It is well-known that basketball is the only sport in which a single player can signify a whole lot of difference. Star players are still scarce and highly regarded, and when one of them is forced to miss a game, his team is bound to feel his absence. So what happens when you have two superstars on your team, but both of them go down with injuries? Well, in the case of the Oklahoma City Thunder, it could mean that 2014-15 goes from a title-contending season to a complete disappointment.
After being practically hijacked from Seattle, the Thunder immediately became the only professional sports franchise in Oklahoma City and started to create a nice history of its own. The team had drafted Kevin Durant during the last season in the Emerald City, and then was fortunate enough to get Russell Westbrook along with Serge Ibaka and James Harden in a span of two years. Suddenly, the Thunder became a contender in the Western Conference, as they have made the playoffs and won at least 60% of their games since 2009-2010.
This very competitive run includes a Finals appearance in 2012, where they lost in 5 games to LeBron and the Heat, and two other Western Conference Finals in 2011 and 2014. Over this period, the team had its ups and downs, but ultimately it seemed as if the franchise only needed an extra push to get over the hump and win a title, especially after Durant won the MVP in 2014.
Entering the 2014-15 season, the Thunder were again considered among the elite teams in the league, and had some of the best odds to fight for a championship despite being in the crowded scene of the West. The main logic involved having Durant, Westbrook, and Ibaka as the proverbial Big Three, along with role players like Jeremy Lamb and Reggie Jackson with another year of experience under their belts. Maybe only the Spurs were above OKC in preseason projections, but they still were a step above teams like the Warriors, Clippers, and Rockets.
The first bump on the road came on October 12th, as it was confirmed that Kevin Durant's foot injury required surgery, forcing him to miss at least 6 weeks. Even as it was bad news, the team had already experienced some stints of Durant's absence in the past, weathering the storm in solid fashion most of the time. The consensus was that OKC should vie to play .500 ball from October to December, about a third of the season, and then wait for Durant to come back at full force to secure a playoff spot.
The real problem came on just the second game of the year, as Russell Westbrook injured his shooting hand against the Clippers. The injury was serious enough to require surgery, which initially was diagnosed to keep him out of the lineup for at least a month and up to six weeks. This meant that Westbrook would be able to return around the same time Durant came back, and that the Thunder would have to play a long time without its two best players.
So far, it has been a disaster. With a bit less than a month of the season in the books, the Thunder now stand at a ghastly 3-12 record (worse than the Lakers!), which puts them at the bottom of the Western Conference and just above the pitiful Sixers with the second-worst record in the NBA. The team has faced a middling schedule and played a lot of close games, but it has mostly been for naught.
So, with Durant and Westbrook still at least a couple of weeks away, does Oklahoma City still have a chance of mounting a comeback?
For starters, it is important to point out that the Thunder's main problem has been on offense. Coach Scott Brooks' plan in this difficult time has been to slow down the pace of the game and play defense, and that has worked most of the time. OKC ranks as the seventh-best defensive unit in the NBA, and is 28th in pace, allowing more than 100 points only four times so far. However, the offense has been atrocious, ranking as 29th in the league while scoring less than 90 points a game. OKC's situation was perfectly shown on November 16th in tilt with the Houston Rockets, where they held one of the best teams in the league to only 69 points, but still lost after only scoring 65 of their own.
According to advanced stats, only two of OKC's regular players have been slightly above-average in Player Efficiency Rating: Ibaka and Jackson, while the rest of the rotation has included an unhealthy dose of the likes of Kendrick Perkins, Sebastian Telfair, and Lance Thomas. The Thunder's funk is certainly not a fluke, and their recent play doesn't suggest that they can turn it around with the personnel they currently have.
With GM Sam Presti not being known for being overly aggressive to make mid-season trades, it seems as if the only hope for the Thunder rests on the return of their two luminaries. If Westbrook manages to return before Durant, a new mindset could at least be achieved before the reigning MVP takes his place in the lineup. Playing in the West means that the team doesn't get many opportunities to play extended runs against lousy teams, but they at least know that having Durant and Westbrook gives them more than a good chance to win any night.
The key for the team will essentially be to turn some of the latest close losses into wins as soon as possible, and at least try to enter mid-December way closer to .500; as unexpected squads like the New Orleans Pelicans and the Sacramento Kings rising to contend in the West, OKC has no time to lose if they want to get back to the race, and then try to become the low seed nobody wants to meet in the playoffs.
With Durant's free agent clock ticking (he could be eligible to leave in 2016), the Thunder knows that it cannot afford a lost season. Their sense of urgency will be tested in the following weeks, and it surely will be interesting, to say the least.