Analysis: At halftime of the NBA season, the Thunder and Wolves should be feeling great

Being good at the halfway point of the NBA season guarantees absolutely nothing. Take last year for example, when only three of the top 11 teams at halftime of the season would go on to win a playoff series and another three of those teams missed the postseason entirely.

Yes, a lot can — and will — change between now and April.

That said, there are some surprises as this season hits halftime, none bigger than the success stories being crafted in Minnesota and Oklahoma City. They’ve basically been atop the Western Conference since around Thanksgiving, with win totals on pace to smash the preseason expectations put forth by oddsmakers.

Many of the expected contenders indeed look like contenders: Boston has the best record in the NBA, defending champion Denver has been predictably excellent, Milwaukee and Philadelphia are near the top of the East and the Los Angeles Clippers have a better record than anybody over the last six weeks or so. No surprises there. But the Timberwolves and the Thunder have clearly raised some eyebrows.

“They take the challenge, and they like to guard, particularly against these heavyweight teams,” Minnesota coach Chris Finch said of his club. “A lot of our young guys are still proving that they can be just as good in a lot of ways and win that battle. We talk about winning that battle with the guy in front of you all the time and they take pride in that.”

It’s pretty safe to assume that either Finch or Oklahoma City’s Mark Daigneault will be spending All-Star weekend in Indianapolis as coach of the Western Conference. That task goes to the coach with the best record two weeks before the All-Star Game (which makes this year’s cutoff date Feb. 4) and last year’s coaches are ineligible — which means Denver’s Michael Malone is assured of having that weekend off. So is Boston’s Joe Mazzulla, meaning it’s almost certain that either Philadelphia’s Nick Nurse or Milwaukee’s Adrian Griffin will be heading to Indy to coach the East.

The Thunder have been building for their future for years, stockpiling draft picks like squirrels do with acorns entering the winter months. Thing is, the future might really be starting now: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is a bona fide star, Chet Holmgren is a legitimate threat to Victor Wembanyama’s rookie of the year candidacy and Oklahoma City has a starting lineup where everybody is 25 or younger. There are 15 active players in the league with more points than the entire Thunder starting lineup does combined. LeBron James is about 24,000 points ahead of OKC’s first five.

But here they are, and they look like a problem.

“I think there is an uncommon maturity about them,” Daigneault said. “And as I’ve said before, a lot of it is who they are as people, and I think a lot of them had that walking through the door. And then it gains momentum when there are like-minded people together and they bounce off each other in that way.”

The Wolves had 66-1 odds to win an NBA title entering the season. The Thunder, 100-1. The odds have moved considerably since; FanDuel Sportsbook had Minnesota at 21-1 on Monday, Oklahoma City at 18-1. They both have shorter odds now than the Los Angeles Lakers (29-1), Dallas (32-1), Miami (36-1) and Golden State (50-1). That wasn’t the case when this season began. The Warriors have struggled most of the season and the Lakers have really struggled since winning the in-season tournament.

If OKC and Minnesota (along with teams like Indiana and Houston) are on the good-surprise list, the Lakers and Warriors are on the opposite side of the ledger.

Count the Lakers and Warriors out at your own peril. But overlooking what the Thunder and Wolves have done so far would be equally perilous.

It was brutally cold in Oklahoma City this past weekend. The Thunder played Orlando at home on Saturday, air temperature of around 10 degrees at game time, the wind making it feel like it was about 10 below.

Put it this way: nobody drove to the Thunder game that night with their windows down.

When they do, that’s when Sam Presti will be happy. The Thunder general manager laid out his vision before the season started and he pointed out that if fans are driving to games with the Oklahoma wind in their hair, that means the weather is good, which probably means spring has sprung. Barring a collapse, the Thunder will be playing in late April, maybe May, maybe even June.

“It’s a long process,” Presti said as camp was beginning a few months ago. “It requires a lot of discipline, and there’s no promises.”

Correct. Nothing has been clinched yet. But it’s halftime of the NBA season, and the Wolves and Thunder should be feeling as good as anyone in the league right now.


Tim Reynolds is a national basketball writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at treynolds(at)