OKC Thunder: Experts vacillate between dark horse and easy prey predictions

Recent analyst and expert predictions find the OKC Thunder typically well behind their counterparts.

With that impending resumption of the season on July 30th, analysts have upped the ante predicting favorites, contenders, dark horses, and pretenders. The OKC Thunder find themselves in a precarious position either cited as a true dark horse to make the Western Conference Finals or completely written off as easy prey. Before Thunder Nation gets discouraged – remember this happens every season.

Case in point, for the past three seasons, the Celtics were earmarked as contenders and with Jayson Tatum’s late-season ascendence are once again many scribes pick to represent the East.  We’ll see if pundits change their views after the Thunder beat them in the Friday scrimmage although not much emphasis is placed on these matches.

Moving Ben Simmons to power forward has reignited the early season fervor for the 76ers and as the OKC Thunder learned Sunday that big lineup is a handful to deal with even without Joel Embiid in the lineup. However, the depth of the 76ers is questionable having coughed up leads in both their scrimmages. Moreover, of all the teams in Orlando, Philly had the worst time winning on the road and when push comes to shove in clutch time will the 76ers revert to their natural habits?

Meanwhile, Jimmy Butler, the star who was the 76ers closer last season is leading his new squad the Heat alongside Most Improved candidate Bam Adebayo and is a dark horse favorite of many. Miami certainly has the depth and versatility but might still need one more player or another year of experience for their youngsters to develop.

Of course, the Bucks who own the league’s best record for the second straight season are rightfully title favorites.

Conspicuous by their absence on most analysts lists is the defending champion Raptors who sit second, three games ahead of the Celtics in the East. Moreover, they rank third in the league two games ahead of the team who has their Final’s MVP now.

Never mind they did this with the fifth-most games lost to injury or that five players average 16.0 points or more — all of whom individually missed between 11 and 20 games. One program touted the Celtics firepower with six players who score more than seven points per game. For what it’s worth the Raptors have nine and are completely healthy for the first time all year.

Analysts and experts not doling out love for OKC Thunder

As for the West, it’s the LA story and has been all season. Both clubs feature two superstar talents and depth. The Lakers boast arguably two top-five players including the league’s best player for over a decade and a half. Yet, they’ve already suffered the loss of Avery Bradley who elected to not join the bubble and Rajon Rondo who broke a bone in his hand and won’t return until mid-playoffs.

Down the hall of the Staples Center are the Clippers who don’t just have two of the best two-way players in the game, but an embarrassment of talent riches. The reigning Finals MVP – Kawhi Leonard leads a team so deep more than 10 players on their roster would start for the majority of franchises. That said, this squad has struggled to get all their core unit together on the court and things aren’t getting fixed anytime soon.

Each of Montrezl Harrell, Patrick Beverley, and Lou Williams left the bubble for personal reasons. Beverley and Williams are back although the latter will be in quarantine longer since he couldn’t resist the wings of his favorite Atlanta gentleman’s club while out of the bubble.

In addition, Landry Shamet still hasn’t recovered from COVID-19 and Ivica Zubic has yet to play also arriving late. On top of this Marcus Morris will leave when it’s time for the birth of his child. Again the depth is key but Doc Rivers has a challenge finding time for the lineups to play together and develop chemistry.

A commitment to small ball finds the Rockets (another perennial favorite) and two former OKC Thunder superstars tagged as many pundit’s dark horse pick in the West. Russell Westbrook tested positive for COVID-19 but was asymptomatic and was quickly eligible to play in Orlando.

Throughout the season the Denver Nuggets, Utah Jazz,  Luka Doncic led Dallas Mavericks, and now healthy, Zion Williamson led New Orleans Pelicans have each garnered praise and been featured as teams who could rise up under these circumstances for a shocking upset of a favorite (read LA team).

Like the Raptors in the East, the OKC Thunder have been mostly forgotten or overlooked. Sure, they’ve been cited as one of the feel-good stories of the year and recognized for their Clutch Time prowess but seldom cited as a dark horse let alone a contender.

Casual NBA fans aren’t likely aware the Thunder were on the precipice of overtaking the Jazz when the suspension began or that OKC entered the hiatus tied with the Lakers with the best 10 game record (8-2) and third-best record since Thanksgiving (Bucks and Lakers ahead, Raptors just behind).

As noted in our recent article, there are still analysts begging for their team to meet the Thunder in the first round and National sites predicting their fall instead of ascent in the standings.

To wit, ESPN has the Thunder most likely falling to sixth.  Likewise, Greg Swartz of Bleacher Report has the Rockets, Jazz, and Thunder finishing fourth, fifth and sixth respectively.

This in spite of the fact, if the Thunder beat the Jazz in their first seeding game on August 1st they’ll move into fourth and own the series tiebreak, a benchmark OKC already clinched versus the Rockets.

I won’t spill the tea since an upcoming seed ranking will run prior to the July 30th restart. Suffice to say, Mr. Swartz and I differ on many fronts.

On the positive front, as the more astute analysts dive into the stats and review film there is a recent uptick in support for the Thunder (and the Raptors). Clearly, the OKC Thunder clutch time lineup featuring the three point guard lineup draws the greatest praise. But, there is other statistical evidence to bolster confidence and likely is behind some of the recent accolades.

Stat master John Schuhmann ranks the OKC Thunder sixth in his recent power rankings — not in the West — but overall. The only teams Schuhmann ranks ahead of OKC are the Lakers, Bucks, Clippers, Raptors, and Celtics. Basically, that is good news, bad news scenario. While success in the first round is great (good news) it would equate to a second-round versus one of the LA teams (bad news).

In spite of the LA juggernauts, Stan Van Gundy said the teams with the best shot of upsetting one of the powerhouses is either the Nuggets or OKC Thunder. Check out the Lowe Post where SVG waxes poetic on why he really likes the Thunder.

Don’t expect the majority of analysts, and pundits to shift off the two LA squads, Bucks, Celtics, and Rockets as the favorites and top choices as dark horses.

Despite these clubs continuing to be the favorites of the majority, there is one undeniable fact. This Disney bubble is unprecedented which puts every team on equal footing. The home court is vanquished and while some will ignore road wins as a factor in close playoff games the teams with proven success away from home will naturally feel at ease in close games in Orlando. The top five road records belong to the Lakers, Bucks, Raptors, OKC Thunder, and Mavericks.

Solid chemistry and overcoming adversity are other factors that should bode well for OKC. While the Thunder seemingly isn’t garnering the respect they’ve earned, fans shouldn’t worry as the Thunder can use this as motivation. Players like Chris Paul, Steven Adams, and Andre Roberson will thrive off that kind of disrespect.

Let’s just say, although it would be nice if analysts and scribes recognized how strong the Thunder have been or their ever-improving chemistry, ultimately whether they pick them or not won’t matter. The games will be won and lost on the court, not in the presses, so make your bets accordingly — just don’t count out this OKC Thunder squad to be in the mix when all is said and done.