How far will the Thunder go?
5-on-5 Roundtable: Will Oklahoma City win the Western Conference?
The Thunder are among the favorites to win the Western Conference, but which teams are their biggest challenges? Our 5-on-5 crew takes a look.
1. Which Pacific Division team is the most serious threat to OKC?
J.A. Adande, ESPN.com: The Clippers. In the point guard matchup they can counter Russell Westbrook's athleticism with Chris Paul's savvy. And the addition of Kenyon Martin makes them more physical. Martin can guard a variety of players, none of whom are happy to see K-Mart switch onto them.
D.J. Foster, ClipperBlog: The Clippers. Thunder GM Sam Presti specifically designed his team with the Lakers' dynasty in mind. With size up front and loaded scoring at the Lakers' two weakest positions, the Thunder represent a nightmare matchup for the Purple and Gold. Slowing down Chris Paul and Blake Griffin is the much tougher task.
Zach Harper, Daily Dime Live: Lakers. Of course, this is assuming the Lakers don't do something crazy like trade Pau Gasol for someone who isn't an All-Star big man. The Lakers' greatest asset is still their size inside and the Thunder don't really have the personnel to hang with it for a full game. Yes, Ibaka and Perkins are great defenders, but they are subpar rebounders when compared to Bynum and Gasol. Could be huge in a seven-game series.
Jeremy Wagner, Roundball Mining Co.: I doubt I can answer with a team that doesn't play in the Staples Center, so I will take the Clippers. The Lakers have the size and pedigree to push the Thunder, but Chris Paul can match what OKC can do in the clutch, plus the Clippers can match the overall talent level of the Thunder.
Royce Young, Daily Thunder: The Clippers. Not only did they hand the Thunder their worst beating of the season, but the matchup is just tough for OKC. The Clips can score inside, have shooters based on the perimeter and an other-worldy playmaker in Chris Paul to carry them down the stretch. If there's one team OKC would prefer to avoid, it's Lob City.
2. Which Southwest Division team is the most serious threat to OKC?
J.A. Adande, ESPN.com: The Grizzlies*. The asterisk is for Zach Randolph's availability. If he recovers from his knee injury, the Thunder can't handle him inside. He scored 30-plus points three times in the playoff series with the Thunder last year and had 24 points and 12 rebounds in their first meeting this season.
D.J. Foster, ClipperBlog: To be the best, you've got to beat the best. The Dallas Mavericks are still the defending champions, and they still represent the biggest blockade to Oklahoma City's title parade. The formula of Dirk and defense is still working for the Mavericks, despite all the new pieces.
Zach Harper, Daily Dime Live: Mavericks. Dallas is still extremely good at stopping teams from scoring, and its offense is coming around with Dirk deciding it is time to start being Dirk again. The Mavs' ball movement and shooting are really hard to match up with and they can throw plenty of versatility at you on the perimeter. If they're hot from the outside, they can beat anybody.
Jeremy Wagner, Roundball Mining Co.: The Mavericks. The Spurs are an easy choice, but their recent playoff foibles make it difficult to bank on them anymore regardless of how many regular-season games they win. The Mavs' management may be looking toward the summer more than the playoffs, but the players have rebounded from a sluggish start to resemble the team that won it all last season.
Royce Young, Daily Thunder: Common sense says the Mavericks, seeing as that's the team that ended OKC's dream run last season. But it's the Spurs. The Thunder's biggest weakness defensively is allowing dribble penetration, which frees up shooters on the perimeter. San Antonio destroyed the Thunder on this a week ago. And in a seven-game series, the Spurs are capable of getting hot for four of them.
3. Which Northwest Division rival is the most serious threat to OKC?
J.A. Adande, ESPN.com: The Nuggets. You saw that game Sunday night, right? It showed that the Nuggets can match the Thunder step for step. The problem is, Denver doesn't have that singular go-to guy down the stretch, while OKC has two of 'em. D.J. Foster, ClipperBlog: The Nuggets tend to get dismissed as real contenders because they don't have a closer. They shouldn't. Once he gets healthy, Danilo Gallinari has the ability to shoot over defenders and get to the rim and draw fouls. Yes, some prior experience would be nice, but Gallinari has the goods.
Zach Harper, Daily Dime Live: Blazers. I know the Nuggets are regarded as the better team because of their depth and offensive prowess, but I have to go with finding a team that has the personnel to slow down Kevin Durant. Nic Batum and Gerald Wallace are two guys that can at least make KD work. Throw in a good No. 1 option to go against with LaMarcus Aldridge, and they seem like the best choice to me.
Jeremy Wagner, Roundball Mining Co.: I still think it is the Nuggets. Denver always plays the Thunder tough, plus it will most likely be adding an additional Durant defender in Wilson Chandler and should not look so lost offensively down the stretch with Danilo Gallinari set to return from an ankle injury after the All-Star break.
Royce Young, Daily Thunder: The toughest matchup in the Northwest is the Blazers. Go down the checklist. Durant stopper in Gerald Wallace? Check. Go-to scorer in LaMarcus Aldridge? Check. Rim protector to slow down Westbrook and Durant attacking the paint in Marcus Camby? Check. The Blazers could potentially be an eight-seed the Thunder want to avoid.
4. Who's the sleeper team to watch in the West?
J.A. Adande, ESPN.com: Can the defending champions be considered a sleeper team? A lot of people dismissed them after their roster changes and slow start, but now their defense is locked in and they have won 11 of their past 13 games against Western Conference teams.
D.J. Foster, ClipperBlog: The Spurs. It feels silly to call them sleepers, but once again they're among the league's elite with little fanfare. Gregg Popovich's strategy of resting his starters and getting his young bench guys plenty of minutes should pay serious dividends come playoff time. Brains could beat brawn in a season like this.
Zach Harper, Daily Dime Live: I'm still wary of the Lakers because of their size. Maybe I'm just harboring feelings of past competency that can no longer be duplicated, but as long as Kobe is capable of scoring well and the Bynum-Pau combo is intact, I will consider them the most capable sleepers.
Jeremy Wagner, Roundball Mining Co.: The Grizzlies. I am not sure if they qualify as a sleeper after reaching the doorstep of the conference finals last season, but they are playing every bit as good as any team outside of OKC or San Antonio. The Griz might have the most complete roster in the league with size, scorers and defenders.
Royce Young, Daily Thunder: The Grizzlies. Like last season after Rudy Gay was injured, the team has gutted its way to wins and stayed in the playoff picture. Once they get Zach Randolph back, they'll have a much more complete team that can match up with pretty much anyone. They had some serious preseason hype and, if they can get healthy, they might start realizing some of that potential.
5. From the West, would you pick OKC or the field to make the Finals?
J.A. Adande, ESPN.com: OKC. The Thunder were my pick coming into the season, and I've seen no reason to change. Prevailing in games like that classic against Denver only strengthens their case.
D.J. Foster, ClipperBlog: Give me the field. Is it that unfathomable to imagine Chris Paul or Dirk Nowitzki dominating fourth quarters while Scott Brooks fails to draw up anything good for Kevin Durant? The Thunder are a great team, but they're not perfect.
Zach Harper, Daily Dime Live: Right now, it's hard to find a team with more firepower than the Thunder. Durant, Westbrook and Harden are a lot of scoring to deal with defensively. Adding Durant's game in the mid-post area seems to balance out OKC's lack of a low post presence quite decently.
Jeremy Wagner, Roundball Mining Co.: The field. I have flip-flopped on this answer a few times. I hate picking against Kevin Durant, but there are just too many good teams in the West to expect any one team to make it to the NBA Finals.
Royce Young, Daily Thunder: OKC. There are certainly challengers, but the Thunder have established themselves as the class of the West. And with two superstar scorers to rely upon and an emerging third banana in James Harden, OKC is set up to take on almost anyone.