Oklahoma City Thunder Among NBA's Best ATS
by Trevor Whenham - 1/13/2010
The Oklahoma City Thunder are one of the most pleasant surprises of the NBA season. We knew that they were going to be a team to watch in the coming years, but even the most optimistic fan has to admit that they are ahead of schedule right now. If the playoffs were to start today the Thunder would secure the No. 7 spot in the West. It's their bad luck that they don't play in the East because they would be sitting in fifth over there. They've been just as kind to bettors as they have been successful in the standings as well - only two teams have been more successful against the spread on the season.
So, the Thunder have been a tremendous success. The season is only halfway over, though. Is this a team that is built to last? Are they ready for the postseason this soon in their progress? Let's take a look:
Kevin Durant - You can't talk about Oklahoma City without discussing the guy who makes the Portland Trail Blazers look a little dumber every day for passing him over. He's fourth in the league in scoring behind only guys named Carmelo, LeBron and Kobe. He leads his team in points, rebounds, blocks, steals - he's a one-man wrecking crew. Durant came into the league with very hgh expectations, and it has taken him less than three years to emerge as one of the true superstars in the league. The scariest part for his opponents is that he clearly still has plenty of upside.
A couple of things really stick out as signs that the 21 year old is emerging as a player. First, he's getting to the free throw line more often, and making the most of it when he gets there. He's getting to the line 2.3 more times per game this year, and that has turned into two more points per game. That trend will only continue, and it's a sign of the maturity that Durant is clearly developing. More significantly, Durant has dramatically improved his defensive play. As good as he has been offensively in the past, he was such a defensive liability that the team was, in many ways, better off when he was on the bench. This year, though, Durant has made a radical transformation of his defensive play. The team is allowing 9.2 fewer points per 100 possessions when Durant plays than they did last year - a massive shift. Defensive play is something that improves with age and experience as well, so Durant is likely only to get better. This team is going to go as far as Durant can lead it, and there are good indications that that is a long way over the coming years.
Road performance - The Thunder are 10-8 on the road so far this year. That's a better winning percentage than four of the six teams ahead of them in the conference standings, so the Thunder are doing something right. More significantly, this is a team that went 8-33 on the road last year, so the improvement is almost incomprehensible. There are some easy road wins among their tally, but they have also beat their share of Western contenders. It's reasonable to assume that the Thunder will come down to earth a bit on the road, but whether they do or not this is perhaps the best indicator that this team is for real this year. Bad teams don't fluke into winning road records over half a season.
Youth - This team is ridiculously young. Six players are 22 or younger, including the core of the team for the future. Three more players are 23. You can look at their age as both a strength and a weakness depending upon perspective. Young players haven't experienced the stress of making a playoff charge, and won't be as prepared as more veteran players for what they face. On the other hand, they are going to be more physically able to handle the strains of the season as it progresses.
Regardless of the impact of their youth now, you have to be stunned by the potential this team has down the road as they learn to play together and grow as players. Durant and Russell Westbrook will be the one-two punch leading this team for years. Eric Maynor is potentially a great second point guard. Guys like James Harden and Serge Ibaka are growing into themselves and have serious potential. B.J. Mullens has a long, long way to go, but he has tools. This is a team that is only going to get better in coming years.
Conference - If there is a major concern about this team it is the teams that are chasing them for the last playoffs spots. There are at least 10 teams in competition for eight spots. The Lakers, Spurs, and Nuggets are all but locks. Dallas probably is, too, and I'd put Phoenix in that group as long as Steve Nash is healthy. That leaves three spots. Utah and New Orleans are both previous playoff teams that limped out of the gate, but both have world class point guards, and are both playing significantly better recently. Portland, like Oklahoma City, is a young team just learning to accept and maximize their potential. Houston is probably the weakest link given their comparative talent, but Aaron Brooks is leading the way and a lot of players are playing better than expected. In short, there are going to be at least two pretty good teams that are shut out of the playoffs, and it's not entirely within the control of any of the teams.
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