Sunday, March 13, 2011

OKC Thunder: Is 2010-2011 the Year of the Perfect Storm?

Well, here we are, Oklahoma City, mid-March 2011, as we approach the end of the 3rd season of the Oklahoma City Thunder. And what a year it's been.

When I made the March 8 projections shown below the Thunder were 39-23 and had 20 regular season games left to play. Three games later, we are 42-23. After the Thunder's 1st season in Oklahoma City, 2008-2009, which ended with a record of 23-59, projections were that it would take at least two more seasons before the Thunder would be a playoff team. Instead, at the end of the 2009-2010 season the Thunder's record was (to everyone's amazement) 50-32 and we gave the Lakers a heck of a run in round one of the Western Conference playoffs. On March 13 as this article is posted, at 42-23 we are the 4th seed in the Western Conference of the NBA, behind San Antonio (54-12), Dallas (47-19), and the Los Angeles Lakers (47-20).
We are, perhaps, witnessing precisely the above imagery presented in ESPN Magazine's November 2010 graphic portrayal of the Thunder as, "The Perfect Storm" (above). Consider the remaining schedule, home and away, and see if there may be truth in such a bodacious description.
I posted my March 8 projections for the remainder of regular season at ... since that posting, 3 of those final regular season games have already been played, as noted by the red check-marks in the right column (which will update through the remainder of the regular season) ... and note that last night, March 16, the Thunder defeated the Heat in a game I picked us to lose so, as of the moment, the Thunder have won 5 in a row and have 44 wins a game sooner than I expected.

As you can see, I am a bit of a homer, as I see only one clear loss in the games after March 8 (Miami on March 16). I even pick us to win the Lakers game IN Los Angeles on April 10 since I figure that the Thunder will be on such a roll that the unthinkable will become fact. But, to temper my projections, I've thrown in a 3-game discount factor to project a regular season record of at least 55-27. Is this a silly homer's dream, or is, in fact, 2010-2011 the year of The Perfect Storm?

Some Background. The Thunder has become a, if not THE, recognized model in NBA circles about how to rebuild a team that needs to be. We've been on magazine covers. We've received kudos from just about every press source in the country. We've become one of the powerhouse teams in the Western Conference of the NBA. How can this be? How is it that, in only its 3rd year in the NBA, the Thunder is regarded as a model for how to do things right?

Consider just three recent examples:

Philadelphia Inquirer, March 11, 2011
Collins wants his Sixers to be like Thunder
By Marc Narducci

      When Doug Collins [head coach of the Philadelphia 76ers] looks at his 76ers team, he sees the Oklahoma City Thunder. At least he hopes that is what his squad will become.
      The 76ers had just lost a hard-fought, 110-105 overtime decision to the Thunder on Wednesday before 19,283 charged-up fans at the Wells Fargo Center, and Collins gave the victors their due by stating his goal to emulate them.
      "I want to use that as a blueprint for us," Collins said. "I want us to be built like Oklahoma City was built."
Akron Beacon Journal, March 12, 2011
Cavaliers look to Thunder for inspiration
By Jason Lloyd

      The blueprint for how the Cavaliers want to construct this rebuilding project will walk into Quicken Loans Arena this afternoon. Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder are the franchise the Cavaliers are modeling as they put the wheels back on basketball in Cleveland.
* * *
      In all, it has taken four seasons to put it together. But after the trade for Perkins, Sports Illustrated identified the Thunder as one of five teams on the rise in the NBA.
Washington Post, March 13, 2011
Wizards hope to copy ‘Oklahoma City model’ in Washington
By Michael Lee

      In Oklahoma City, the Washington Wizards see a team they would like to be; one that recognized the need to start over from scratch and reached relevance after an initially gruesome beginning. The Thunder (42-23) has yet to win a championship or a playoff series for that matter, but it already has created a team-building strategy that is referred to around the league as “the Oklahoma City model.”
      It took advantage of lottery luck, established and cultivated a core of young talent, made shrewd trades to accumulate draft picks and/or prospects, created financial flexibility and used discretion in free agency. Wizards owner Ted Leonsis often references how the Thunder assembled quality talent around Durant as an example of what he would like to duplicate in Washington around No. 1 overall pick John Wall.

The Remaining Regular Season Schedule. By "remaining," I mean games after March 8 for the 1st 3 games, when the predictions were posted. For the rest, I'm using games after this article is posted on March 13.
  • @ Philadelphia 76ers: 33-30 (we already won this game)
  • Detroit: 23-42 (we already won this game)
  • @ Cleveland: 12-53 (we already won this game)
  • @ Washington: 16-48; we've done very well against Eastern Conference foes on the road and at home; 1-0 vs. Wizards
  • @ Miami: 43-24; this is the one I see as a probable road loss; 0-1 vs. Heat
  • Charlotte: 28-38; a good team but a home game for us; 1-0 vs. Bobcats
  • Toronto: 18-43; home game for Thunder; 0-1 vs. Raptors
  • Utah: 34-33; a solid team but we've got their number; home game; 2-1 vs. Jazz
  • Minnesota:17-51; home game for Thunder; 3-0 vs. TWolves
  • Portland: 37-29; very good team but home game for Thunder; 2-0 against Blazers
  • Phoenix: 33-31; a good team but this is our home game; 2-1 vs. Sun
  • @ Portland: 37-29; this may be one of my misses, a home game for Portland; 2-0 vs. Blazers
  • @ Clippers: 26-41; Blake Griffin or not, this is our game; 1-1 vs. Clippers
  • @ Denver: 39-27; Carmello Anthony is gone and so is Denver's advantage; 1-1 vs. Nuggets
  • Clippers: 26-41: Double-dittos, above
  • Denver: 39-27: Double-ditto the above, at home; 1-1 vs. Nuggets
  • @ Lakers: 47-20; even though a Lakers' home game, I'm figuring the Thunder-roll is pretty much unstoppable and a win for the Thunder; 0-2 vs. Lakers
  • @ Sacramento: 15-49; another road win for the Thunder; 3-0 vs. Kings
  • Milwaukee: 26-39; last game of regular season, at home; 1-0- vs. Bucks
There you have it ... A Perfect Storm! The final 20 games of the regular season can easily be seen as being between 19-16 wins, which would be a huge roll into the playoffs.

Playoffs. If seeding remains "as is" in the Western Conference, Oklahoma City at 4th seed, the Thunder's opponent in the 1st round of the playoffs would be the 5th seed (and the same would be true, juxtaposed, if Oklahoma City slips to 5th seed). Oklahoma City has much more of a lock on the 4th seed than does any other team on the 5th. As this is written on March 13, the relevant Western Conference data is shown below:

Team & SeedRecordGames Back
(1) San Antonio Spurs54-12--
(2) Dallas Mavericks47-197.0
(3) Los Angeles Lakers47-207.5
(4) Oklahoma City Thunder42-2311.5
(5) Denver Nuggets39-2715.0
(6) New Orleans Hornets39-2916.0
(7) Portland Trail Blazers37-2917.0
(8) Memphis Grizzlies36-3118.5

Home Court Advantage. Again, assuming that Oklahoma City retains its 4th seed and the above teams presently ranked 5th through 8th seeds continue to be seeded,
  • If Denver is the 5th seed: Home court advantage undetermined; the teams are 1-1 against each other and 2 games remain to be played
  • If New Orleans is the 5th seed: Oklahoma City will have home court advantage, they being 3-1 vs. New Orleans
  • If Portland is the 5th seed: Home court advantage undetermined; the Thunder is 2-0, but 2 games are yet to be played
  • If Memphis is the 5th seed: Memphis will have home court advantage, Memphis having won 2 of 3 games vs. the Thunder
But, however you cut it, barring a total meltdown by the Thunder which will almost certainly not happen, the Thunder has an excellent chance of advancing to the 2nd playoff round this season to play ... to be determined.

Wishing and hoping beyond that level I am not willing to do. Bad Karma.

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