Despite both losing last night, the Oklahoma City Thunder and Denver Nuggets are two of the NBA's hottest teams. Since March 1, the Thunder is 19-5 (second in the NBA), and the Nuggets are 15-6 (tied for for third with the Lakers). Only the Bulls (21-3) have been better.
Both Denver and Oklahoma City made trades--the Thunder acquiring Kendrick Perkins and the Nuggets nabbing Wilson Chandler, Raymond Felton, Danilo Gallinari and Timofey Mozgov--that markedly improved them. Almost everyone immediately understood the Perkins deal would make the Thunder more rugged and more prepared to handle the Lakers, Spurs and any other team with an inside presence. But Denver's success after trading Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups has surprised nearly all experts.
Between those paths, the stunning and the expected, the Thunder and Nuggets have both made themselves threats this postseason. But their trades have also made assessing them more difficult, because their season statistics are influenced by players no longer with the team.
So, I asked Royce Young of Daily Thunder and Jeremy Wagner of Roundball Mining Company to project their team's playoff rotation.
For the Thunder, Royce said:
For the Nuggets, Jeremy said:
(Jeremy also thought J.R. Smith, Al Harrington and Timofey Mozgov would see some minutes behind this group.)
When possible, I will try to use just these players for analysis. In some ways, the teams' trades have made their outlooks look clearer, because they've played so cohesively after the deals. But we're working with smaller sample sizes than a full season, which makes predicted outlooks less reliable.
Combining both those factors, in my opinion, this is the most intriguing first-round series.
WHEN OKLAHOMA CITY HAS THE BALL
Pace: 91.5 possessions per 48 minutes (13th NBA)
Oklahoma City Offensive Rating: 113.1 points per 100 possessions (4th NBA)
Denver Defensive Rating: 109.2 points per 100 possessions (16th NBA)
With five of the players Young projected to be in the Thunder's playoff rotation on the court, Oklahoma City's Offensive Rating is 112.4, which would rank first in the NBA over an entire season by Basketball Prospectus' metrics. (BasketballValue.com was used to obtain all lineup data in this post.)
Of course, when any team removes the lineups that include non-rotation players, their efficiency will probably rise. But jumping to first in the NBA in offensive efficiency seems significant. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, but especially Durant, really make Oklahoma City's offense go. Durant scored 25.1 percent of the Thunder's points this season, trailing only LeBron James with the Heat. Combined, Durant and Westbrook scored 46.0 percent of the Thunder's points this season, which trails only James and Dwyane Wade with the Miami for a duo.
In particular, Durant and Westbrook have led the Thunder to attempting more free throws per field-goal attempt than any other team. That might mean Nuggets center Timofey Mozgov, who has struggled with foul trouble during his limited minutes, won't see much playing time after he returns from a sprained ankle and sprained knee suffered on April 5. The onus will be on Nene to protect the rim. I suspect Arron Afflalo, Raymond Felton and Ty Lawson will take turns defending Westbrook, and Wilson Chandler and Afflalo will lead the defensive effort against Durant.
It's unlikely the Nuggets will shut down the prolific duo, but they defend well enough to at least make Durant and Westbrook work for their points.
With five of the core players Jeremy listed on the floor, the Nuggets' Defensive Rating is 96.1, which would rank first in the NBA by a wide margin. (Although, that's in just 406 minutes, so the reliability isn't great.) When you add lineups that include J.R. Smith, Al Harrington and Mozgov, Denver's Defensive Rating jumps to 102.0 (in a more reliable, but still not-totally reliable, 1,073 minutes). That Defensive Rating would still rank third in the league.
So, I won't go as far as saying Oklahoma City will need a third scorer to step up, but it would help greatly. Thankfully for the Thunder, Denver has two defensive weaknesses that aren't point guard or small forward (positions where Oklahoma should thrive, anyway). Denver ranks 28th in efficiency recap of opposing shooting guards and 29th in efficiency recap of opposing centers.
Unfortunately for Oklahoma City, it doesn't have an ideal starter who can take advantage. The Thunder didn't acquire centers Perkins and Nazr Mohammed for their offensive prowess, and its starting shooting guard, Thabo Sefolosha, is a defensive specialist.
But backup shooting guard James Harden, who actually plays more than Sefolosha, could have a big series. He's the Thunder's best bet to handle task of scoring from the shooting guard or center positions. Harden has been scoring better since Oklahoma City traded Jeff Green. He's gotten to the free throw line often, and he's a solid three-point shooter.
Harden could be the difference in this series.
WHEN DENVER HAS THE BALL
Pace: 94.0 possessions per 48 minutes (3rd NBA)
Denver Offensive Rating: 114.0 points per 100 possessions (1st NBA)
Oklahoma City Defensive Rating: 108.4 points per 100 possessions (13th NBA)
Predicting the nature of Denver's offense before the series begins is practically futile.
We know the Nuggets can score. Their league-leading offensive rating tells us that loud and clear. But to their credit, they score in so many different ways, they're extremely difficult to gameplan for. They rank in the top half of the NBA in points per play for each of the 11 categories Synergy lists, including first in spot up and hand off, second in off screen, third in post up and cut and fourth in pick-and-roll ball handler.
In the 25 games since the Nuggets traded Melo, nine players have led the Nuggets in scoring (including ties)--Lawson seven times, Smith six times, Nene four times, Danilo Gallinari three times, Chandler three times, Al Harrington twice, Felton once, Kenyon Martin once and Chris Andersen once.
Denver's two weakest areas of scoring per play--off offensive rebounds and in transition--might not hold them back so much against Oklahoma City. In defending opponents on plays directly following offensive rebounds, the Thunder ranks 23rd, the team's worst defensive category. The Thunder does everything else at least three spots in the rankings better, so even if Oklahoma City's season-long stats are lowered because Perkins and Mohammed weren't around the whole time, that still might be the Thunder's weak spot.
The Nuggets have been running a little more late in the season, too. I wouldn't expect a ton of transition- efficiency improvement, but they might perform better than their season-long stats would indicate.
With the core players Jeremy listed, the Nuggets' Offensive Rating is 104.7, which would rank 24th. Add Smith, Harrington and Mozgov and that number jumps to 111.1, which would rank fourth. Despite his defensive shortcomings, Smith, who leads Denver in individual Offensive Rating, might have to see regular playing time for the Nuggets to produce offensively. That's especially true when you consider, with five projected rotation players on the court, the Thunder has allowed just 104.9 points per 100 possessions, which would rank 10th.
Or maybe, like they did without Melo, the Nuggets will keep rolling without Smith.
Again, predicting the Nuggets' offense requires shooting in the dark. They have the potential to do almost anything and do it well.
There aren't many reasons to predict the Nuggets will upset the Thunder, but there's a single big reason: Denver has played really well lately. Specific matchups can complicate things, but for the most part, the team playing better basketball wins a given playoffs series.
Since the All-Star Break, the Nuggets have played like a 66-win team (using non-strength-of-schedule-adjusted Pythagorean wins). But using the same method, the Thunder has played like a 62-win team since the beginning of March.
That should make Oklahoma City's recent play close enough to Denver's when you consider the Thunder has a 3-1 advantage in the regular-season series (including two wins in the last 10 days), the two best players on the court and home-court advantage.
On paper these teams look offensive-minded, but many of the players keeping them down defensively were either traded or will be out of the playoff rotation. So, I don't expect this series to be quite as high-scoring as the initial evidence would indicate.
But I don't expect the excitement level to dwindle because of it. These teams are close enough that the series should feature the typical back-and-forth of a 4-5 matchup, and their level of play is so high, it might look more like a conference-finals series than a first-round series.
Oklahoma City in 7
Dan Feldman is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
You can contact Dan by clicking here or click here to see Dan's other articles.