Given the Thunder took the eventual champion Lakers to within one possession of a Game 7, it’s hard to point to Oklahoma City’s 50 regular-season wins in 2009-10 and say it overachieved. The 27-win improvement in one year after the franchise moved here represents such a leap that an increase this season by even half as much is unthinkable. I don’t think anyone would dispute that approaching the mid-60s in wins during the regular season is asking too much.
It begs the question: What number of regular-season wins represents the kind of improvement the Thunder is looking for? Last year, .500 seemed a realistic goal and the playoffs a hopeful one, though players said flatly in the preseason their goal was the postseason. Specifics were harder to come by this season in the Thunder’s own stated goals, but home court in the first round replaces .500 this year as most folks’ chief preseason hope, with a No. 2 seed in the West as what gets dreamed of more often than said out loud.
The last two seasons, when NBA playoff seedings were based on the same rules as this season, it took 54 (with a tiebreaker) and 53 wins to secure the No. 4 seed and home court in the West first round. Previous recent seasons, with wackier seeding rules, had No. 4 slotted teams with 54 wins (ahead of a 55-win team), 51 wins (ahead of a 52-win team) and 60 wins (behind teams with 44 and 54 wins). So 54 wins seems a reasonable number if you want at least one Game 1 at home in the playoffs.
But … the West’s No. 2 seed in the last two seasons finished with 55 and 54 wins, respectively. Only an effective one-game difference from No. 4. The previous three seasons’ No. 2 seeds needed 56, 61 and 54 wins. So hoping for one more win than what seemed reasonable for home court in the first round could mean a place in the playoff bracket designed for a collision course with the Lakers with a Finals berth on the line.
That suggests, tempting as it is to think an eight-win improvement could be easily achieved for a team that improved by 27 the year before, the Thunder could climb rather far up the West’s power structure with only a modest jump in wins. The No. 2 team in the West doesn’t just roll out of bed with a chance to win 60 games every year.
Two factors point strongly toward the Thunder having a harder time than may be imagined pushing for a mid-50s win total: injuries and a scrappier-than-ever Western Conference. First, it’s time for an emotionless look at injuries.
The hard numbers back up plentiful offseason chatter remarking on the Thunder’s spectacular luck with health last season. I checked game-by-game, and the team opposite the Thunder was missing a starter or strong contributor off the bench due to injury, suspension or a break a whopping 38 times in 82 games. Nick Collison, James Harden and Nenad Krstic missed six games each last year for Oklahoma City, with Krstic’s half dozen scratches the lone blemishes among the Thunder’s entire starting five. There’s little chance the Thunder will enjoy 20 more games with a full roster than the opposition again.
Now, that’s a far from scientific study. For example, do you count a game when the Houston Rockets lose Luis Scola after 22 seconds, or a game when Golden State is missing Anthony Morrow? (Yes and no, respectively, for my purposes.) And it’s also worth noting, as a way to show you can throw almost any statistic out the window, that the Thunder was a mere .500 in those 38 games, so it would be hard to argue it contributed to an inflated win total for Oklahoma City. But it’s clear the Thunder were far luckier than the teams on the other side of the court last season. That won’t last.
The fact I didn’t count the Rockets or Clippers as teams playing hurt every single game, due to season-long injuries to projected starters Yao Ming and Blake Griffin, leads to the second point. Despite a concentration of power in the East, the West remains far deeper. There’s hardly a night off against a Western Conference team, so the Thunder’s West-heavy schedule will be as big a grind as ever. Yao and Griffin alone represent two huge additions, in effect, to non-playoff teams from last year with instantly realistic hopes of joining the postseason this year.
The Rockets, Clippers and Grizzlies alone seem capable of filling the nine-win gap between the Thunder’s final playoff spot last year and the Grizzlies, who finished an even 41-41. There could be 10 teams that finish with between 45 and 55 wins, and they could be fighting for six or seven playoff spots. Just as a few more wins could be the difference between No. 8 and No. 2, a few losses could be the difference between Game 1 at home and home for the postseason. The Thunder’s significant breathing room is likely to be gone.
The Thunder has plenty to suggest more wins could come. A group of young players is likely to get better. We’re 840 words in here with nary a mention of Kevin Durant. Russell Westbrook outplayed Derrick Rose for much of the FIBA World Championship. If James Harden can make a second-year leap similar to Westbrook’s last season, the Thunder could be downright explosive on the offensive end. Serge Ibaka’s development alone could determine if this is the season the Thunder are true title contenders.
But the likelihood that injury luck has run out coupled with stiffened competition in the Western Conference should give pause to anyone who thinks postseason performance alone is on what the Thunder’s season will be judged. A slight slip isn’t out of the question and could leave Oklahoma City on the outside of the playoffs looking in. Fans would be as wise as the team to buy into the old cliche: Just take it one game at a time.