Opinions are something everyone has and is entitled to. But data can reverse course on opinions because it’s backed up with facts.
However, data should be an entree to the meal, and not used as a factor to judge the meal itself if its good or not.
We can apply this analogy to the Oklahoma City Thunder in their march toward the Western Conference Playoffs. Currently, the Thunder sit at the fourth seed in the West with a 41-26 record. This season has been a success compared to their underwhelming first-round exit last season.
But if you look closely at the data, it points out that the Thunder didn’t fare well against top competition early in the season. The second half of their season has been against lesser opponents, and they are surging against them.
In this case, data is a big component of whether or not they are legit but shouldn’t serve as the final say.
The strength of schedule argument in sports have become a controversial hot take. To some, it measures whether a team has faced stiff competition and have been battled tested. To others, it’s simply a metric in the data landscape: nothing more or less.
But while its use is beneficial, it shouldn’t be the reason to write a team off. Ask the 2014 Ohio State football team and the 2016/2018 Clemson team to compare schedules with 2014/16/18 Alabama and the athletes Alabama faced. Neither could compare to Alabama’s schedule or competition. Both teams ended up upsetting Alabama en route to a CFP national championship.
While stats are helpful, the main focus should be on evaluating a team based on the eye test. If that’s any indication, it appears the Thunder are passing their class. First, the Thunder have found the right balance offensively between their two stars Paul George and Russell Westbrook. Second, their defense has the fourth-best defensive team rating in the NBA (104.1.) Lastly, George has shown his value on both ends of the court by leading the NBA in real plus/minus. Add in that Westbrook is still doing his triple-double dirty work, the Thunder have found a successful formula to win.
Implementing a proven way of winning should outlast any competition. It’s why the Warriors, Spurs, and Patriots continue to find success. The three teams have a systematic approach to games and a belief that their philosophy works.
The Thunder at the beginning of the year is not the same Thunder team currently. Like any team that went through transactions, they had to figure out how to work together. Westbrook had to focus on what he was great at, while George assumed primary scoring duties while wreaking havoc on defense.
But the only true indication of whether or not the Thunder are worth the hype will be in the postseason. With 15 games left to play, they have ample time to move up in the seedings. They have tied with Houston for the third seed and 2.5 games behind Denver for the second seed. Obviously, the higher the seed, the questions about their legitimacy they will have to answer.
Nevertheless, the Thunder are succeeding in a tough Western Conference after making the necessary adjustments. That alone should give them the confidence to believe they can compete with anyone, regardless of what the data says. How confident? Let’s not forget what Westbrook said about the Warriors a month ago.
“Me personally, it’s not my style. I like to compete. I like to go against the best. That’s why I’ve always stayed in Oklahoma City,” Russ said before answering the question of if his team needs another player to compete with super teams like the Golden State Warriors. “No, we’ll kick they a** with the team we have right now, how about that?”