Can the Thunder win the NBA title?
1. Fact or Fiction: The Thunder are the favorites in the West.
J.A. Adande, ESPN.com: Fact. And it's not because of the Kevin Durant show. The Thunder have the second-best scoring defense in the Western Conference. If you believe defense is the key to playoff success, the Thunder have that end covered.
Andrew Lynch, Daily Dime Live: Fact. The Western Conference playoffs are going to be a fantastic ride, and matchups will largely define which teams advance. But the Thunder have to be the favorites to win the West. As of Monday night, they're fifth in offensive efficiency, fourth in defense and nearly 1.5 points better in net rating than the next closest team in the conference.
Ethan Sherwood Strauss, TrueHoop: Fact, and they're inching toward the status of "favorites against the field." They have the best player and possibly the best defense in the conference. They also boast the fifth-ranked offense leaguewide. What more do you want? Other than a healthy Russell Westbrook, of course.
Michael Wallace, ESPN.com: Fiction. I'm still leaning toward a presumably healthy San Antonio team, the defending conference champions, being slightly ahead of a presumably healthy OKC squad. Just by a hair. The issue with all of this is it's been quite a long time since we've seen either one of those teams relatively healthy and at full strength. But all things considered, the Spurs' balance, depth and experience qualify them as the favorites out West.
Royce Young, Daily Thunder: Fact. They are 41-12, have the largest average margin of victory in the conference by more than a point and have a 3½-game lead over their closest competitor. And they're about to make the best trade deadline move of any team by adding a top-10 NBA player back into the mix when Westbrook returns. They aren't unbeatable, but at this point, whom else would you pick?
2. Fact or Fiction: The Thunder are the favorites to win the NBA title.
Adande: Fact. If they play the Pacers in the NBA Finals, the Thunder will have the experience edge, having been there two years ago. People forget the Thunder's first three losses in those 2012 Finals came by a total of 16 points. This version of Durant can make up that difference.
Lynch: Fact, in the plurality sense, at least. Only the Pacers have matched Oklahoma City's peak this season, and a middling offense places Indiana just below the Thunder in my book. No team should be favored over the field to win the title, but Oklahoma City is the team with the best chance of winning the championship.
Strauss: Fact, at least from where I'm sitting (a couch, lest you think I claim too much authority). The reason I like OKC as favorites is because I believe it would beat Indiana in a series and might have the advantage on Miami. The Pacers have a fantastic defense, but OKC pushes the ball in transition enough to negate a lot of Roy Hibbert's impact. As for the Heat, OKC could get past them with this novel "benching Perkins" strategy.
Wallace: Fiction. If my answer to the first question is fiction, there's no way to reverse field here. Getting out of the West would be a tremendous hurdle for the Thunder, but after that, they could run into a Miami Heat team that beat them in the 2012 Finals. Durant, Westbrook and a much-improved Serge Ibaka are capable of leading OKC on that sort of remarkable run. Does that make the Thunder a strong title contender? Absolutely. But the clear favorite? Not quite.
Young: Faction. Allow me to hedge. By all appearances, the Thunder are the deepest and most talented team in the league. With Durant taking his game to an even higher level than before, it appears this team is ready. But the Heat are back-to-back champs, and it's hard to not give them the benefit of the doubt because of it.
3. Fact or Fiction: Kevin Durant will win the MVP award this season.
Adande: Fact. Once the MVP talk really ignited in January, Durant ran in and tossed a gallon of gasoline on the fire. In his past 12 games he's averaging 33 points, seven assists and seven rebounds while shooting 57 percent.
Lynch: Fact. I generally prefer to let the season play out before distributing awards, but short of LeBron James averaging a triple-double for the month of March, Durant has this one locked up -- and on the strength of his own performance too, without the assistance of narrative and voter fatigue.
Strauss: Fact. Unless the Heat go on another 27-game win streak, this is KD's award. He has a significant lead in PER and a big narrative advantage with this "held the fort after Westbrook got hurt" storyline.
Wallace: Fact. There's still two months left in the season to finish up the job, but Durant has put himself in the driver's seat to unseat LeBron James, who has won four of the past five MVP awards. How has Durant accomplished this? By playing the same sort of way LeBron plays. Durant's prolific scoring has drawn plenty of interest, but his playmaking as a facilitator has been the most impressive aspect of his game amid the injury absence of Westbrook.
Young: Fact. There's just barely enough NBA season left for LeBron James to reverse the buzz Durant built with his insane January. Durant has the two most important things going to win the award: outrageous numbers and quality narrative. With a guaranteed split already in the bag for Durant against the Heat, one that came without Westbrook, outside of a 30-game Miami win streak (which is possible, I suppose), Durant has pretty much locked up his first MVP.
4. Fact or Fiction: The Thunder are better without Russell Westbrook.
Adande: Fiction. Durant is obviously better having the ball than playing off it, but go back to Cleveland LeBron and ask him how one-superstar teams usually fare in the playoffs. Westbrook can alleviate defensive pressure on Durant and set an aggressive tone for the rest of the team.
Lynch: Fiction. I can entertain the argument that Durant is better -- or at least, more productive in the aggregate -- without Westbrook on the court. But as a team, the Thunder are undoubtedly a superior team with Westbrook. In the postseason, when defenses key in on Durant, Westbrook's contributions become even more vital for Oklahoma City's championship aspirations.
Strauss: Fiction, but it's not crazy to ask questions about Westbrook's effectiveness. They are better with him, but he clearly shoots too much and could stand to relinquish control of the offense. That OKC could keep rolling during his absence speaks to how much its bench has improved and how many possessions Westbrook squanders with ill-advised shots. He has the talent to be the league's best guard, but he's not really optimizing that talent yet.
Wallace: Fiction. Let's stop the nonsense right now. OKC is 21-4 with Westbrook this season and 20-8 without him. With Westbrook, the Thunder are an NBA Finals contender. Without him, they're a second-round playoff team. Westbrook is one of the 10 most dominant players in the league. We can debate another time if OKC would be better off trading Westbrook for equal value and better fits for Durant. But I expect Durant to be an even better facilitator when Westbrook returns, determined to make the transition as seamless as possible.
Young: Fiction. There really should be no explanation necessary, but here goes: The Thunder are 21-4 this season with Westbrook, and while they've appeared to learn how to play and win without him, that's mostly been because Durant is that good. The Thunder have discovered themselves operating around Durant as a lone alpha, but things change in the postseason. Just ask LeBron.
5. What is OKC's biggest concern going forward?
Projecting A Thunder Title
Kevin Pelton takes a look at his projections, and the Thunder -- not Miami or Indiana -- have the look of a title winner. Per Diem
Adande: How will Jeremy Lamb, who has become an important part of the second unit, perform in his first playoffs? Will Serge Ibaka bounce back from his poor-shooting playoffs last season? The good news for OKC is these are secondary concerns, not fundamental flaws.
Lynch: The level of competition throughout the league, as it's the one thing Oklahoma City can't control. The Thunder have a championship core and playoff experience that will serve them well. But the elite teams are so good, and there are so many of them, that title-level talent isn't enough to win a ring. Things have to break your way too.
Strauss: Westbrook's injury and integration into the offense are both minor concerns. If he's not quite himself, Scott Brooks will have difficult minutes choices to make. The good news is this latest injury appears to be minor.
Wallace: Does Brooks have the creativity and craftiness to effectively manage Westbrook's return without disrupting Durant's groove? Another key question is whether Brooks will have the courage and fortitude to handle Kendrick Perkins the way he did during that impressive victory in Miami earlier this month, when it was obvious the limited center was a detriment against smaller, quicker opponents? If OKC is healthy, Brooks has all the pieces he needs.
Young: The health of Westbrook. He is coming off a third knee procedure in eight months, and while the last two have been minor, any time a player with his kind of explosiveness and athleticism is being operated on, it's cause for concern. Before the second scope, Westbrook was playing at maybe the highest level of his career, and the team is adamant his meniscus is healed and strong. But if he's not himself or has to miss a few games because of swelling in the postseason, the Thunder could be in trouble.