After a recent win, Kendrick Perkins was asked what seemed like a bit of a hyperbolic question.
“Is this the best this Thunder team has ever been on the defensive end?”
“I believe so,” Perkins responded.
Barely into January, it's still far too early to definitively know. But the early numbers bear that out.
Just take a look at OKC's year-by-year defensive efficiency — an increasingly popular statistic among the basketball community — which measures the points per 100 possessions a team allows.
In 2010-11, the first season the Thunder won a postseason series, its defensive efficiency was 104.0, 13th best in the NBA. The next season, the year OKC made the Finals, it was 100.0, ninth best in the league.
By last season, it had improved to 99.2, fourth best in the NBA. And now, 31 games in, it has dropped all the way to 97.5, behind only Indiana among the league's most stingy units.
“It's what we take pride in,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. “We're a defensive team.”
And for the next couple months, that reality carries as much weight as ever.
With Russell Westbrook out, this team is far less efficient and explosive on offense. The pace is slower and, typically, the points will be fewer.
But if OKC continues to stop opposing offenses at a similar rate, it should continue to win games at a relatively similar pace.
And there's no reason to believe the Thunder won't.
Through 31 games, OKC's defense has been both dominant and consistent. Opponents make only 41.5 percent of shots against the Thunder, second lowest in the league. And not once has the Thunder allowed a team to shoot better than 49 percent.
Even the Pacers — whose opponents make an NBA-low 41.1 percent of shots — experience some slip-ups. OKC shot 61 percent against them on Dec. 8.
“I think we bringing along the young guys,” Perkins said, explaining that the Thunder doesn't have a defensive weak link. “You got guys who trying to get physical. Jeremy Lamb done impressed me the most with his toughness. He's getting down and dirty a little bit, getting in there on the rebounding.”
To win the title, OKC clearly needs a healthy and productive Westbrook.
But to maintain during his midseason absence — which includes a stretch of seven straight games against sub-. 500 teams, starting on Thursday against Brooklyn — the Thunder will rely on its disruptive and hounding defense.
Not a bad bet, considering it's likely the best this unit has ever been.