Although I have yet to hear much about this recent development, it seems as though Oklahoma City and Los Angeles are headed for a collision course in the playoffs based on their regular season performance about a quarter through the season.
The Los Angeles team pertinent to this conversation at this moment in time would be the Clippers (21-6) and not the Lakers (13-14), although there is an incredibly small chance that the Thunder (21-5) could potentially face off against the purple and gold in the first round of the postseason.
Nonetheless, OKC and Lob City currently occupy the top spots in the Western Conference standings thanks to their collective efforts as basketball clubs.
The Oklahoma City Thunder are riding high thanks to their league leading offense that seems to be setting the world on fire every single night. They sport the top offensive efficiency in the league (110.4), convert 48.1 percent of their field goals (second best in the NBA) and hit 40.2 percent of their 3-point field goals (second in the league). And just for good measure, they average 27.3 free throws per game and lead the association in conversion rate from the stripe.
It goes without saying that Scott Brooks’ group is playing terrific basketball this season on offense thanks in large part to the improvement and emergence of Serge Ibaka, coupled with the long-range shooting of Kevin Martin.
Ibaka has evolved into a much more confident shooter this season, as well as a player capable of assuming the role of having a few plays here and there run for him. The increase in offensive responsibilities has meant that Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant have reduced their amount of overall touches — both have seen a decrease in their usage rate this season in comparison to last year — and has made the team a little less dependent on its stars.
But don’t get things twisted for a moment: every Thunder conversation starts and ends with Kevin Durant.
The former Longhorn is quite possibly one of the most ridiculous players the league has ever seen.
At present time this season, KD is part of the 50-40-90 club, given that he is converting 52.1 percent of his field goals, 42.7 percent of his 3-point field goals and 90.4 percent of his free throws. The feat has only been accomplished 11 times throughout an entire season in NBA history, and KD is on pace to be the 12th such occurrence. His name would stand alongside those of Steve Nash (did it four times), Larry Bird (did it twice), Dirk Nowitzki, Reggie Miller, Mark Price, Steve Kerr and Jose Calderon (quick side note: It’s surprising that Ray Allen’s never done it).
What’s most impressive about Durant though, is that much like Nowitzki and Bird, he is much more than a shooter.
He is a gifted shooter but also the best scorer in the game as well as an emerging playmaker.
Thus his presence as both has morphed the Thunder into a seemingly more polished championship contender this season that will be a force to be reckoned with. Indeed, NBA.com’s advanced stats tool tells us that with KD on the floor, Oklahoma City produces 105.6 points per 48 minutes on 48.4 percent field goal shooting as opposed to 98 points per 48 minutes on 46.8 percent field goal shooting when he is on the bench.
Durant has developed into a better setup man for his teammates this season and the Thunder are clearly better for it. He is currently on the heels of LeBron for the title of best forward/player in the game and has to be unquestionably the best player in his conference at the moment. However, the honor of top playmaker in the Western Conference has to belong to Chris Paul.
The Los Angeles Clippers have been stomping on opponents this season with their impressive offense as well as their terrific and yet still improving defense.
Lob City’s offensive efficiency stands at a remarkable 107.3 (fourth in the NBA) and they are converting 47.9 percent of their field goals this season. Part of the reason the Clips are so efficient in scoring the ball is because they manufacture a large amount of shots at the rim. Hoopdata tells us that LAC is shooting 26.7 shots per game at the rim (ninth most in the league), most of which come from Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan.
Indeed, NBA.com’s advanced stats tool tells us that Griffin has attempted 179 shots at the rim this year (seventh most in the NBA) while Jordan has manufactured 151 (22nd most in the association).
If one even bothers to check the occasional highlights, they’ll notice that the Clips get a lot of easy baskets via the fast break, where they score 17.8 transition points per game (second most in the league) per team rankings.
For all of the highflying plays that Vinny Del Negro’s group provides, so far this season they have brought it defensively. With Jordan and Griffin slowly picking up on defensive concepts, LAC has morphed into a team capable of shutting down opponents as evidenced by their 96.8 defensive efficiency mark, which is the third best in the league.
Make no mistake though, the team’s identity still revolves around their offense and its freakish athletes.
However, when the offense slows down and is forced to execute in the half court, that’s where Chris Paul is at his best as he carries the Clippers offense.
Statistically, the former Demon Deacon has taken a step back, which makes sense in actuality considering that his minutes have been scaled back a little this season. This has come as a product of the terrorizing play of Eric Bledsoe coupled with the Clippers simply blowing teams out. Indeed, Lob City has a plus-9.6 scoring differential this season, which is tops in the league.
LAC is the proud owner of a 13-game win streak at the moment and before anyone questions their strength of schedule, it has been somewhat weak, but not as weak as many might think.
Clippers opponents so far have a winning percentage of .494 (with victories over Memphis, Atlanta, Miami, Chicago and twice defeating San Antonio), but many will be surprised to find out that the Thunder’s opponents own a winning clip of .475 (with wins over Chicago, Golden State, the Clippers, San Antonio and Atlanta); which says something about how far the other Los Angeles team has come after years of futility, and a huge part of the praise should go to Paul for leading them to respectability with his command of the offense and more importantly the franchise.
The floor general directs traffic and dictates for the most part when his big men will get featured, whether that’s on the low block or in the pick-and-roll game where he is simply lethal.
When Paul isn’t busy finding his roll men in the pick-and-roll game, he is more than happy to toy with defenses by patiently dribbling the ball into the lane or at the top of the key to set up either a jumper or soft floater over the outstretched arms of defenders. Per MySynergySports, the five-time NBA All-Star is converting 44.9 percent of his field goal attempts in the pick-and-roll.
His scoring efficiency from the point guard position as a scorer is obviously a plus for the Clippers, but it also applies to all of the facets of his game. CP3 is second in the league with 9.6 assists per game, and yet manages to do so all the while scoring 16.1 points per game with the second lowest usage rate of the point guards that rank in the top five in dimes per game. It’s worth noting that Paul averages the least amount of turnovers out of the top five assist men in the NBA.
His brilliant play is a huge factor in the Clips’ steady offensive production. NBA.com’s advanced stats tool tells us that Lob City produces 103.1 points, 24.6 assists and 13.4 turnovers per 48 minutes with their starting point guard on the floor as opposed to 95.8 points, 20.3 assists and 17 turnovers per 48 minutes when he is on the bench.
Chris Paul is leading the charge for L.A.’s other team while Kevin Durant is once again carrying the Thunder on his proverbial back. So far it’s made for an intriguing and also entertaining regular season as both teams seem to be headed for a collision course in the postseason with a berth in the NBA Finals at stake.
Granted, both obviously need to face stiffer competition and excel in those contents before we can definitively elevate them above the rest of the pack, but January promises to give us all an idea of where they stand in the NBA hierarchy as the schedule gets tougher.
One thing we know for sure though, Durant and Paul will be heard from by the end of the regular season; and the same should hold true for their respective squads.
Merry Christmas to all, enjoy the games.
Statistical support provided by NBA.com.