Oklahoma City Thunder: Best NBA Team Away ATS

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The Oklahoma City Thunder have surprised the NBA world this season, exceeding expectations despite the preseason departures of Russell Westbrook and Paul George. They sit at fifth in the West with a record of 40-24. Even more impressive, they are 23-8 as away underdogs.

–The leadership and clutch play of Chris Paul has been priceless, but so too has the emergence of second-year standout Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. They may have a 14-year age difference, but they play like they’ve been teammates for years.

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–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. Don’t count them out.

Before the pandemic struck the NBA season into a forced hiatus, the Oklahoma City Thunder were living up to their name, proving themselves a force to be reckoned with. They held the fifth-seed of the Western Conference at 40-24, only four games out of second place.

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

A Perfect Balance of Leadership and Youth

When Oklahoma City GM Sam Presti traded superstar Russell Westbrook to the Houston Rockets last July 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 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 two big things, producing wins, and covering NBA point spreads

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. And thanks in large part to their guard trio, they take care of the ball, averaging only 13.5 turnovers per game (fourth-best in the league).

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 one. 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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Don’t Count Them Out

Long story short, this squad should not be counted out, especially in this wild roller-coaster year. The Thunder show up to play every single night, at home or away, so playing in a bubble will only serve as a benefit to them. They do a lot of the 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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