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Good Cop–Bad Cop: Are the Thunder Built for a Long Playoff Run?

A back-and-forth debate about whether Russell Westbrook and Co. can find their stride in the postseason

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The playoffs are near, and the Thunder are somehow still both good and bad at the same time. This is a Good Cop–Bad Cop argument for whether they are good and are going to do well in the playoffs or they are bad and are going to do poorly in the playoffs. Good Cop is arguing the former, Bad Cop is arguing the latter.

Good Cop: The Thunder are actually good, and they’re going to do well in the playoffs.

Bad Cop: So we’re just going to start out today by saying things that are wrong and untrue? Cool, cool, cool. Let me throw some out there, too. Um, oh: The sun is actually cold. Humans can actually breathe underwater. Toy Story was actually a documentary. Elephants actually do not have bones, they have pieces of wood nailed together by small elephant-specific elves.

Good Cop: I don’t understand what’s so hard to see about this. The Thunder still have Russell Westbrook, last season’s MVP, and now they also have Paul George and Carmelo Anthony, both of whom are multiple-time All-Stars. And then there’s Steven Adams, very much an elite center in the NBA. And also there’s coach Billy Donovan, who, among other things, is not Scott Brooks. That’s a team that’s built for a deep run in the playoffs.

Bad Cop: Here’s what I heard: They still have Russell Westbrook, the only MVP ever who made his team worse, and now they also have Paul George and Carmelo Anthony, neither of whom have any sort of history of true playoff success. And then there’s Steven Adams, who has tricked people into thinking he’s good because of how charming he is in interviews. And also there’s coach Billy Donovan, who, among other things, has a worse playoff win-loss percentage than Scott Brooks. That’s a team that’s built to fall apart in the playoffs.

Good Cop: You can’t really believe all that stuff. It’s idiotic. You’re an honest-to-goodness idiot if you think that the only guy in the history of the last 55 years of the NBA to average a triple-double for a season could ever, in any way, even one centimeter make a team he’s on worse than if he wasn’t there.

Bad Cop: I had a point I was going to make right here while you were talking but Russell Westbrook stole it from me, because that’s what he does: steals points from teammates.

Good Cop: Oh, my bad. Yeah. You’re right, you’re right. The guy leading the entire NBA this season in assists per game is stealing points away from his teammates. The guy who was third in the entire NBA last season in assists per game is stealing points away from his teammates. The guy who was second in the entire NBA in assists per game the season before that is stealing points away from his teammates. The guy who was fourth in the entire NBA in assists per game the season before that is stealing points away from his teammates. DO YOU EVEN UNDERSTAND HOW ASSISTS WORK? It’s literally the opposite of stealing points from teammates.

Bad Cop: I mean, OK. Let’s pretend like there’s not a problem there.

Good Cop: Can we just move on from Russ to something else?

Bad Cop: LOL. You sound like Kevin Durant. And Victor Oladipo. And Serge Ibaka. And James Harden …

Good Cop: First of all, none of those players have ever said that they couldn’t play with Russ. Second of all, that’s not what I’m talking about.

Bad Cop: What are you talking about, then? Or, rather, let me ask you something: You said the Thunder are going to do well in the playoffs. What are you defining as “well”? How are you measuring success? There should be a firmer target point here than just a mid-level adjective.

Good Cop: Well, I would think that a trip to the Finals would be considered a successful season for the Thunder, as would even a trip to the Western Conference finals, really.

Bad Cop: The Western Conference finals? That’s successful?

Good Cop: Absolutely. Just look at the way things are laid out right now: Everyone is sort of assuming that the Warriors are going to win the championship this year, which is fine. They won last year and still have all of their best pieces and so they absolutely should be the favorites again this year, even if they’re currently second in the West. But that’s the thing. Because they’re second in the West and the Thunder are fourth, it very well could be Thunder-Rockets in the second round, which means OKC have a real shot. And if the Thunder take down the Rockets, then, regardless of what happens after that, it’ll have been a successful season. The Thunder will have beaten the team with the best overall record in the league, and that means they’ll have exceeded expectations.

Bad Cop: I suppose that’s fair.

Good Cop: Duh. And it’s not just wishful thinking, either. Because, clearly, the Rockets are the better regular-season team, but it’s not really that hard to poke holes in their parachute. Like: Did you know that James Harden has gone 2-for-11 in playoff-elimination losses in two of the last three years? Last year’s instance was especially damning because the Rockets were playing (a) at home, and (b) against a Spurs team that was missing its best player (Kawhi Leonard) and starting point guard (Tony Parker). And if you say, “Well, sure, but Harden has Chris Paul now,” then I would say, “That’s fair. Let’s you and me go watch some highlight clips of Chris Paul’s teams never, ever, ever, ever making it past the second round of the playoffs ever, ever, ever, ever.”

Bad Cop: That’s the dumbest argument. You’re just piecemealing things together. It’s like me saying, “James Harden has never lost a playoff series with Chris Paul on his team.” You’re just circling around actual ideas and arguments without ever really making one.

Good Cop: I don’t agree with you, but let’s say I did. If that were the case —and, again, it is not the case, because of course the past is a good indicator of the future—but if it were the case, then I’d just point out that the Thunder not only have “the fourth-best net-rating against teams with a record over .500 this season,” they’re also 5-2 in their seven games against the legit best teams (Raptors, Warriors, and Rockets).

Bad Cop: Their win against the Rockets came with Chris Paul on the bench, though, but I guess we’ll just ignore that evidence, too, same as you have with all the rest.

Good Cop: WHAT EVIDENCE?! You have presented zero objective analysis.

Bad Cop: My fault. I forgot you like only advanced stats. Here’s a good one for you, but let me ask it in the form of a question: Do you know which player on the Thunder has the second-best net on/off rating?

Good Cop: It’s Russ first, and then … Paul George? Is it Paul George?

Bad Cop: No. It’s Andre Roberson. Or, more accurately: It’s the now-injured Andre Roberson. Per, when Andre was on the floor for the Thunder they averaged over 10 points more per 100 possessions than their opponents. Without him, it basically dropped to even. And that’s bad. After his knee injury on December 30, the Thunder went 7-10 in the first 17 games they played without him.

Good Cop: OK, but they’re 11-4 since that stretch, so who’s really cherry-picking stats here?

Bad Cop: Yeah, they’re 11-4 since then, but that’s because for the past nine games, Corey Brewer has all of a sudden become a taller, less cute Steph Curry. For his career, Brewer shoots a little over 28 percent from 3. He’s been shooting 43 percent from 3 since he’s arrived in OKC, which is almost too big of a jump to even believe. And if you think he’s going to keep that up for the playoffs (or even for the rest of the season), then I would like to revisit my earlier assertion about the elephant elves.

Good Cop: You’re stupid.

Bad Cop: I just don’t know how you can convince yourself that the Thunder are going to be good in the playoffs. How do you trust Russ and Carmelo and Paul as your horses? We’ve watched all of them crumble to bits enough times to know that there’s no way the three of them together is anything other than a time bomb. I mean, remember when OKC just went all the way limp against the Warriors the playoffs before KD left? Or remember any of the times that Carmelo’s Knicks played like paper boats that had been dropped into a tsunami?

Or, and this is really my favorite one, but do you remember when Paul George’s Pacers played the Cavs in the playoffs last season and the Pacers lost Game 1 by one point when C.J. Miles missed a jumper at the buzzer and Paul George was like, “I’ve got to have the last shot.” Then—and this is so fucking incredible—a week later the Pacers were down 0-3 to the Cavs and there were less than 10 seconds left in Game 4 and the Pacers were down 105-102 and Paul actually had a good look at a 3 to tie the game and send it to overtime and his shot didn’t even hit the rim? Do you remember any of that? Imagine I’m talking in the best Killmonger voice you ever heard: These are your kings?!

Good Cop: Black Panther was so good. Like, it was really, really good.

Bad Cop: For real.

Good Cop: I can’t wait to watch it again.

Bad Cop: Truly. But, while you wait, let me present to you a different—and far more likely—playoff scenario than the one you had where the Thunder beat the Rockets in the second round and then (presumably) play the Warriors tough in the conference finals. The Thunder stay in the fourth spot in the West, and the rest of the teams in the West bounce around a bit until the final game of the season, which ends with the Spurs in the fifth spot. That means that the Thunder face the Spurs, who, granted, don’t look a ton like the Spurs lately, but still. It’s Gregg Popovich, a master of basketball, versus Billy Donovan, a master of widow’s peaks. What happens if the Spurs steal Game 1? What happens if Donovan falls under that same Popovich snake-charmer spell that Mike D’Antoni did last year? What happens if Kawhi comes back, or LaMarcus Aldridge plays big, or if Dejounte Murray realizes he’s unstoppable? What happens if the Spurs get out to a 2-1 lead with two games left in the series at home? I think it’s far more likely that the Thunder end up mentally eliminating themselves and losing to the Spurs than it is they suddenly become able to beat the Rockets four times in two weeks.

Good Cop: That’s dumb. The Spurs are a scarecrow version of themselves. The Thunder would never lose to them.

Bad Cop: Scarecrows have been working for hundreds of millions of years.

Good Cop: That is an incredibly inaccurate estimation of the amount of times that scarecrows have existed.

Bad Cop: You get the point.

Good Cop: I do. The point is: The Thunder are actually good, and they’re going to do well in the playoffs.

Bad Cop: No. The point is: The Thunder are actually bad, and they’re going to flame out in the playoffs.

All stats current through Monday’s games.