I hate the Lakers. And despite the number of times I’ve been told that Christians should not hate, I can’t find another word to describe how much I loathe “The Lake Show.” The same goes for the Yankees and the Pittsburgh Steelers. Pretty much anytime a powerful team is playing, I am probably going to root for the underdog.
On Monday night, I found myself cheering for the Lakers to win.
I felt dirty (though, the lack of Kobe made it a little less bile inducing), but it was important that I offer my karmic will to the defending champs. It was good for the Thunder. You see, they were playing the Spurs who are fighting for one of those coveted (and difficult to earn) Western Conference playoff spots.
Now, as the All Star Break signifies the end of the first half of the season, the last portion is going to be all about the playoffs. If Oklahoma City continues to play wonderfully, the discussion may even turn to how good the team’s seed will be and whether the team can challenge to play in the Finals. (Okay, think about that for a second…awesome, huh?)
First things first, though. John Hollinger may have them as a virtual lock for the “real” season, but there is still a lot of basketball to play and a plethora of teams with better than decent hopes of making it in. So, after the jump, I offer a primer for Thunder fans preparing for the final stretch of season.
What is the Thunder’s best case scenario?
Dream scenario would involve the Thunder completely hitting their stride and building on the six game winning streak they take into the break. Then, Kobe chooses to finally have that hand surgery he has been putting off for years in hopes of making it back in time for the playoffs. After that happens, Pau Gasol misses some games and the Lakers fall to the middle of the pack. Meanwhile, the Nuggets continue to struggle on the road, but also become more vulnerable at home. Boom! Your number one seed Oklahoma City Thunder.
That’s all fun to think about, but what is realistic?
While #1 is theoretically possible, the Thunder are probably looking at #3, if a lot of things go their way, as a realistic objective. That’s probably the true “best case scenario.” While Chris Webber projected them as a 4/5 seed, that too is probably overly optimistic at this point. Just making the playoffs is a win by itself, and until some other teams start to fade, there is always the possibility that OKC will be the team to swoon. Remember, that’s what happened in both seasons the Hornets were here.
Who are the contenders for playoff spots?
The Lakers and the Nuggets are as close to a lock as possible. Barring significant injuries, they will probably be the top two seeds. After that, it’s easier to single out who isn’t competing for the playoffs. Those teams are: Clippers, Kings, Warriors, and Timberwolves. As I write this every other team in the Western Conference is better than .500.
That leaves nine teams jockeying for the other six playoff seeds. As of today, the Thunder are in the middle of the pack. They are 2 1/2 games back of usurping Utah as the #3 seed, and also 2 1/2 games back of falling to #9 in the standings and picking in the lottery.
What can the Thunder do to improve their position?
Primarily, they need to stay healthy. Depth isn’t exactly their strong suit, and *knock on wood* until now they have been pretty lucky. For instance, if Kevin Durant were to go down for an extended period of time, the team would really be hurting for scoring, and he doesn’t really have a back up.
Obviously, if one of the top-3 were to go down, it would put a major dent in the teams chances. That’s true with any team. For Oklahoma City, though, the role players are just as significant. If Nick Collison’s gritty post play, James Harden’s bench scoring, or Thabo Sefolosha’s defensive lock down abilities were to go missing, it is hard to figure out where the the Thunder would be able to make up for the loss.
It is possible that a trade could go down between now and February 18th that could shore up some team weaknesses (outside shooting, post rebounding), but so far, no rumors have involved OKC.
Could anything happen at the trading deadline to give one of the competitors a leg up?
Certainly. At this stage, though, it seems fairly unlikely. Most of the trade chatter appears to be coming from the East with contenders trying to get a leg up in that top-heavy conference.
One rumor that could have an impact on the West, though, has Houston shedding Tracy McGrady’s bloated expiring contract to the Bulls for Kirk Hinrich and John Salmons. If that happens, the Rockets (who have slipped lately) are right back in the thick of the playoff chase.
On the flipside, the Suns seem to be a team that appears to be in “sell mode” despite being a bubble playoff team. If they trade Amar’e Stoudemire before the deadline and get mostly cap relief (which their owner Robert Sarver values more than success) they could be a team to fall out of the competition.
So what teams are we worried about?
Dallas – The Mavericks are solid, but probably one piece away from being an actual contender for the conference crown. The odds of them making a deal are long as Mark Cuban really has no intention of giving up anything, and unlike Sam Presti, he doesn’t have the kind of assets that allow a team to get something for nothing. Barring an injury to Dirk Nowitzki, however, they will probably be in the top half of the seeding.
Utah – Jazz coach Jerry Sloan is a stud. The team’s roster looks like it should be completely disfunctional and injuries have been a familiar part of their season. Except, as of today, they are the hottest team in the West. While they have tried to pawn off Carlos Boozer all season, they won’t give him away unless it returns something that helps them now–particularly after their recent success–so expect them to be a lock for the playoffs.
San Antonio – Yeah, the Richard Jefferson trade has been a disaster. Yeah, they are older than dirt. Unfortunately: Yeah, they know how to turn it on when it matters. (Note: They do have the toughest strength of schedule of any playoff contender…so that could wear them down, particularly with their age issues.)
Phoenix – If they fail in gutting the team to save money, it would be tough for the Suns not to make the playoffs. Whether the conventional wisdom that their style of ball can’t win a championship is true or not, it is very successful in the regular season, which is how playoff seeding is determined. Also, they have the easiest strength of schedule of any playoff contender from here on out.
Portland – Sure, they’ve been decimated by injuries to their front court, and the Andre Miller signing hasn’t panned out like they hoped, but they just keep rocking. In fact, the loss of Ron Jeremy Oden and Joel Pryzbilla may have actually helped them since they now have to go small more often and play LeMarcus Aldridge at center. When Brandon Roy comes back, expect them to be very tough.
Houston – With or without a trade for reinforcements, the Rockets have a chance because of their ability to overachieve. They have no true star, but they sure have the Thunder’s number.
Memphis – This is a team long overdue for a chemical implosion–their core consists of a ball hogging guard (O.J. Mayo), a shot craving power forward (Zach Randolph), and a small forward playing for a big contract next Summer (Rudy Gay)–but unless that happens they will remain a contender.
New Orleans – I’m not sure how they have managed to stay in the hunt. With the onus being about getting under the luxury tax, the team has shed player after player in return for guys who have no business playing in the NBA. With Chris Paul you could kind of see that he was making it work, but even now that he’s out for the next month, Darren Collison has done an admirable job running the show. Who’s to say they can’t keep it up?
I’m just watching a random game on t.v. Who do I root for?
Are the Thunder involved? If yes, the Thunder. If no…
Are both teams Eastern Conference? If yes, it doesn’t matter. If no…
Is one of the team’s from the Eastern Conference? If yes, root for the Eastern Conference team. Any loss by a Western Conference team helps Oklahoma City’s chances (unless it’s one of those bottom four teams, in which case it doesn’t really matter). If no…
Is one or both of the teams among this group: Minnesota, Golden State, Sacramento, and/or the Clippers? If yes, root for that team. They aren’t about to climb into the playoff chase (Sacramento has an outside, but improbable chance), so them stealing a win from a contender certainly helps. If no…
Is one of the teams Denver or the Lakers? If yes, cheer them on, then take a shower, or three, afterwards. A scenario where the Thunder surpass either of those teams in the standings would be tough to envision. Therefore, they might as well aide Oklahoma City by knocking off the competition. If no…
Both of the teams are Western Conference playoff contenders? Use your free will.
There you go, any more questions?