NBA’s Best Underdog ATS: the Oklahoma City Thunder

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The Oklahoma City Thunder have surprisingly competed with the best of the league this season, shaking off critics of the trades that sent Russell Westbrook and Paul George packing. They sit at fifth in the West with a record of 40-24, and they have won lots of games Las Vegas has said they should not: they are 25-10 against the spread as underdogs (71.4% cover rate), and a league-best 23-8 as away underdogs (74.2% cover rate).

–Chris Paul’s return to vintage All-Star form has been the catalyst for this barrage of upsets. But second-year standout Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and veteran Sixth Man of the Year candidate Dennis Schroeder have been no slouches, either. The guard trio has combined for 56 points, 14.2 assists, and 14.7 rebounds per game.

–The Thunder do a lot of little things very well, which has led to a lot of upsets. Their cohesive dynamic and surprising chemistry has pushed them into the playoff picture with their sights set on a top-four seed. If the season has taught us anything, it’s that you should never count them out.

When the Oklahoma City Thunder sent franchise player Russell Westbrook and 2018-19 MVP candidate Paul George packing last July, pundits across the league and NBA public betting had OKC closer to the Western Conference basement. Fast forward a little under a year later, and those same pundits are calling the Thunder’s season a glowing success, firmly entrenched in the Western Conference playoff race at 40-24, only four games out of the second seed.

The Thunder have been on of the best NBA picks against the spread with superb cover-rate of 71.4 percent as underdogs, going 25-10 against the spread in games they were projected by oddsmakers to lose. And perhaps most importantly to their short-term success in this COVID-crazy year, they have had the best cover-rate in the league as a visiting underdog (23-8, or 74.2 percent). Could the Thunder’s penchant for upsets be a sign of things to come for this summer’s much-anticipated NBA Playoffs?

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A Perfect Balance of Leadership and Youth

When Oklahoma City traded superstar Russell Westbrook to the Houston Rockets last season for Chris Paul, many scoffed at the move and gave the Thunder no shot of improving. But alas, they found themselves sitting at a .625 winning percentage when league play was suspended—a full .27 better than OKC finished with last season.

Paul’s leadership, vision, and clutch late-game heroics have looked like vintage CP3. In big moments this season, time and time again he has answered the bell and pushed the Thunder over the top. His mentorship of fellow guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander—the second-year standout whom OKC acquired for Paul George six days prior to the Westbrook/Paul trade—has also been instrumental.

While CP3 represented OKC in the All-Star Game (his tenth selection) with his solid averages of 17.7 points, 6.8 assists and 4.9 rebounds a game, nobody would have batted an eye if SGA got the nod to Chi-town instead. Gilgeous-Alexander leads the team with 19.3 points per game, and his 6.1 boards per game ranks second only to big Kiwi Steven Adams (9.4). He’s dominated throughout games, and he’s logged big minutes. And like Paul, he has played in all but one game this season.

Paul, Gilgeous-Alexander and prolific sixth man Dennis Schroeder have served as a three-headed backcourt monster and nightmare of opposing defenses. The guard trio has combined for 56 points, 14.2 assists, and 14.7 rebounds per game.

The three guards often close out games with the burly Adams and skilled perimeter shooter Danilo Gallinari (another return from the Paul George/SGA trade). The guards penetrate and either score or kick to an open shooter. Gallinari knocks down open shots with his 40.9 percent three-point shooting. And Adams bangs down low and comes up huge with rebounds or tap-outs.

It’s a perfect dynamic for OKC, and the surprise chemistry this core has developed has paid dividends. For a team whose preseason odds to win the Championship were listed on most sites at around +25,000, they’ve come a long way (even though they are still listed on DraftKings at +10,000).

Good at a Lot of Things

Full disclosure: the Thunder won’t wow anybody on a per-48 highlight reel scale. They sit in the middle of the pack with points per game (110.8, 18th out of the 30 teams) and offensive rating (111.6, 13th), and their 98.6 pace is just 21st in the league. But they are good at a lot of things that produce wins.

For one, they are efficient. They shoot 47.3 percent from the field, good for fifth in the NBA. Their 19.8 free throws made and 24.8 taken per game rank fourth and fifth, respectively. They take care of the ball, thanks in large part to their guard trio, averaging only 13.5 turnovers per game (fourth-best in the league).

And Paul’s leadership has translated on the defensive side of the floor, too. The nine-time All-Defensive selection has led the scrappy backcourt with 1.6 steals per game, followed closely by SGA with 1.1 and big man Nerlens Noel with 1. The Thunder don’t foul much at all, putting opponents on the line for only 18.6 free throw attempts per game (second-best in the league), and they defend the three-point shot well, holding opponents to 34.4 percent from deep (fifth-best).

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They Can Do More Than Just Cover

As the Thunder have shown in 25 of their 35 games as underdogs, they don’t back down to anybody. A majority of the time they don’t even need the points they are given. With a 40-24 record in the Western Conference the Thunder are not only good with the spread they are the NBA money line darling. They aren’t just looking to compete with high-calibre opponents–they want to defeat them. 

Especially in this wild roller-coaster year, this squad should be considered a serious contender in the West. They have a veteran superstar with insane talent, genius player IQ, impeccable vision, and ice in his veins in the clutch. They have an emerging star with the skills to dominate both inside and outside the paint. And they have a superb supporting cast around them.  

The Thunder show up to play every single night, at home or away, so playing in a neutral bubble will only prove to be a positive for them. They do a lot of little things well, and play as a cohesive unit complementing each other’s strengths. The sky could be the limit for this Thunder squad. One thing’s for sure—they’d love to hear that everyone’s betting against them this summer.

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