3 Increasingly bold predictions for the Thunder the rest of the season

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Chet Holmgren, Oklahoma City Thunder
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Chet Holmgren, Oklahoma City Thunder / David Berding/GettyImages
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In some years, the contenders are set before the season even begins and the standings play out just as expected. For example, after the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers met in the NBA Finals in 2016, everyone expected them to lead the way and be back in 2017. That's exactly what happened.

In other years, however, the standings are insane from the jump. That's been the Western Conference playoff picture this season. The Minnesota Timberwolves have been the surprise leader in the standings for most of the season, but the Oklahoma City Thunder -- expected to be competing to get out of the Play-In Tournament this year -- have been hot on their heels all season long.

If you predicted that the Thunder would be better this season than they were last year, you would have received a chorus of "duh"s for producing such a bland take. Predict that they would have the best net rating in the West and be jostling for first at this point in the season? You would have been ridiculed for such a bold take...and now praised as it comes true.

Let's look ahead to the final two dozen games of the season and the postseason beyond. What will the Thunder accomplish? Let's start with a mild prediction and increase the heat until our third and final prediction is ghost-pepper hot. How will the rest of the season play out for the team and its stars?

No. 3: The Thunder will finish first in the West

As of the morning of February 29th, the Oklahoma City Thunder are 41-17, a whopping 24 games above .500 and 30.5 games ahead of the last-place San Antonio Spurs. At this time last season they were just 28-30, hovering just below .500 as they would for the remainder of the season.

What's more, the Thunder have a +8.3 net rating, which historically is a better predictor of future play than record alone. That ranks first in the West by a healthy margin. Take any team rating metric and the Thunder rank first in the West and second in the entire league behind the Boston Celtics. They are a really good team, right now.

Additionally, the Thunder have an easier schedule than the other teams they are jostling for the top spot. The Minnesota Timberwolves, currently a half-game up on Oklahoma City, have the 14th-hardest schedule remaining by opponent win percentage. The Denver Nuggets are 15th, while the LA Clippers have the 10th-hardest schedule. The Thunder, on the other hand, have the 10th-easiest schedule.

Finally, the Thunder have secured tiebreakers over the Clippers and Nuggets and tied the season series 2-2 with the Timberwolves, with a shot at winning that tiebreaker depending on how the rest of the year goes. That puts them in excellent position to claim that first seed.

Between their stronger team metrics, current record, relative youth and health and the easier schedule remaining, the Thunder look on track to claim that top seed and home-court advantage throughout the entire Western Conference playoff bracket.