It’s my new yearly thing: Reckless, wild speculation on how the Thunder’s season will play out. Last year after I went through the schedule month-by-month, I landed on 52 wins for Oklahoma City, which wasn’t too far off. And I felt like that was even a bit optimistic.
So that makes two straight years I’ve undersold the Thunder. I’m going to try and not do that this year, hence why I came up with a 78-4 record. Or something close to that. Let’s break the schedule down in pieces. (If there is a season disclaimer blah blah blah.)
Nov. 1 – 18 (at the LA Lakers, at Phoenix, Indiana, at Dallas, at New York, at Chicago, Toronto, at Charlotte, New Jersey, Denver)
A lot could happen for the Thunder in the first 10 games. They could start slow against the slew of quality opponents and go 3-7. They could break even. Or they could go something like 8-2 and skyrocket to the top of every power rankings poll on the Internet. In those first 10 games, OKC takes on six playoff teams from last year, has six games on the road, which includes the first five of six away from The Peake.
We could really learn a lot about this team and where it stands early on. Of course the season is long and things change, but the last time we saw these guys, they came up just short in the Western Finals, which is pretty big time. Will they pick up where they left the season and use that elimination as motivation to fire out of the gates looking for blood? Or will they be looking for an identity, especially after all the Durant-Westbrook chatter? I have no idea how those first 10 will play out, but they are going to be fascinating.
Record through 10: 6-4
Nov. 20 – Dec. 9 (Utah, at San Antonio, LA Lakers, Memphis, at LA Clippers, at Golden State, at Denver, New Orleans, at Indiana, at Toronto, Sacramento)
Not at all a break as the Thunder’s next 11 features six away from home with games against nine teams that will be considered at least good. Toronto and Sacramento should be walkovers (though OKC went 0-2 against the Raptors last year), but basically every game is a chance to lose. That little West Coast trip featuring the Clippers, Warriors and then wrapping up on the second of a back-to-back against the Nuggets in Denver will be fairly brutal. I think the first 10 could have a serious effect how this stretch plays out. If the Thunder know what they’re doing, if they have their defensive chops working, they’ll be fine. But if they’re still searching and still trying to get things working, this could be a place where OKC falls back in the pack a bit.
Record through 21: 12-9
Dec. 10 – Dec. 31 (at Houston, Detroit, Orlando, San Antonio, Minnesota, at San Antonio, at Miami, at Minnesota, at Milwaukee, Dallas, Phoenix)
Finally, a break. Kind of. Things still aren’t light yet for OKC with games against Orlando, the Spurs (twice), at the Heat and Dallas. But the Thunder get a four-game homestand and doesn’t really have multiple consecutive nights with contending teams.
Though one challenge (among about a billion) about predicting a season is figuring out what teams are going to better than you thought, or worse. For instance, the Rockets. I feel like they’re going to be pretty tough this season, but I don’t know for sure. The Wolves seem like they should be a little better. The Magic could fall back a step. But you really don’t know, so you go off of what you know — name recognition, past history, etc. Which is why I think the Thunder will finally start moving well north of .500 in this stretch.
Record through 32: 21-11
Jan. 3 – 21 (Portland, Houston, San Antonio, at Memphis, at New Orleans, New York, at Boston, at Washington, at Philadelphia, at New Jersey)
January has historically been pretty kind to the Thunder. Things tend to start looking up for OKC at the turn of the year with the team typically building some solid momentum heading toward to the All-Star break. Bridging the end of December with the start of January, OKC gets five straight at home, which is the longest homestand of the season. Nothing all that easy though in this run of games. Washington, probably, but the Nets will Deron Williams will be tougher, at Boston, at Philly, at Memphis, at the Hornets — a bunch of toughies lined up here. Might be tough to build momentum if everyone you play is good.
Record through 42: 27-15
Jan. 23 – Feb. 10 (Atlanta, Milwaukee, at Detroit, at Cleveland, at Dallas, New Orleans, at Portland, at Golden State, at Sacramento, at Utah)
In these 10 games, the Thunder play seven on the road. But OKC proved the past couple seasons it can win on the road, so handling business in Cleveland, Detroit and Sacramento shouldn’t take an act of God. In the NBA, you’ve got yourself a good season if you go at least .500 on the road and win 75 percent of your games at home. That would give you a record of at least 50 wins. So the Thunder just need to stay the course here and protect home court and win a couple to come out clean on the road.
Record through 52: 34-18
Feb. 14 – March 9 (Minnesota, at Houston, Golden State, Denver, Boston, Charlotte, at Orlando, at Atlanta, Dallas, Memphis, Cleveland)
Of these 11, eight at home. A nice little turnaround from the last spell of roadies. Which means a very good opportunity to stack up some wins, especially because there are a bunch of average to bad teams in this bunch. The road games aren’t ridiculous (at the Rockets, Magic and Hawks) and just three contenderish teams (Boston, Dallas, Memphis). I’m not saying this is where the Thunder rips off a big win streak, but it’s certainly an opportunity for one.
Record through 63: 44-19
March 12 – 29 (at New Orleans, Philadelphia, Washington, Utah, at Utah, LA Clippers, Miami, at Portland, at LA Lakers)
Why does the NBA do those weird home-away back-to-back scenarios against the same team? I hate that. The Thunder didn’t have one the past two seasons but gets one against the Jazz this year. But that’s not the most interesting part about this run. OKC gets Blake Griffin, the Heat, the Blazers and Lakers to close out these nine games, which means it’s another challenge. It’s that time in the season where playoff seeding is starting to come into focus so things will get ramped up here, all around.
Record through 72: 49-23
April 1 – April 9 (Chicago, Golden State, Portland, LA Lakers, at Denver)
A deadly stretch of games at a crucial part in the season. It’s nice that four of these five are at home, but the Thunder could be looking at five playoff teams, or at least five teams all competing for either a playoff spot or a better seed. And the game against Denver — in Denver — could be important in terms of the Northwest Division. The Thunder finished last season extremely well, closing the season to clinch the division and the fourth seed. These five games could have a similar impact this year. Based on recent history, I think the Thunder will be entirely ready again.
Record through 77: 53-24
April 11 – 18 (LA Clippers, Sacramento, at Minnesota, at LA Clippers, at Phoenix)
I’m not saying it’s a light-hearted finish to the regular season, but compared to the start, it’s fairly tame. Again, the Clippers aren’t a pushover, the Kings and Wolves should be at least a little better and the Suns are never a team you walk through. A lot depends on where the Thunder stands here though. Maybe players are resting, maybe they’re pushing for No. 1 or 2. It’s easy to lose a little focus at the finish line, especially when the opposition isn’t someone primetime. And considering the stretch OKC is coming off of right before this run, there’s certainly an excuse for it.
I feel like the Thunder are entirely ready to win the top seed. This team was just a handful of games from doing it last season and they’re continuing to trend upwards. But still, the West isn’t totally set to turn over quite yet. There are lot of very good teams and the aging contenders aren’t completely down and out. So with the rise of the Grizzlies, the Clippers (potentially) and Portland still hanging in there, add that to the Lakers, Spurs and Mavs and you’ve got six good teams to compete with. And that’s not even counting the Nuggets who are very good, the Rockets who are coming back, the Hornets who remain a threat as long as No. 3 stays in town and Phoenix who is lingering.
The West is tough. Fifty-seven wins probably won’t win it, but it means the Thunder will be right where they need to be. And besides, it’s not about these first six months anymore for OKC. It’s about May and June now.
Record after 82 games: 57-25