The Oklahoma City Thunder have been…well, thundering through the NBA’s Western Conference as we reach this weekend’s All-Star break in New Orleans. The Thunder are sitting on a 43-12 record, good for a four-game lead for the top seed in the West, and narrowly ahead of the Indiana Pacers for the NBA’s best overall record. What’s more, Kevin Durant is emerging as the odds-on favorite to be the MVP.
Durant is averaging 32 points/8 rebounds/6 assists per game, and he does it with efficiency. The 6’11” small forward shoots 51 percent from the floor and in spite of shooting several three-point attempts a game, still hits 41 percent behind the arc. The knee injury to All-Star caliber guard Russell Westbrook has seemingly inspired Durant to take his already outstanding game to a new level.
The play of Durant has always been excellent though. What separates this year’s Oklahoma City team from recent seasons (years we might add that were pretty damn good, reaching the NBA Finals in 2012 and winning 60 regular season games in 2013 before Westbrook got hurt in the playoffs) is that the Thunder of 2014 are really locking down defensively and hitting the boards.
Oklahoma City’s defense ranks 3rd in the NBA in defensive efficiency—a stat that adjusts points allowed for tempo, thus not penalizing a team like the Thunder who play at a pace faster than the norm. That isn’t all that surprising given this team’s athletic ability in the backcourt, and the presence of a defensive stopper at guard in Thabo Sefolosha. What is surprising is that OkC is the best rebounding team in the NBA, better even than Indiana.
That brings us to Serge Ibaka, the power forward averaging 15 points/8 rebounds per game. Ibaka has been inconsistent in the past, and I would argue that it’s his steady performance that is the real difference for Oklahoma City this year. Please note I’m not saying he’s the best player—that’s obviously Durant. But again, Durant has always been great. When Ibaka chips in points and hits the boards, he gives the Thunder a championship dimension.
Oklahoma City plays a guard-oriented lineup, so center Kendrick Perkins only plays about 20 minutes a game. This makes the Thunder’s rebounding dominance even more surprising and it should get even better when Westbrook comes back. The aggressive guard who plays basketball with the same wild fervor that Robert Griffin III plays football, averages six boards a game from the point guard spot.
In the meantime, the OkC backcourt is being upheld by Reggie Jackson (14 points/4 rebounds/4 assists), Sefolosha and Jeremy Lamb. Westbrook’s return will add to the offensive punch—he averages 21 ppg—as Sefolosha is primarily a defender and Lamb is better suited to being a role player.
Westbrook is going to be back soon, perhaps even in time for next Thursday’s game with the Miami Heat. The big question is going to be what effect this will have on the team. Westbrook has an alpha personality and likes to take over. Durant is more laid back—or at least was, until the injury forced the star to not only score, but lead.
Does the return of Westbrook upend the new chemistry? It’s possible, and something to watch out for. What we do know is that Oklahoma City can’t win the NBA championship without him. In last year’s playoffs, Durant put up big numbers, but at the end of games, defenses simply took him out, without Westbrook to distract some attention. It’s the challenge of head coach Scott Drew’s career to make Westbrook’s return work, and if it does, the ultimate payoff is right there to be collected.