Thunder: OKC quietly in the thick of the Western Conference playoff race
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Thunder, Chris Paul

The Oklahoma City Thunder are quietly in the thick of the Western Conference playoff race

When a team trades away its two franchise players, like the Oklahoma City Thunder did last offseason, they tend to get little pub the ensuing season; that has happened. In the same situation, that team tends to fall off the map a bit from a record standpoint. The Thunder have not done that. Rather they find themselves in the thick of the Western Conference playoff mix.

This is amazing.

The Thunder traded away two of the best players in the NBA, Russell Westbrook and Paul George. They were viewed as turning the page and entering a rebuild, and why wouldn’t you think that? Westbrook was Thunder royalty, and trading George a year after re-signing him to a four-year, $137 million deal would signify that the Thunder are embarking on a fire sale.

All offseason — and really the first half of the regular season — we kept waiting for them to trade Chris Paul, who was acquired as part of the team’s return on Westbrook from the Houston Rockets, Danilo Gallinari, who was acquired as part of the team’s return on George from the Los Angeles Clippers, and Steven Adams. They held on to all of them.

Even in doing so, few viewed head coach Billy Donovan’s roster as a contender, and some even felt they’d miss the playoffs. Well, they’re 33-22 and own the sixth seed in the West at the All-Star break.

They’re finding success with a bit of an unconventional approach: three point guards leading the scoring charge.

Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and Dennis Schroder have been splendid.

Chris Paul has been Chris Paul: a fiery floor general who’s a deadly midrange shooter and a stout defender. He has taken the role of mentor with the Thunder and is boasting a stat line in line with what you’d expect; Paul is averaging 17.4 points, 6.7 assists, five rebounds, and 1.6 steals per game.

Gilgeous-Alexander, who was also acquired from the Clippers for George, is a rising star. He’s a steady ball handler, shoots well off the dribble, hits the boards at a high rate for a guard, and is taking more command with the ball in his hands. This season he’s averaging 19.5 points, 6.1 rebounds, and 1.2 steals per game.

Schroder is one of the league’s quietest scoring assassins. Coming off the bench, he provides the Thunder with instant offense by means of shooting and scoring off the dribble. He’s also adept at finding the open man. Albeit Schroder doesn’t start, the point guard is still averaging 19.3 points in 31.2 minutes per contest.

It’s rare to see three guards and/or ball dominant players putting forth that production on a playoff team.

Meanwhile, Gallinari and Adams are having impressive seasons, too.

Gallinari has been the best version of himself this season. He’s scoring in a bevy of ways, providing the Thunder with a frontline scorer. The veteran forward is averaging 19.3 points per game while shooting 40.7 percent from beyond the arc. Like the bulk of the aforementioned players, Adams has been his typical self: a rim protector who finishes inside with ease.

And now he’s draining three pointers! Okay, not really, but this three pointer he hit in Oklahoma City’s Thursday night matchup with the New Orleans Pelicans was cool.

Last season the Thunder were 37-20 at the All-Star break. The season prior they were 33-26. These records are in the same ballpark as the one they sport this season, but there’s widely different expectations this time around. Heck, there are none.

How many people would’ve believed that the Thunder would be eight and a half games into the playoffs in February back in training camp? Who thought that Paul would still be with them past the NBA trade deadline? Did it seem feasible that they’d have three point guards scoring at a high rate and not getting in each others’ way?

If the Thunder were out of the playoff picture and sellers before the NBA trade deadline, some would’ve applauded them with the mindset that this was an inevitable outcome to begin with. There’s no pressure on them. It’s the opposite vibe that has surrounded the Thunder the last decade.

In years past the recurring question has been whether they would escape the first round of the playoffs or if Westbrook would play differently. What’s the nagging question this year?

They’re not relying on one player; their offense is multiple players doing their job both in the starting five and off the bench. The mere fact that a team perceived as being in a transition year or poised to take a back seat for a year is in the middle of the Western Conference playoff picture should pencil Donovan in as a finalist for the NBA Coach of the Year Award.

Every season has produced a new criticism of Donovan. People call for his head on a stick on a yearly basis whether it be because of stars of years past not being on the same page or Oklahoma City’s postseason shortcomings. This season he has a team of individuals who were widely disregarded. If you’re going to rip Donovan when his team comes up short, you have to give him some credit when his team defies expectations.

While the NBA world debates which Los Angeles team would beat the other in a seven-game playoff series, observes how Westbrook and James Harden fare down the stretch in Houston, and waits for the Dallas Mavericks to get healthy, among other storylines, the Thunder are playing great basketball.

Why can’t they make noise in the playoffs? This is a group of veterans with a great deal of playoff experience. They’ve gelled all season and have won 25 of their last 35 games.

The Oklahoma City Thunder aren’t going anywhere. At some point, you can’t keep getting overlooked.