The time has come to ask the question.
Is this Thunder team better or worse than last year?
The most elementary evidence — the team's record and statistical output — says it is better. But beyond basic metrics, there is a growing list of concerns that have either long been present or recently crept up on this campaign, issues that bring about trepidation on the part of scores of Thunder fans with how this team ultimately might perform in the playoffs.
Entering the 66th game of this season Friday against Orlando, the Thunder is 48-17. Regardless of what happens against the Magic, it's a record that already guarantees the Thunder to have a better winning percentage through 66 games than last year, when it went 47-19 through the lockout-shortened 66-game season.
But what are we to make of it?
We've arrived at the point where the only true measure of success for this Thunder team is postseason results. The regular season no longer matters. For better or worse, that's what a trip to the Finals, even one that ends in defeat, brings.
To some, a popular predictor of future playoff success can be found in a team's scoring differential. After the team's winning percentage, it's the next best basic indicator of what we can expect from a team in a playoff run. To that extent, OKC is outscoring opponents on average by 3.4 points more than last season. It's the best scoring margin in basketball.
Many other metrics suggest the Thunder is a sounder team.
The team's scoring is up, both in raw averages and efficiency. The Thunder has evolved into a better defensive team, both in points yielded relative to the rest of the league and per 100 possessions.
Oklahoma City also has gotten better in the categories of assists, steals and turnovers, historically some of the Thunder's biggest bugaboos.
Many, however, fear that the Thunder isn't as well-equipped for a title run.
“I'm a fan and therefore hoping for some sort of magical run in the playoffs, which has been known to happen — where everyone gets and stays hot,” NewsOK.com commenter Chris Sullivan wrote on Feb. 20. “But I sense trouble ahead for this team this year as far as going deep goes.”
A leading reason for reservation, naturally, is the absence of James Harden. The reigning Sixth Man Award winner was shipped to Houston just before the start of the regular season, and in the wake of his departure the Thunder has been left to reconfigure a bench unit that last year was among the best in the business.
Oklahoma City is still searching for a consistent third scoring option while also attempting to solve the season-long mystery that is its bench struggles.
According to a recent survey of NewsOK.com readers, 62 percent of more than 700 polled think the Thunder is worse without Harden.
Various other quibbles, such as the lack of a “true” low post scorer, the coach not playing certain players, erratic ball movement and, of course, Derek Fisher's playing time among other things, has only added to the belief that the Thunder would be hard-pressed to knock off Miami in a potential Finals rematch.
Then there's the matter of whether the team's All-Star duo is ready to sprout in this year's postseason and offset any and all flaws, or if the tandem will continue to be handcuffed by their biggest weaknesses. The Thunder, after all, has been plagued at times this season by Kevin Durant's turnovers and Russell Westbrook's tantrums.
Only 17 regular season games remain in this vengeful journey.
Soon, the answer to the only question that matters will be revealed to us.
Exactly what are we to make of this year's Thunder?