Most agreed back in October during training camp the Thunder wouldn’t make the playoffs this season but would be serious contenders in 2010-11.
But there have been signs for several weeks the league’s second youngest team might arrive a year ahead of scheule, at worst make monitoring the standings worthwhile into April.
When the NBA released its 2009-10 schedule in early August, knowing the Thunder finished 23-59 last season, I wrote if the Thunder could be around 14-18 or 13-19 after New Year’s Eve they might stay in the playoff race.
Many felt I was too optimistic to suggest the Thunder could compile 13 or 14 wins heading into 2010.
Turns out we were all off target.
The Thunder already has 15 wins a couple days after Christmas. They should be no worse than 16-16 after New Year’s Eve, probably 17-15 or better. It’s not impossible they could be 18-14, riding a five-game winning streak
There are four reasons the Thunder should stay in the playoff race all season.
1) A young team has learned how to win on the road. OKC is 7-7 away from the Ford Center heading into Monday’s game at New Jersey. Even more impressive is the Thunder has won at Phoenix, Utah, San Antonio, Miami and Detroit. Even the road win at Memphis is more noteworthy than most realize.
2) The Thunder has learned how to beat the “bad” teams. Last season OKC was like the other teams that finished with a lot of lottery balls. They won their share but also lost their share against other “bad” teams.
So far this season, the Thunder is 10-2 teams with a losing record. They can’t keep up that pace up but it’s a sign a young team has learned to not play down to its competition level.
3) The schedule gets way easier. It’s been reported on this website a lot the last two weeks that the final 58 games after Christmas are a lot easier than the first 24 before Christmas. (Go back to Point No. 2). Take advantage of the softer schedule and you should stay in the race.
4) It’s uncertain how many wins it will take to qualify in the Western Conference. But it’s not unrealistic to think the Thunder could finish with a win total in the mid-40s — 44, 45 or 46– certainly higher than recent Oklahoma temperatures.
It might take that many to stay in the race, much less qualify for the playoffs. But one thing working in the Thunder’s favor is while the Thunder’s schedule gets easier, a few teams’ schedules get more difficult.
Rookies Serge Ibaka and James Harden have improved the depth more than anyone could have realized. Trading for Eric Maynor only improves the depth.
Combined with a solid returning core of Kevin Durant, Jeff Green, Russell Westbrook, Nick Collison, Thabo Sefolosha and Nenad Krstic, that’s a pretty darn good nine-man rotation. You have a little depth in D.J. White, Kevin Ollie and Etan Thomas if injuries occur.
Add it all up and the Thunder, barring a major injury or two, should stay in the race all season, possibly even make the playoffs as the No. 6, 7 or 8 seed.