The Oklahoma City Thunder have won their last five games this season and sit at 14-4 on the year so far. That’s on pace to win 64 games which would be a big improvement over the past few seasons.
Last year in the lockout shortened season, the Thunder went 47-19 which translates to 58 wins in an 82-game season. The year before, the Thunder won 55 games and the year before that 50.
Many expected the Thunder to take a step back this season after trading James Harden but it simply hasn’t been the case. They are still winning and winning more than ever. They’re doing so in impressive fashion too blowing out a number of teams most notably the Charlotte Bobcats by 45 points.
The Thunder aren’t a product of a weak schedule and even are No. 1 in John Hollinger’s Power Rankings which takes into account all kinds of things such as strength of schedule and win margin.
But how long can the Thunder keep this up for? Things sure seem to be going perfectly right now but will the Thunder regress back toward being a 58-win team?
Right now the Thunder are third in the league with a 110.1 offensive efficiency rating as a team. Last year they were second in the league with a rating of 107.1. So maybe they finish the year closer to the rating they had last year which would mean less than 64 games.
But looking closely at why the Thunder are more efficient this season, something really jumps out. They are sharing the ball far better than they did a season ago. Last year, their assist ratio was 13.1 which was last in the entire NBA. This year, it’s up to 17.7 which is 5th in the league.
That’s a huge jump for a team that is essentially running the same offense they did last year. There has been some personnel changes of course but not moves to necessarily make the Thunder a better passing team. Harden was their best playmaker last year and they didn’t replace him with better passers.
Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are responsible for the improvement in this department, changing the way they played this season to become better playmakers. Each are averaging a career-high in assists per game so far this year and it has resulted in the Thunder having four players averaging 14 or more points per game.
The Thunder offense was very top heavy a season ago, more top heavy than really any NBA team ever other than maybe the past few Miami Heat teams. Durant, Westbrook and Harden did everything for OKC last season and with more balance this season, we are seeing more efficiency which makes a lot of sense.
It’s not just the offense that has improved for the Thunder though. Defensively, they are much better than a season ago as well. They are 5th in the league in defensive efficiency this season with a rating of 98.6. Last year, they were 9th with a rating of 100.0.
The Thunder are vastly improved defending the pick-and-roll. They are the best team in the league right now against the pick-and-roll in terms of points per possession. Last season, they were ranked in the 20s.
The Thunder are still elite when it comes to defending other plays like isolation and post-ups.
So if you think about why the Thunder have improved both offensively and defensively this season, the reason for both is simple: commitment. They are committed to becoming a better offensive, team changing their philosophy some by being more unselfish. The same goes for defense, being focused more, making better rotations and playing harder.
Since this is the reason for the improvement by the Thunder this year, there is no reason to think they won’t keep winning at this rate. They may even win at an even greater rate considering Westbrook has been up and down at times to start the year and Durant could still see an increase in his scoring.
We will never truly know if the Harden trade hurts the Thunder until the playoffs come around. But for now and for the regular season, it hasn’t and the Thunder are poised for their best regular season finish in franchise history.