How the Oklahoma City Thunder Became NBA Contenders & Futures Darlings

There are surprises in each NBA season. Not a year goes by without some iteration of a team failing to live up to the hype, an underdog sneaking into the playoffs, or a breakout star nobody saw coming. It’s rare, though, for a surprise team to become a serious contender. This year, the Oklahoma City Thunder are threatening to be just that — a team nobody saw coming, on a mission to go all the way.

A lot had to happen for the Thunder after missing the playoffs a year ago. Even as things started well, expectations remained pretty moderate. But with half of the season gone and the Thunder still second in the West — ahead of the Nuggets, Clippers, Suns, Lakers, and so on — it’s time to ask ourselves seriously whether we buy it or not. So let’s get into it: are the Thunder legit?

Preseason Expectations

The Thunder weren’t a bad team in 2022-23. They finished four games back of the sixth-seed Warriors and ultimately failed to make the playoffs through the play-in tournament. Pundits were saying that an improvement of four or five wins was realistic, and maybe a playoff appearance at the bottom of the conference.

Their preseason odds reflected that: they were slightly favoured to make the playoffs, with odds floating around the -130 mark, but the idea that they would do any damage seemed far-fetched. They had the 19th-best odds to win the 2023-24 NBA Finals, with their preseason championship odds at +10,000.

At this point, to say the Thunder have blown those expectations away would be putting it lightly. They are currently second in the Western Conference, trailing only the Minnesota Timberwolves. There are a handful of reasons why they are here, so let’s go over it below.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander to win 2024 NBA MVP


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Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, MVP Candidate

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was, without question, an emerging star before the 2022-23 season. So while his success is not in and of itself surprising, no one could have anticipated that he would be as dominant as he has been this season. He’s second in the NBA with 31.1 PPG, and he leads the NBA with 2.2 steals per game.

The 2023 All-NBA First Team selection has kicked things up to an even higher level. He’s proved himself to be dominant on both ends of the floor, and he continues to get better. It’s hardly controversial to say that Gilgeous-Alexander is the single biggest reason that this relatively inexperienced Thunder team is in the race for the top spot in the Western Conference.

Though two-time MVP Nikola Jokic is currently the favourite (-150) to be this year’s MVP, Gilgeous-Alexander isn’t far behind (+210). Though it would take a herculean effort to surpass the perennially dominant Jokic, taking the Thunder to the top of the conference would help. If anything, we’ve learned not to doubt Gilgeous-Alexander.

Chet Holmgren for Rookie of the Year?

No one should be too shocked that Chet Holmgren has been making an impact for the Thunder. The scale of his impact, though, has been very noteworthy. He is second in the NBA among rookies in terms of points per game (16.7). He’s sixth in threes made per game (1.7), third in rebounds (7.6), and second in blocks (2.6).

Holmgren does a little bit of everything right. Currently, he is second in the Bet365 Rookie of the Year odds race (+450). He trails Victor Wembanyama (-650) not only in the odds but in most statistical categories, too, and most analysts would tell you the Frenchman has his name on the award already.

It is worth noting, though, how the rookies’ respective teams are doing. Wemby has been great, but the Spurs have the third-fewest wins in the league with 11. The Thunder, meanwhile, are second in the Western Conference and have the third-best winning percentage (.685) in the NBA. Could they have done it without Holmgren? Honestly, it’s doubtful. So while he might not come away with the crown, no one is going to forget how impactful his rookie year has been.

Chet Holmgren to win 2024 NBA Rookie of the Year


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How the Thunder Got Here

We know all about the individuals that have helped to drive this team toward surprising success. Now, let’s take a deeper look at the team as a whole. How did the Thunder get to this point? What’s been key? What should they be worried about going forward?

What Has Gone Right?

Despite being the second-youngest team in the NBA this season, the Thunder have shown themselves to be fantastic in nearly all facets of the game. They are an elite shooting team that is near the top of the league in fast-break points and in paint points.

Defensively, they generate a lot of turnovers while not giving it back to opponents. They also make it virtually impossible to score inside the restricted area and are in the top 10 in terms of corner 3-point average.

It’s a simple formula for winning. Shoot well, force turnovers, and don’t give the ball back in the process. The Thunder have made it look easy throughout the year, especially on the back of crucial performances from Holmgren and Gilgeous-Alexander.

Weaknesses Going Forward

The Thunder do plenty of things right, but they’re not without their faults. To get specific, there are two noticeable weaknesses, both of which could be their undoing, but Thunder fans should take some solace from the knowledge that their problems, in many respects, are solvable.

The first problem is rebounding. The Thunder don’t rebound very well because they aren’t a particularly big or strong team. Their rebounds per game stat put them 20th in the league, just ahead of the Orlando Magic. They also tend to foul a bit too much, but that also comes with the territory of being an aggressive, top defence. Given their offensive prowess, they can offset that a bit by drawing fouls of their own.

The other major weakness is experience — especially playoff experience. Again, this is the second-youngest team in the NBA, which relies heavily on a newly-minted superstar in his biggest year yet, and a rookie. With each passing game, though, this team gets experience under their belt. We won’t know truly how ahead of their years they are until playoff time, but it certainly looks promising.

Can the Thunder Win the NBA Title?

Despite their place in the standings, the Thunder are just eighth in terms of the favourites to win the NBA Championship (+2,000). Boston is the clear favourite (+260), which should come as no surprise; they were the pre-season favourites, and they have the best record in the NBA. Pretty straightforward stuff.

Among Western Conference teams, the Thunder trail a few teams. Their championship odds are tied with conference leaders Minnesota (+2,000), but there are three teams with better odds. The defending NBA Champion Denver Nuggets (+425), currently fourth in the conference, have the most favourable odds. The two other Western Conference teams with better championship odds than the Thunder are the Clippers (+550), who are currently third, and the Suns (+1,500), who sit fifth.

So are the Thunder being disrespected, or are the oddsmakers right not to buy into the hype? At the end of the day, the Thunder’s odds make sense. The Thunder are inexperienced, and teams like the Suns and Clippers are loaded with big-name talent, while the Nuggets are proven winners that nobody would be surprised to see back in the NBA Finals. The Thunder, for all their merits, still have a lot more to prove.

Oklahoma City Thunder to win 2024 NBA Championship


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Betting on the Thunder to Win it All

At +2,000 to win the NBA Championship according to Bet365, backing the Thunder is, in our view, definitely a good value bet. The Thunder are a quality team, they’ve proven they can play with the league’s best, and there is something to be said for youthful energy when we get into the trenches.

The Thunder shoot and defend well, and you’d expect them to make noise in the playoffs this season. With that being said, we know almost nothing about how they handle pressure. Their rebounding deficiencies are also a worry, but the biggest problem is that the Thunder are missing veteran presences that can keep the team together when the going gets tough. There’s no such thing as cruising to an NBA title, and it remains to be seen whether OKC can dig deep.

In other words, among Western Conference teams, the Nuggets, Clippers, and Suns remain more likely candidates. Taking a flyer on the Thunder, though, is a very decent bet for players who want to take a gamble on a good team with very tasty odds. From the Thunder’s point of view, it’s all about finishing the regular season strong and earning a first playoff series win since 2016. Whether or not they go all the way this year, the future’s bright in Oklahoma City.