NBA Handicapping: Should OKC Thunder be NBA Finals Favorite?
by Trevor Whenham - 4/6/2012
The Oklahoma City Thunder have had a very good couple of weeks. In that time they have beat the Clippers, the Bulls, and the Heat at home, and added a win at the Lakers. There were a couple of blemishes — a sloppy home loss to Memphis and a competitive loss at Miami. Still, by beating four of the biggest contenders for the NBA Championship this year the Thunder have fully established themselves as a real threat to win it all — the biggest threat out of the West, and perhaps the biggest threat of all.
The Thunder have taken a major step forward this year — just like they were supposed to heading into the season. But do they have enough going for them to pull off a championship run this year? Let’s take a look:
I don’t think Kevin Durant is going to win the MVP, but he absolutely should. Last year Durant was a very good player, yet this year he has managed to improve dramatically. His point production matches last year, but the finer details are more impressive.
He has improved his shooting percentages both overall and from three-point range. He realized that his rebounding wasn’t what it could or should be, so he has focused hard on it, and the results are evident and striking. Durant is stunningly complete, and he’s a very good player for a team to be built around.
The scariest thing — for the rest of the league, at least — is that he’s only 23, so he’s only going to get better.
As impressive as Durant’s season has been, the most striking story on this team may be the step forward that James Harden has taken.
It’s really more of a leap than a step.
He’s scoring five more points per game this year than last year, and he’s shooting six percent better as well. He’s a remarkably efficient player as well — and he’s just 22.
Teams that have done well in the playoffs recently have had a potent player off the bench to add remarkable, dangerous depth. Harden provides that — and more.
Westbrook isn’t nearly as clear or simple a case as the other two young stars on this team. On one hand he has bumped up his scoring numbers, and he is elite offensively for his position. He’s also bumped up his shooting percentage.
Things aren’t all rosy, though.
He is one of the league leaders in turnovers at four per game, and his assists have plummeted from 8.2 last year to 5.5 this year. That would be a real problem is any situation, but given the talent he has to pass to the assist numbers are totally unacceptable.
Westbrook is good enough to win a championship for this team, but he’s also problematic enough to cause the team to lose in the playoffs. The trick for bettors will be decide which one of those possibilities is more likely. I’m not sure which one I lean towards, though I think I tend to be optimistic. Of course, that could just be because I hate the Heat so much.
Free throws win games. They aren’t sexy, but they make the difference. On that front the Thunder shine. They get to the line the fourth most in the league, and they are the best at converting their opportunities into points.
The Thunder are not elite defensively. They have the 12th best defense in the league, and the fourth in the Western Conference behind Dallas, Memphis and the Lakers. While that’s not ideal, there are a couple reasons to feel okay on this front.
For starters, they can outscore those teams, and they provide tough matchups that will challenge those defenses if required. They also have a defense that is still acceptable — it’s not like they are in the bottom-third of the league. They are somewhat better than last year, and they have had a year together to get comfortable and more experienced.
The defense isn’t a big asset, but it’s not a liability, either.
Last year the youth of this team was a problem, and the Mavericks were able to exploit that — and so were the Lakers, though not as successfully.
I really don’t think that that will be a storyline this time around.
The team is a year older and more experienced, they have the real playoff experience from last year to draw on, and they have played together as a core for a while now. This is a young team, but it’s not a youthful one anymore.
Part of what counters their youth very effectively is their depth — the best in the league by a solid margin. It’s easier to trust young players when there are strong alternatives behind to share the load.
There is one stat I really like about the Thunder right now. They have the best record in the conference at home (tied with the Lakers at 23-5), and they also have the best road record, the best divisional record, and the best conference record. That means that this is a team that doesn’t really care where or who they play, and they don’t look for excuses from the setting or opponent.
That’s a very strong asset to have heading into the playoffs.
The Thunder aren’t the most public team in the league by any means, but they still draw more than their share of attention and respect.
It’s impressive, then, that at 30-24 ATS on the season they are the fourth most profitable team in the league.
There isn’t necessarily a correlation between betting success and how dangerous a team is on the court — the Lakers are the third worst ATS team in the league this year. Still, when a team is expected to win, and especially when they do so by scoring a lot of points in impressive fashion, it’s a sign of their toughness and strong play that they are able to remain profitable.
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