Already, OKC has made many of the experts’ 2019-20 predictions look silly. It could lose its final 23 games and still prove ESPN wrong, which projected the Thunder to go 33-49 and finish 13th in the West.
CBSSports.com’s Brad Botkin at least considered OKC a playoff team, suggesting 46 victories. The New York Times’ Benjamin Hoffman made this his NBA “wild prediction” for 2019-20: “After trading away both Russell Westbrook and Paul George, will finish within five wins of last year’s total of 49. And it may not be five less.”
On NBA.com, it was more bright than dark: “As currently constituted, there’s enough talent and experience to snag a low playoff berth in the West.”
What the Thunder have accomplished so far, though — 14-3 in the past 17 games, 16 victories in the past 19 road games, 10th in offensive rating (111.4) and 11th defensively (108.3) — has come from more than talent and experience.
“I didn’t really know what to expect coming in — and I don’t say that in terms of how good I thought we could be,” coach Billy Donovan said in Chicago this week. “I thought we could be a very, very good team. But the thing you don’t know is, how are nine new players all going to jell and mesh in a short period of time? And learn and understand how to play with one another, and try to bring out each other’s strengths?
“To those guys’ credit, we’ve played two of the three [point] guards together, we’ve played three of the three guards together, we’ve done a lot of different things. But they’ve done a great job of building a chemistry, a bond, in a short period of time.”
Chris Paul made the All-Star Game for the first time since 2016 and has resuscitated his reputation by knitting together a crew of familiar faces, newcomers and placeholders. He has mentored Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (19.4 ppg), helped Danilo Gallinari (41.0 3FG%) and Steven Adams (11.2 ppg, 9.5 rpg) reach peak performance and boosted rookies Darius Bazley and Luguentz Dort as productive starters.
“Our intensity and character are two things that are getting better and better,” Gallinari said after OKC rallied to beat Sacramento on Thursday.
The Thunder bench may lack many household names, but Kia Sixth Man candidate Dennis Schröder (19.0 ppg, 4.1 apg) and big man Nerlens Noel have helped it outscore other reserves in 42 out of 59 games.
Donovan has had much to do with it, too. Freed in his fifth NBA season from serving George’s and especially Westbrook’s ball-dominant styles, he was named the West’s Coach of the Month after OKC’s 11-4 December. They have gone 19-7 since, likely earning Donovan Coach of the Year votes, too.
His use of Paul, Gilgeous-Alexander and Schröder together has helped earn OKC the NBA’s best net rating (9.8) in fourth quarters; Milwaukee ranks a distant second at 7.0. The plucky Thunder have had comeback victories this season vs. Chicago (26 points), Memphis (24), the Clippers (18) and Sacramento (19).
“It’s like we flipped a switch,” Paul said.
It’s like the Thunder have pulled a switcheroo, meanwhile, from everything we thought they’d be — and not be. No one knew if Paul would engage fully after what looked like a banishment from Houston (where the Rockets were 89-27 the past two seasons when he played) or maybe get dealt to shake free of his enormous contract. No one knew if Adams, Gallinari and Schröder might follow him out the door by the trade deadline earlier this month.
For certain, few Bucks fans knew their team would be facing such a formidable opponent when they bought their tickets for Feb. 28.
“I was very optimistic going into the year,” Donovan said. “Chris Paul has obviously been an elite player for a long, long time. So has Gallinari. I coached Steven and Dennis. I heard nothing but great things about Shai coming in. I had been around Nerlens, so I knew him. So I was optimistic. It wasn’t like going into the year I thought we couldn’t compete.
“We need to keep getting better. April 15 [when the regular season ends] will be here soon enough.”
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