The NBA can be a cruel, cruel league at times. One moment a team is on top of the basketball world and ready to contend for a title year after year, and then the next they are struggling just to make the playoffs. The Dallas Mavericks won an NBA title two seasons ago, and were supposed to be a contender during the final few years of Dirk Nowitzki’s legendary career, but, one free-agent gamble later, and they are not even a playoff team.
The Chicago Bulls are in a similar situation with Derrick Rose. The team was supposed to challenge the Miami Heat for NBA supremacy in the East, but one ACL tear and the team is struggling to even be a fifth-seed in the playoffs.
Sometimes a team’s entire future can be thrown upside-down by one tiny mishap. The Oklahoma City Thunder were supposed to be this season’s NBA team whose fortunes were turned by one bad off-season move. Getting rid of reigning sixth-man of the year James Harden was supposed to derail the team. Oklahoma City’s championship aspirations were supposed to be thrown down the drain. But, up until this point in the season, the Thunder have looked every bit as good as last year’s team, and are on course for a 60-win season.
Maybe Oklahoma City’s off-season move wasn’t much of gamble after all. Let’s take a look at the OKC Thunder’s chances, round-by-round, at making the NBA Finals in this edition of NBA Oddsmakers.
First-round: Chances to advance: 90 to 95%
The Oklahoma City Thunder have around a 91% chance of advancing out of the first-round just based on the math alone. There have been 56 first-round eight-seed versus one-seed matchups since the NBA playoffs expanded to 16 teams in back in 1984, and since then, only five teams have managed to pull off an upset.
The Thunder are not currently the one-seed in the West, but with Tony Parker out and the team only trailing the Spurs by one game, it is very likely that they end up the top seed entering the playoffs. The Thunder would also most likely be playing the Lakers—a team that they have dominated for the past two seasons.
Second-round: Chances to advance: 65 to 70%
The Thunder simply have a grueling road out of the West. Once the team makes it out of the first-round, their reward would be a matchup against the Los Angeles Clippers or Memphis Grizzlies—two teams that present interesting style matchups. The Grizzlies are big, pound the ball down low (OKC’s weakness), and are battle tested—the team has played a couple of game seven’s over their last two playoff runs.
The Clippers, on the other hand, can go blow-for-blow with the young and energetic Thunder. Los Angeles is ten players deep and can match OKC’s up-tempo style game, and have their own crunch-time star in Chris Paul, who can match just about anything Kevin Durant can do.
Western Conference Finals: Chances to advance: 60 to 65%
If the Thunder can make it to the Western Conference Finals they will probably be facing a San Antonio Spurs team that had just as grueling of a playoff path as they did. Oklahoma was able to dismantle the Spurs last year, after making a few key adjustments in games three to six.
If both teams meet with a Finals appearance on the line, the Thunder should be a favorite—especially with home-court advantage—and should be able to hold of the aging Spurs yet again.
NBA Finals: Chances to win: 40 to 50%
The NBA Finals is the round where Oklahoma City will really miss James Harden. The Heat have been a complete juggernaut over the last half of the season, and that momentum should carry over into the playoffs and Finals. The truth here is that the Miami Heat are a significantly better team than the Thunder, and LeBron James is a significantly better player than Kevin Durant.
At their best, the Thunder are a coin-toss to beat the Heat in a seven-game series, and at their worst, are a solid underdog. Oklahoma City will remain a contender, but without James Harden, their chances at beating Miami are significantly reduced.
By George Monroy