Apr 3 2013 9:34AM

Playoff Contention: Oklahoma City Thunder

In Playoff Contention, we spotlight the 16 playoff teams to see where they stand as they head into the playoffs.

Previous teams

EAST: Brooklyn Nets, Miami Heat, Milwaukee Bucks

WEST: Denver Nuggets, Los Angeles Clippers, Memphis Grizzlies, San Antonio Spurs

Fernando Medina/NBAE/Getty Images

If the Thunder don't reach the 2013 NBA Finals, critics will blame GM Sam Presti for trading the max-contract-seeking star James Harden in exchange for fiscal responsibility.

That's unfair, since next season's luxury-tax heavy cap, made it impossible for Oklahoma City to keep this same team together in 2013-14, if the five highest-paid players were going to earn a combined $67.5 million and the new luxury tax would be approximately $72 million.

Thus, some big-money player had to go.

The fact that last season's .712 team is playing .730 ball in 2012-13 is simply amazing when you consider Kevin Martin and Hasheem Thabeet have capably replaced Harden and Nazr Mohammed.

Chalk it up to the maturity and the growing chemistry exhibited by one of the NBA's most dynamic duos Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, along with complementary players Serge Ibaka, Thabo Sefolosha, Kendrick Perkins and Nick Colllison.

Because of their unbelievable constitution--only six combined games missed among the team's seven main minutemen--the Thunder are still competing for the No. 1 seed in the West.

Think about that.

Durant, Westbrook and Collison have played all 74 games so far; Sefolosha and Perkins, 73; Ibaka and Martin, 72.

That is unheard of.

When the MVP discussion emerges and people mention Durant and Westbrook's name, I agree with their candidacy and say, "Don't forget to add Joe Sharpe's name into the discussion."

The Oklahoma City Thunder and USA Basketball trainer must be credited for his outstanding work in keeping this well-oiled machine running perfectly for Coach Scott Brooks.

Because of the Thunder's ability to maximize health in the form of games and minutes played, Oklahoma City continues to dominate, leading the NBA with a +9.00 Simple Rating System score.

Presti will probably be able to sign his new super sixth man Martin to half the contract that Harden wanted. Presti's acquisition of the Toronto Raptors' protected lottery pick via Houston will probably be No. 8 or so in the 2014 NBA Draft. And to top all things off, Presti also landed the No. 12 pick in the 2013 NBA Draft, 20-year-old Jeremy Lamb, in the deal.

The Thunder are winning on the court now, but the real fruits of this trade will be realized in future seasons to come.

The Thunder is unique in that the team really does not field a bad lineup. With so many core starters and reserves on roster for so long, Coach Brooks is able to mix-and-match his combos more than most coaches and always get positive results. The seven main minutemen--with the exception of new acquisition Martin--have all logged three-plus seasons in Oklahoma City together and are able to seamlessly play Thunder ball amongst themselves or with others, if another piece or two is added at times. The starting lineup is Brooks' rock, where he plays Westbrook, Sefolosha, Durant, Ibaka and Perkins 1212 minutes together this season for a +11.0 net rating per 100 possessions. Their collective 97.0 defensive rating would rank second on the NBA's defensive charts today. Sub out Sefolosha for some offense and Martin, and you get a unit that has a +9.1 net rating in 342 minutes together for a 110.1 offensive rating, which would rank second on the NBA's offensive chart's today. What's especially heartening to see is that offensive forces Durant and Westbrook not only play so well together (+12.0 net rating in 2413 minutes together), but thanks to super-complementary pieces like Collison, they can both carry the load while the other star rests as well (supersub Collison has a +13.6 net rating in 933 minutes with Durant; +12.4 in 737 minutes with Westbrook).

The 5,000 Minute Rule says most championship teams have five-plus players together for at least 5,000 minutes before they win a championship, and the Thunder meet The 5G Club criteria with six rooted teammates: Durant (19,122 minutes with the Thunder), Nick Collison (16,207), Westbrook (14,893), Sefolosha (8995), Ibaka (8808) and Perkins (5001).

The Thunder return seven players who played in the 2012 NBA Finals, but the only two who have championship rings in their collections are Derek Fisher, who earned five with the Los Angeles Lakers (2000, 2001, 2002, 2009 and 2010 NBA champions) and Perkins, who won one with the Boston Celtics' 2008 NBA championship team.

Hollinger Playoff Odds say the Thunder has a 46 percent chance to reach the 2013 NBA Finals and 29 percent shot to win the NBA championship; Basketball-Reference says the Thunder have a 43 percent shot to reach the 2013 NBA Finals and 28 percent chance to win the title.

David Sherman/NBAE/Getty Images
2012-13 THUNDER (.730)

C KENDRICK PERKINS: 73 games, 25.1 mpg, 4.3 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 8.4 PER, +11.2 Net, +0.7 On/Off

C Hasheem Thabeet: 60 games, 11.3 mpg, 2.5 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 11.7 PER, +9.8 Net, -1.3 On/Off

C Daniel Orton: 8 games, 4.9 mpg, 2.0 ppg, 1.8 rpg, 21.8 PER, -1.8 Net, -12.8 On/Off

PF SERGE IBAKA: 72 games, 31.5 mpg, 13.2 ppg, 7.8 rpg, 19.0 PER, +10.3 Net, -1.5 On/Off

PF Nick Collison: 74 games, 19.5 mpg, 5.3 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 14.0 PER, +12.9 Net, +3.5 On/Off

SF KEVIN DURANT: 74 games, 38.6 mpg, 28.3 ppg, 7.9 rpg, 28.0 PER, +12.0 Net, +5.5 On/Off

SF Ronnie Brewer: 55 games, 13.9 mpg, 3.2 ppg, 2.0 rpg, 10.5 PER, +19.3 Net, +7.4 On/Off

SF Perry Jones: 36 games, 6.7 mpg, 2.1 ppg, 1.5 rpg, 7.6 PER, +2.8 Net, -8.6 On/Off

SG THABO SEFOLOSHA: 73 games, 28.0 mpg, 7.5 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 12.4 PER, +11.8 Net, +1.8 On/Off

SG Kevin Martin: 72 games, 28.0 mpg, 14.2 ppg, 2.3 rpg, 16.1 PER, +12.0 Net, +2.6 On/Off

SG DeAndre Liggins: 37 games, 7.3 mpg, 1.5 ppg, 1.4 rpg, 9.7 PER, -0.4 Net, -12.2 On/Off

SG Jeremy Lamb: 21 games, 4.4 mpg, 2.4 ppg, 0.4 rpg, 14.3 PER, -9.0 Net, -20.4 On/Off

PG RUSSELL WESTBROOK: 74 games, 35.4 mpg, 23.2 ppg, 7.6 apg, 23.4 PER, +11.6 Net, +2..8 On/Off

PG Derek Fisher: 26 games, 18.2 mpg, 5.0 ppg, 1.7 rpg, 7.2 PER, +14.4 Net, +2.8 On/Off

PG Reggie Jackson*: 62 games, 13.2 mpg, 4.8 ppg, 1.6 apg, 13.7 PER, +8.2 Net, -3.4 On/Off

2011-12 GONE THUNDER (.712)

SG James Harden: 62 games, 31.4 mpg, 16.8 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 21.1 PER, +9.8 Net, +6.7 On/Off

SG Daequan Cook: 57 games, 17.4 mpg, 5.5 ppg, 2.1 rpg, 9.2 PER, +6.4 Net, -1.1 On/Off

C Nazr Mohammed: 63 games, 11.0 mpg, 2.7 ppg, 2.7 rpg, 11.0 PER, +6.1 Net, -1.3 On/Off

PG Royal Ivey: 34 games, 10.4 mpg, 2.1 ppg, 0.7 rpg, 4.7 PER, +1.9 Net, -5.9 On/Off

C Cole Aldrich: 26 games, 6.7 mpg, 2.2 ppg, 1.8 rpg, 17..7 PER, -6.5 Net, -14.4 On/Off

SF Lazar Hayward: 26 games, 5.4 mpg, 1.4 ppg, 0.6 rpg, 3.1 PER, -17.1 Net, -25.3 On/Off

* Thunder player that did not play in 2012 NBA Playoffs; returning players in boldface

SOURCES: Team's Net Rating and Team's' On/Off Net Rating from NBA, Player Efficiency Rating from ESPN; other advanced statistics from Basketball-Reference.