Can the OKC Thunder weather the storm?
Any team would struggle without its two best players. But losing the reigning NBA MVP Kevin Durant and his All-Star sidekick Russell Westbrook to fractured bones in October has not just thrown the Oklahoma City Thunder’s title hopes into doubt. After losing 10 of their first 13 games, the Thunder’s poor start is going to make even qualification for the postseason a tall order.
An Elite Duo
Durant was the No. 2 pick in the 2007 draft for the then-Seattle SuperSonics. His formative years were spent on a struggling team, but they broke through in 2009-10, reaching the playoffs for the first time as the Thunder.
Westbrook and James Harden completed a trio of high draft picks which OKC used effectively, advancing to the Western Conference Finals in 2011 and the NBA Finals in 2012, in both cases being denied only by the eventual champions.
Harden left for Houston in 2012, but Durant developed into one of the game’s elite players and deservedly beat LeBron James to the MVP award last season with a stellar campaign, averaging 32.0 points per game in claiming his fourth scoring title as well.
Westbrook is firmly established as an All-Star and one of the most electrifying players in the game, and he came back from an injury-hampered 2013-14 regular season to average 26.7 points, 8.1 assists and 7.3 rebounds in 19 playoff matches.
The Thunder will feel that they’ve had more than their fair share of bad luck with injuries recently, having seen their last two title bids derailed by misfortune.
Despite Durant’s best efforts, not even his great shooting could make up for the weaknesses within the squad that Westbrook’s knee and athletic big man Serge Ibaka’s calf showed up.
Everyone assumed that the 2012 Finals appearance would be the first of many. Maybe it will turn out to be OKC’s only trip.
The Wild Wild West
It’s been a difficult first three weeks of the season for the Thunder. They have hung tough in some games, testament to coach Scott Brooks’ work on the defensive end.
But they lost by 31 to Brooklyn, and they’ve just dropped a pair of home games – one to an otherwise woeful Detroit, and one to Houston in which their limping offence scored only 65 in total (for reference: Portland scored 84 in a half last week). Houston’s 69 points were the lowest to win an NBA match since March 2005.
Ibaka is a very decent player, and they have found another promising outside player in Reggie Jackson, but those two are not a strong enough combination in the brutal Western Conference.
The NBA has been lopsided for quite some time, with the Western Conference dominant ever since Michael Jordan left the Chicago Bulls in 1998. The East has provided some champions, but the West’s strength is in its depth.
There have been discussions into changing the playoff format, such is the disparity when Phoenix (48-34) failed to make the West’s top 8 last year while Atlanta (38-44) finished eighth in the East.
The Thunder have another 11 games before the pair are expected back in mid-December. If they manage to get to that point with eight wins and 16 losses from their first 24 games, they would need to go 41-17 the rest of the way just to better Phoenix’s record of last year.
A Long Way To Go
It’s still very early in the season, and Durant and Westbrook are plenty capable of leading their squad on a romp through the second half of the campaign. Don’t be surprised if that 41-17 record turns out to be more like 50-8.
But the margin for error is tiny. If one of the stars suffers an adverse reaction to his comeback or gets an unfortunate whack on the healed bone, they could really struggle to make the top 8.
To make matters worse, the West only looks stronger this year. Last year’s 4-8 seeds are all setting the early pace and look to have improved. And Phoenix have been joined by New Orleans and Sacramento in pushing for a postseason place if someone slips up.
You could forgive the Thunder doctors for checking the X-rays every day in the hope that their dynamic duo’s bones might have already healed.