The road to the Finals will be tougher than ever for any Western Conference contender this season. All top four seeds have the talent to make it to the NBA Finals and this will perhaps pan out to be the greatest Western Conference playoffs of all time. Although not as deep as the team that made it to the 2012 Finals (lost 4-1 to the Miami Heat), the current incarnation of the Thunder has an improved Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka as well a more mature Russell Westbrook which has somewhat made up for the loss of James Harden. With that being said the Thunder are still in desperate need of consistent scoring off the bench. They were able to lure Caron Butler to Oklahoma City after he was waived by the Milwaukee Bucks but he hasn’t made much of a contribution scoring wise, which is what the Thunder were anticipating when he was signed.
Overall, the formula for a Thunder title is simple: Get Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook going, and make sure the others keep up. The load can’t be placed squarely on the dynamic duo’s shoulders every night, or else we will see the same result as we did last season (Westbrook’s injury didn’t help much either). With the west as wide open as it is this year, players like Serge Ibaka (who is a stud in his own right), Reggie Jackson, Caron Butler, as well as Thabo Sefolosha will need to consistently be there every night because you can’t expect them to win a championship without playing like a team (ala Heat vs Mavs, 2011). One advantage OKC does have, is that no matter what team comes out of the east, if they manage to get out of the west, they will have the home court advantage, which is significant to them because no one wants to come play at Chesapeake Energy Arena. With the Finals being switched back to the 2-2-1-1-1 format, it’s a huge upgrade from 2012, where they split at home and lost the next three straight on the road.
If the Thunder fail to break through this season, expect huge ramifications. The “LeBron” mark will be placed on Kevin Durant, becoming known as one of those superstars without a title. Could the team clean house and start over (around Westbrook, Durant, and Ibaka)? Doesn’t seem too unlikely, considering some of their role players are well beyond their prime. This will undoubtedly be the toughest road to an NBA Finals appearance in the modern era, but if anyone can make it out of the west, my money is on the soon-to-be MVP and his crew. To answer the question, can the Oklahoma City Thunder win this year’s NBA title? Absolutely. Will they? That’s why it’s called the playoffs, we’re just going to have to wait and find out.