show, the Thunder’s success has been a team effort.
The Thunder are playing their best basketball of the last three years and these performances have come during a tougher part of their schedule. This month alone, OKC have double-digit victories against three of the top four seeds in the Eastern Conference. The average margin of victory was 21 points in said victories.
These wins came against the Boston Celtics, Philadelphia 76ers and Brooklyn Nets, three teams who hold realistic aspirations of hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy in June. Yet, the youngest team in the NBA made light work of them.
Now that we know the Thunder can beat elite teams, what does the rest of their schedule look like? Their opponent winning percentage for the rest of the season is the lowest in the league, meaning no team has an easier final 37 games than the Thunder.
Let’s get things straight, the Thunder are currently tied for the 8th seed, have proven they can beat elite teams and now possess the easiest remaining schedule in the NBA. What does this mean?
It means there is a very real chance that the Thunder could reach the second season and play more than just the 82 regular season games on their schedule. Talking about playoffs this season is so unexpected, it does not quite feel right, it’s surreal at this stage of the cycle. But the Thunder are right in the mix and it has been discussed.
If the Thunder finishes within the 7th-10th seed range, they will be entered into the NBA’s play-in tournament, where they would only need to win two games at most to secure a playoff berth. There is a simpler option though, finish in the sixth seed and guarantee a playoff spot.
It is worth examining the competition. The Thunder may currently hold the 9th seed and a play-in spot but there are many teams who want that spot for themselves. This is how the play-in race currently looks.
- 5th seed: Dallas Mavericks (24-22)
- 6th seed: Utah Jazz (24-24), 1 GB
- 7th seed: Golden State Warriors (22-22), 1 GB
- 8th seed: Los Angeles Clippers (23-24), 1.5 GB
- 9th seed: Oklahoma City Thunder (22-23), 1.5 GB
- 10th seed: Minnesota Timberwolves (22-24), 2 GB
- 11th seed: Portland Trail Blazers (21-23), 2 GB
- 12th seed: Phoenix Suns (21-24), 2.5 GB
- 13th seed: Los Angeles Lakers (20-25), 3.5 GB
The Clippers look very likely to fall, they are 2-8 in their last 10 and their two stars are in and out of the lineup. They have not put together consistently good stretches of basketball for a while and now they have the third-toughest schedule remaining in the league. Things could get very ugly for them.
The Suns should be on the rise again. They have been decimated by injuries but things are starting to look up on that front. Cam Johnson is returning today after a 37-game absence, Chris Paul has missed 19 games this season including the last six but is set to return any game now.
Their premier star, Devin Booker, has missed their last 11 games and 16 out of their last 18. The Suns are 3-13 without Booker this season. The good news for Suns fans is that he is scheduled to be reevaluated in about a week. The Thunder are currently a game ahead of them but the Suns’ improved health make it likely that they will overtake Oklahoma City.
The Warriors are a tricky team to evaluate. Stephen Curry was absent for a 14-game stretch due to a shoulder injury. But Golden State managed to stay afloat and went a reasonable 6-8 in those games.
However, they are 16-14 when Curry plays and sit at 22-22 overall on the season. Their record is a far cry from the team that went 53-29 and won their four championship in eight years last season.
You can never rule them out, it is very possible that they explode for a ten-game win streak at a moment’s notice but it just feels like even with Stephen Curry that the Warriors do not have that level in their play this year.
The Timberwolves will be thoroughly disappointed to still sit below .500 after the absurd haul they traded for Rudy Gobert in the summer. Karl-Anthony Towns has missed the last 24 games and there is still no confirmed timetable for his return. KAT returning does not solve all of their issues, the vibes around Minnesota are still pretty odd and I believe the Thunder can finish above the T-Wolves.
The Blazers are interesting. Damian Lillard is having a great season averaging 29 points per night, Jerami Grant has had a career year, Anfernee Simons has continued to be an impressive scorer and yet they still sit below .500 at 21-23. What gives? Their depth is, for lack of a better word, putrid.
Outside of their core three, they have two solid role players in Jusuf Nurkic and Josh Hart but the rest of the roster is lacking when it comes to reliable, positive contributors. They have a good core group but do not have the depth needed to make a deep playoff run.
The Lakers....yeah. Look, LeBron James has rounded into form, Russell Westbrook is playing some of the better basketball of his Lakers career (not a high bar to be fair...) and Anthony Davis, who was playing at an MVP level before injury, is set to return early in February after being out since December 16th.
It is not asinine to think they could rise quickly. But, the Lakers have been the biggest meme in the NBA for the last two seasons and I think it is more likely than not that will continue. Los Angeles have a lot of issues to solve within a short period of time.
Do the Thunder WANT to make the postseason?
There are some Thunder fans out there that still wish the team was towards the bottom of the league, vying for one of the elite prospects in this draft, but the fact of the matter is that Oklahoma City is not in that position. This is not a tank-level team, they are better than the teams from the last two seasons.
One may argue that if the Thunder end up in the playoffs that they would be doing themselves a disservice long-term by missing out on getting a lottery pick just to lose in the first round of the playoffs.
The fact of the matter is that rebuilding teams do not go from a full-on tank to contender status within one season. There is usually at least a year, sometimes more, of mediocrity where they are too good to get a top lottery pick but not good enough to do much in the postseason. This is the zone where the Thunder currently sit.
This team have made continued improvement year after year and the experience of a potential play-in game or even playoff series would be immensely more valuable than a pick a couple of spots higher.
The tank provided Thunder fans with a sense of comfort, there was no disappointment after a loss, nothing to worry about until the draft lottery. However, it is time to step out of your comfort zone and say goodbye to the tank. The Thunder are back to the point where they step out on the floor with the intention of doing everything possible to win that game.
Yes, the disappointment of losing games is frustrating but that is what makes being a sports fan fun. I missed the frustration of losing games and the thrill of winning games that matter.
The blow of missing out on a lottery pick would be softened with Chet Holmgren returning next season, the Thunder’s lottery pick in 2022. There is also a chance that the Clippers end the season miserably, land in the lottery and their pick is used by the Thunder.
At the end of the day, the Thunder are by no means guaranteed a spot in the play-in. There is still a real chance and missing out entirely. The Western Conference is so close and open that pretty much anything is on the table. But the exhilarating, young Thunder have firmly etched themselves into the race and could make some big waves.
Whatever happens this year, next year is looking really, REALLY fun...