OKLAHOMA CITY -- A couple of hours before the Oklahoma City Thunder squared off against the Minnesota Timberwolves on Friday night, Michael Wilbon said on "Pardon The Interruption": "There's only three teams in the NBA, right now from where we sit, who can win the championship, who can even play for the championship."
"That's it," Wilbon said. "That's the list."
The Thunder went on to effortlessly roll over the young Wolves 113-93, as expected, improving to 29-12. At the midway point of the season, that puts the Thunder on a 58-win pace, which in the past 10 seasons on average is good for the second seed in the Western Conference, and has been good for the No. 1 seed twice. With a robust margin of victory of +8.2, on paper, the Thunder look like a surefire contending power.
But plenty of people around the league seem to share the same sentiment as Wilbon. It's Warriors, Spurs and Cavs, and then everybody else.
The question is, where are the Thunder?
"Man, the [media and experts are] always trying to nitpick us," Kevin Durant told ESPN.com. "I mean, they don't like us. They don't like how Russell [Westbrook] talks to the media, they don't like how I talk to the media. So obviously, yeah, they're not going to give us the benefit of the doubt.
"Especially since we've been together so long. Some of these teams are new, except for the Spurs, who have won. But we haven't won and we've still got the same core, so they don't expect us to win. It is what it is, who cares about them. They don't mean nothing, the critics. Their opinions, everybody has one, but we don't really care about them. Every day we're just going to keep grinding this thing out. We feel like we can compete with anybody."
Part of the reason they've flown under the contender radar this season is because the Thunder's first 41 games have not been without issue. First, Durant pulled a hamstring and then sprained a toe, causing him to miss seven games (the Thunder went 3-4 in those). Second, their defense has been alarmingly inconsistent.
"We've had some ups and downs during these first 40 games," Thunder coach Billy Donovan said before the game. "I thought from like, game 20 to 30, we were really trending in a positive direction defensively. We really had made some significant strides. Then I think these games 30 to 40 here, we've taken a little step back with our consistency there."
Third, they don't always look all that different from previous iterations under Scott Brooks, in which the team was plagued with a number of issues -- offensive stagnation, perimeter defense, turnovers.
Fourth, the Thunder's schedule has set them up for a lot of this (21 of their 29 wins have come against sub.-500 teams). Against current playoff teams, they're a mediocre 11-9 (which includes three wins against the 17-22 Utah Jazz).
And fifth, most important, the Spurs and Warriors have just been nonsensically absurd thus far, primarily in their ability to consistently play at a high standard. For example: The Spurs' (+14.7) and Warriors' (+13.6) net ratings would be No. 1 and 2 for the past 15 seasons if they hold. You don't need to be told this again, but you're being told it again: The Spurs and Warriors have simply been stupid good.
As far as measuring against the best, the Thunder have played the Spurs once, winning on opening night in OKC, 112-106. They've played the Cavs once, losing in Cleveland, 104-100. And they play the Warriors on Feb. 6. So in terms of stacking them up, there's not much to go on. The Thunder have been good; they just haven't been great. And that appears to be what it's going to take to get into this season's conversation.
"We're what, 28, 29 and 12?" Durant said. "Coming from a team that didn't make the playoffs last year and nobody really expected us to be in the upper echelon of teams, and they still don't, but for us to come out and keep getting better game by game shows a lot by us."
One thing the Thunder are keen to remind themselves of is they can't control what the Spurs and Warriors do in front of them. As the Thunder know all too well, what seems like assurance in the regular season doesn't always extend into the postseason. Injuries, most pointedly, can derail the most promising of seasons, and the problem with them is, you don't know when they're going to happen and you can't plan for them.
The other thing about the Thunder: They are working in a new coach, and essentially an entirely new second unit behind Westbrook and Durant. The players will tell you they are fine with not playing at their best in January. They don't want to be a finished product three months before the postseason. Their entire vision with this season under Donovan was to be an evolving organism, something that develops over time and in theory, peaks in April and beyond.
"Even though it's the halfway point, I just believe there's so many ebbs and flows in a long season," Donovan said. "I just try to focus on, we've got to keep getting better, keep improving. We've got to try and become more and more consistent and stay focused on those things that we need to do that are going to be important with the way we want to play."
Outside of last season's injury-ravaged campaign in which they missed the postseason, the Thunder have been a Western Conference constant, winning more games and more playoff series in the past five seasons than every team except the Spurs and Miami Heat. Three Western finals, one NBA Finals and two of the top five or six best players in the world. All impressive recent history. Not enough, though, to be in this season's conversation.
Because like Durant acknowledged, they're missing that one key thing to cement their place. And everybody, both inside the organization and out, knows exactly what that is.