The Oklahoma City Thunder are in year three of what many expected to be an extended rebuild. Sam Presti and Oklahoma City’s front office have amassed an unmatched stable of future draft picks and, with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander already on board via the trade that sent Paul George to Los Angeles, the Thunder had a leg up in the rebuilding process.
Still, Oklahoma City entered the 2022-23 campaign with very modest expectations, especially after word broke in late August that No. 2 overall pick Chet Holmgren would miss his rookie season with a foot injury. In fact, the Thunder closed with a 22.5-win over/under in the betting market, and that came on the heels after 46 combined wins in the last two seasons. Then, Oklahoma City opened the season with an 11-18 record that was well ahead of pace but also relatively anonymous in nature. In recent days, though, the Thunder have been rolling to the point where Oklahoma City has already exceeded its over/under with more than 30 games remaining.
Oklahoma City is 7-2 in the last nine games, and the two losses came by only six points combined. The Thunder have a sparkling +9.8 net rating in that sample, including the No. 1 defense in the league, and even with opponent shooting luck baked in, Oklahoma City’s fundamentals are strong. The centerpiece is Gilgeous-Alexander, who is averaging 30.7 points per game with a 62.4 percent true shooting mark this season. He is a lock to reach the All-Star team. In addition to his counting stats, Gilgeous-Alexander leads the NBA in drives, maintains a sterling 10.8 percent turnover rate by the standards of a lead creator, and has scored at least 21 points in 27 of the last 28 games. The Thunder are above-average (114.4 points per 100) with Gilgeous-Alexander on the court, and that feels like a small miracle given the nature of a roster still in flux.
Elsewhere, 2021 lottery pick Josh Giddey is enjoying the best stretch of his young career. Giddey is averaging 19.4 points, 7.9 rebounds, and 6.2 assists in the last 13 games, shooting 53.2 percent from the field, and he is finding a new level of consistency and partnership with Gilgeous-Alexander that is wildly encouraging. From there, Oklahoma City is legitimately frisky on defense, and not only in the recent sample. The Thunder are in the top ten of the NBA in defensive rating this season, giving up 111.7 points per 100 possessions. Playing without a dominant rim protector, Oklahoma City is vulnerable in certain areas, headlined by defensive rebounding, but the Thunder make up for that with fantastic positioning, a top-five turnover rate, and the consistency to contest shots at a high level.
On Wednesday, the Thunder will host the Atlanta Hawks with a chance to reach the .500 mark and to match the season-long win total (24) from last season. That is far from a lock, but Oklahoma City is firmly in the play-in race as of late January, and that is already a win for an organization that still has plenty of firepower to build for the future.
Where do the Thunder rank in this week’s DIME power rankings? Let’s assess.
1. Denver Nuggets (34-14, Last week — 3rd)
Denver ascends to the top spot despite a home loss to OKC this week but, given that the Thunder are rolling, that result isn’t so bad. The Nuggets are an outstanding 20-4 since early December, and Denver has been virtually unstoppable on the offensive end.
2. Philadelphia 76ers (30-16, Last week — 4th)
Philadelphia only played two games this week, but the Sixers went 2-0 on the road in Portland and Sacramento. The Sixers may not be the second-best team in the league, but they are a long way from the 12-12 start and now in sole possession of the No. 2 seed in the East.
3. Boston Celtics (35-14, Last week — 2nd)
Road losses happen, and the Celtics just had two in a row in the state of Florida. Would it surprise me if Boston won the next four games at home to vault back to the top? No, it certainly wouldn’t.
4. Milwaukee Bucks (30-17, Last week — 5th)
The biggest thing for Milwaukee is the return of Khris Middleton on Monday. Amusingly, the Bucks scored 150 (!) points in his first game back but, broadly speaking, the Bucks just can’t be the same on offense without Middleton. He unlocks everything.
5. Memphis Grizzlies (31-16, Last week — 1st)
The DIME curse continues. Memphis was atop the rankings and our focus team last week. The Grizzlies just lost three in a row. Water is wet, but there is no need for panic for a very good basketball team.
6. Brooklyn Nets (29-17, Last week — 7th)
Everyone understands the Nets aren’t the sixth-best team in the league without Kevin Durant, so let’s get that out of the way. Still, Brooklyn’s season-long profile is strong and a pair of road wins over the Jazz and Warriors were encouraging to end the week.
7. Sacramento Kings (27-19, Last week — 8th)
Sacramento is the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference. It is January 25. That is borderline unbelievable for thorough NBA observers over a long sample, but having the best offense (117.9 points per 100) in the league goes a long way.
8. Miami Heat (27-22, Last week — 10th)
The Heat have a top-five record (11-5) in baseball since Christmas. That’s an arbitrary endpoint, but the Heat just beat the Pelicans and Celtics at home over a three-day period and the next two games are against Orlando and Charlotte.
9. Cleveland Cavaliers (29-20, Last week — 6th)
Cleveland has leveled off lately, but it’s not terribly shocking when you consider the team’s losses. The Cavs don’t have a “bad” loss in the bunch, losing on the road to the Nuggets, Jazz, Wolves, Grizzlies, and Knicks with a home loss to the Warriors. It isn’t great, but Donovan Mitchell missed part of that run. The Cavs are fine.
10. L.A. Clippers (26-24, Last week — 17th)
The Clippers just swept a three-game road trip. Non-coincidentally, there were no back-to-backs in that stretch. L.A. is now 16-9 with Kawhi Leonard in the lineup this season, and the Clippers host the lowly Spurs on Thursday with another day of rest in between games.
11. Oklahoma City Thunder (23-24, Last week — 15th)
OKC might be able to build on the success discussed above. The Thunder have four of the next five at home and FiveThirtyEight’s ELO model (which is results-based) gives them a 70 percent chance to make the playoffs. That dips considerably when the RAPTOR player projections are incorporated, but the actual results are very, very intriguing.
12. New Orleans Pelicans (26-22, Last week — 9th)
The Pelicans are 3-10 in the last 13 games. Obviously, there are caveats with neither Zion Williamson nor Brandon Ingram on the court for an extended period, but the recent results are not great.
13. New York Knicks (26-23, Last week — 11th)
Alarm bells were going off after four straight losses, but they were quieted when the Knicks beat the Cavs on Tuesday. New York has a very interesting test in Boston on Thursday, but until then, the Knicks can take some solace in sole possession of the No. 7 spot.
14. Phoenix Suns (25-24, Last week — 24th)
The Suns recently went through a stretch with nine losses in ten games, cratering both in the standings and in these rankings. Devin Booker hasn’t played since Christmas and, in short, that caps Phoenix’s ceiling without any other context. Quietly, though, the Suns just opened a homestand with four straight wins. None were necessarily landmark victories, but they all count.
15. Golden State Warriors (23-24, Last week — 12th)
If the Warriors weren’t the Warriors, it would be hard to get terribly excited. Golden State is below .500 in late January with a comical 6-18 road record and six losses in the last nine games overall. You can find positives, like a +7.0 net rating with Steph Curry and Draymond Green on the floor together, but the overall product hasn’t been good during the team’s title defense.
16. Utah Jazz (25-25, Last week — 18th)
Utah’s 10-3 start feels like a lifetime ago, but the Jazz have found something again in recent days. That manifests with five wins in the last seven games, and the two losses came to Philadelphia and Brooklyn. In taking a big-picture look, Utah is the No. 8 seed in late January, and no one expected that.
17. Atlanta Hawks (24-24, Last week — 13th)
The best stretch of Atlanta’s season happened in the middle of January with five straight wins against solid competition. Seemingly on cue, the Hawks gave away a 19-point lead at home to the Hornets and struggled on offense in a loss to Chicago just two days later. Atlanta is still in a better spot than it was a few weeks ago, but it isn’t as if every problem is solved.
18. Dallas Mavericks (25-24, Last week — 14th)
Oof. The Mavericks had a rough home loss on Tuesday, wasting a 41-point, 15-rebound showing from Luka Doncic against the Wizards. Dallas is just 2-7 in the last nine games, and the defense is yielding more than 1.22 points per possession. It’s hard to stay afloat, much less win, with that defensive resistance.
19. Minnesota Timberwolves (24-25, Last week — 16th)
Minnesota has an incredible knack for laying eggs. The Wolves lost to the Rockets on Monday and, before that, Minnesota racked up losses to Detroit (twice), Charlotte, San Antonio (twice), and other flops. When it’s good, it’s good. When it’s not, it’s really not.
20. Los Angeles Lakers (22-26, Last week — 20th)
The Lakers lost to the Clippers on Tuesday, which never goes over well. Before the end of the night, though, word broke that Anthony Davis could return on Wednesday, and that should give Los Angeles a jolt. If Davis does come back against the Spurs, it will be rather amazing that the Lakers managed to go 10-10 without him.
21. Washington Wizards (21-26, Last week — 25th)
It was a very good week for the Washington Professional Basketball Club. The Wizards won all three games, including road victories over the Mavericks and Knicks. Washington still seems to be stuck in a burning desire for the play-in, but the Wizards are back within one game of the No. 10 spot.
22. Chicago Bulls (22-25, Last week — 22nd)
DeMar DeRozan and company would be higher on this list if not for a blown lead in Indiana on Tuesday. Even with that loss, the Bulls are still a frisky 11-7 in the last 18 games, ranking in the top ten of the NBA in net-rating since mid-December. Is that going to be enough to satisfy a team with real expectations? Probably not, but it’s something.
23. Portland Trail Blazers (22-25, Last week — 21st)
A 5-12 mark in the last 17 games paints a pretty dire picture for the Blazers. Then, a closer look shows you that three of those wins came against the Hornets, Pistons, and Spurs. It’s really rough, and frustration appears to be boiling over as the Blazers now sit outside the top ten of the West.
24. Toronto Raptors (21-27, Last week — 23rd)
Toronto’s upcoming schedule gauntlet could be pivotal. The Raptors play the next seven games on the road against Western Conference opponents, and that is the last thing the team needs as they sit in the No. 12 spot in the East.
25. Orlando Magic (18-29, Last week — 26th)
Orlando beat the Boston Celtics by a wide margin on Monday, furthering the reality that the Celtics can’t seem to win in Florida. That was preceded by a blowout loss to Washington (not great), but the Magic are a few steps above the dregs at the bottom of this list.
26. Indiana Pacers (24-25, Last week — 19th)
Yes, the Pacers won on Tuesday, and this might be too low. But it’s been gross lately. Tyrese Haliburton’s absence has cratered Indiana’s offense to the tune of a league-worst 107.7 offensive rating during a 1-7 stretch. Indiana’s comeback win over Chicago did ease the pain a bit, but that came against a Bulls team on the second night of a back-to-back with travel, which probably contributed.
27. Charlotte Hornets (13-36, Last week — 29th)
The biggest impetus for Charlotte’s rise this week was a nice road win in Atlanta. The Hornets trailed by 19 points in the second half of that game, only to ride Atlanta’s collapse and some late heroics from Terry Rozier to victory. Of course, the Hornets then lost the next two games by very lopsided margins, but a 2-2 week isn’t so bad given the state of the roster.
28. Detroit Pistons (12-37, Last week — 27th)
The Pistons are 1-7 in the last eight games, and the defense is just gross. Detroit allowed more than 1.2 points per possession in that sample, and that included a 150-point drubbing at the hands of the Bucks on Monday.
29. San Antonio Spurs (14-33, Last week — 28th)
It was a very light week for the Spurs with only two games, both of which were losses. San Antonio has lost five of the last six games and, in each loss, the Spurs have given up at least 131 points. That’s the recipe for a league-worst 119.9 defensive rating for the season.
30. Houston Rockets (11-36, Last week — 30th)
Houston did win its last game, beating the Wolves at home on Monday behind 42 points from Jalen Green. It’s tough to ignore the long-term, though, and the Rockets are 2-18 in the last 10 games with a gross -11.0 net rating.