Thunder playoff chances improved by sluggish Western Conference
The Thunder is 11-12 and in seventh place in the Western Conference standings.
That’s quite encouraging. Before the season, we had a chat about the Thunder’s rugged early schedule and figured that if OKC could be 10-15 through 25 games, that would be quite solid for a squad with lots of roster holes and lots of identity issues.
But here we are on December 10, and the Thunder is 11-12, with road games at Sacramento and Denver to finish out that 25-game starting window.
It’s easy to remember some of the sluggish times of the Russell Westbrook era and be excited about the current Thunder situation. Two years ago on this date, the Thunder was 12-13 and in ninth place in the West. But one year ago on this date, the Thunder was 17-8 and in first place in the West.
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Two things are clear. The Thunder bench is better than anticipated, and that gives OKC a chance to win some games. And the Western Conference is not the house of horrors it was purported to be.
Can the Thunder remain a playoff contender (the top eight teams make the postseason)? Don’t know. Seems unlikely.
But two things make the West more navigable than it seemed when the season tipped off about eight weeks ago.
1. The West is not as deep as we were led to believe. In fact, here on December 10, the Eastern Conference has a winning record vs. the Western Conference. The East is 61-60 vs. the West.
That’s crazy. Who saw that coming?
But Boston (17-5) and Miami (17-6) are better than anticipated, Toronto (16-7) remains potent and Indiana (15-9) has held up without Victor Oladipo.
Meanwhile, the West has had some surprise teams, but more surprisingly struggling than succeeding.
While Dallas (16-7) and Phoenix (11-12) are better than advertised, some Western Conference staples are treading water. Golden State’s collapse (5-20) is due to injury, New Orleans (6-18) has played without rookie phenom Zion Williamson, Portland (9-15) has been injured and ineffective, and San Antonio (9-14) is a mess.
When the season opened, we figured the eight playoff teams were largely accounted for, with the likes of Sacramento, Dallas, Minnesota, New Orleans and maybe Oklahoma City potentially making a charge at San Antonio or Golden State.
But of those eight teams, Golden State absolutely won’t contend for the playoffs, and Portland and San Antonio seem awfully shaky.
So there are more spots open than believed.
2. The Lakers’ dominance has pinned losses on a lot of teams. The 21-3 Lakers have lost just twice to West opponents – the Clippers on opening night and Dallas on December 1.
The Lakers have beaten the Thunder twice – in back-to-back games, both close – but the Lakers are beating lots of teams in the West.
Utah is 0-2 against the Lakers. So are the Spurs. The Lakers are putting losses on most of the teams in the West, and this early in the season, that’s reflected in the standings.
If the Lakers keep flying towards a win total in the high 60s, that’s going to mean a lower win total for those teams in the back half of the West playoff race. Which makes the postseason more accessible for the likes of OKC, Minnesota, Sacramento, etc. If the West keeps losing to the East and to the Lakers, some win totals in the mid-40s could be playoff-worthy.
It’s early. No telling how the West will be won or how the Thunder will pan out.
But so far, the playoff outlook for middle-class teams like the Thunder is brighter. There is more opportunity than we thought.