It wasn't long ago that the Thunder had cast themselves away from major contention status. They traded a Team USA member for the one-year services of the rarely talked-about Kevin Martin, a sure-death knell in the ever-competitive Western Conference. The move seemed especially doom-sealing with the building Laker storm on the horizon.
It's a hazy memory right now, but the Lakers were thought to be near-indomitable. That was three coaches ago and eight Laker losses ago. Today, with Oklahoma City rolling, you could make the argument that they've retained the prohibitive Western Conference favorite status.
The Thunder currently lead the NBA with a 9.0-plus point differential. Kevin Martin has been incredible in his off-the-bench scoring role, notching a scalding .575 effective field-goal percentage (a mark that incorporates three-point shooting) and a .655 true-shooting percentage (a mark that incorporates three-point shooting and free throws).
Few have taken notice, but Kevin Durant is setting the world ablaze in an even bigger fashion. The ascendant small forward is grazing the 40-50-90 holy grail while also claiming nine boards and four assists per game. Harden's exit has spurred Durant towards greater responsibility and perhaps some growth.
Russell Westbrook has also taken well to the added responsibility, averaging over eight assists per game while keeping up his prolific scoring. He'll never be able to do enough to quiet his critics, but Westbrook is making strides as a playmaker.
The Thunder needed their young core to grow if they were to compensate for James Harden's departure. That appears to be happening, and if the trend continues, OKC just found its way to favorite status.
While I would list the Thunder as the prohibitive West favorite in a crowded field, I would hesitate to favor them in a matchup against the Miami Heat. While OKC possesses just as much talent as Miami, coach Scott Brooks refuses to deploy his talent fully.
Kendrick Perkins, to put it lightly, is a major drag on Oklahoma City's offensive production. He's also gotten sluggish to the point of not being all that helpful on the defensive end. As a starting center, Kendrick Perkins is averaging roughly four points and four rebounds a game. He's especially ill-suited for a matchup against Miami, seeing as Chris Bosh did this to poor Perkins.
So, if Scott Brooks rolls into another series against Miami with Perkins at the five, expect Heat victory. It's possible, though, that Brooks has learned a thing or two since his team was ousted.
Kevin Durant is playing increasingly at the power forward position (via NBA.com), a move that should serve his team well when it moves away from Perkins lineups. Hasheem Thabeet has also been good of late, which is either a fluke or another solution to the Perkins problem.
The Thunder are better-positioned to beat the Miami Heat this time around. The question is whether or not their coach is.