The Oklahoma City Thunder have carved out a niche as one of the supreme powers in the NBA’s loaded Western Conference over the past five seasons. On the back of reigning MVP Kevin Durant and exciting All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook, the Thunder have made the postseason five seasons running, won an average of 54 games and claimed four division titles, along with trips to two of the last three conference finals and one appearance in the NBA Finals.
Indeed, the future has been bright in Oklahoma City for quite some time, and there was no reason to think any different before the start of preseason. With Durant and Westbrook in tow, the Thunder were supposed to supplant the San Antonio Spurs as the preeminent threat to come out of the West every year.
But after a 1-4 record to start the season, and with Durant and Westbrook sidelined with significant injuries until the end of November at best, the Thunder’s run of near unparalleled success appears to be in serious jeopardy. Las Vegas odds makers now list six teams ahead of Oklahoma City as favorites to win the title.
Things might get much worse for the Thunder before they get better. For one, injuries continue to pile up on the roster, with role players at greater risk due to increased and unexpected playing time very early in the season. As evident by Tuesday’s loss to Toronto, the injury bug is slowly infecting the rest of OKC’s roster. Already missing his two superstars, Thunder head coach Scott Brooks had just eight eligible and healthy players to choose from, and finished the game with only six.
The Thunder would lose 100-88 while suffering another knock when forward Perry Jones went down in the early moments of the second half. The extent of Jones’s injury is presently unknown, but the fact that he couldn’t walk off the court under his own power isn’t a good sign.
A distressing thought for the organization, is that the injury predicament could have gotten worse. Guard Reggie Jackson appeared to injure his wrist and thigh after Jones went down, but returned to action. With Durant and Westbrook out, Jackson and power forward Serge Ibaka are now the leading scorers with 18 points per game.
“It feels like a nightmare that I can’t wake up from,” Jackson said to reporters after the game.
Veteran center Nick Collison relayed emotions of defeat and loss around the locker room saying, “We’re just kind of numb to it. We’re used to guys going out now.”
On top of Durant, forwards Grant Jarrett and Mitch McGary, and guards Anthony Morrow and Jeremy Lamb have missed all five of the Thunder’s games this season.
With a plague seemingly set on the Thunder’s house, they are in serious danger of falling too far behind in a conference that last year required the No. 8 seed to win 49 games to earn a playoff berth. In a best case scenario, Westbrook would be back in action before December, but it might be too late. While just four of their next 12 opponents in November made the playoffs in 2013-2014, it will be hard for Brooks to find scorers to keep the Thunder in the playoff hunt. Durant and Westbrook combined to average nearly 54 points last season, and so far the Thunder are 26th in scoring (90.8 points per game).
Furthermore, Westbrook has never been asked to carry the Thunder with Durant out before, and may have trouble finding a way to keep the Thunder competitive without the NBA's best scorer. Last season, Durant kept the Thunder more than afloat with Westbrook down for 27 games in the second half of the season, with the Thunder winning 20 games. But Durant has been such an iron workhorse since he entered the league that he’s missed a combined 16 games throughout his career, leaving little time for Westbrook to know what it’s like without one of the game’s most prolific scorers backing him up.
Then of course there is the risk of re-injury Durant faces, a harrowing fact that could send the Thunder to the draft lottery for the first time in five years. Specifically, Durant suffered a Jones fracture in his right foot, or the fifth metatarsal, and according to USA Today a second surgery is often required and the “risk for re-injury is particularly high.”
It’s that risk that might force the Thunder to keep Durant out longer than two months, and puts more pressure on Westbrook, who is recovering from a fractured right hand, to perhaps return prematurely. Typically a player in Durant's condition would need six to eight weeks to heal. The 26-year-old went down during training in early October, meaning he could return with Westbrook sometime in late November. The Thunder have a three-game home stand with Golden State, Utah and New York, and home games are usually seen as the best time for players to make their return. However, OKC could push Durant's return to Dec. 9, following a quick three-game trip to New Orleans, Philadelphia and Detroit.
Still, rushing either player back isn’t the type of thinking that got OKC to the top of the West. The Thunder have found continued success due in tremendous part to Durant and Westbrook, and forcing either back for fear of losing control of this season is the kind of nearsighted thinking fans haven’t seen from the Thunder these last five seasons.
Nobody is expecting the Thunder to quit. Brooks recently stated that he has no reason to wave the white flag this early in the season.
“Even without Durant and Westbrook, they can at least compete in the early part of the year and keep themselves around .500 just because of the system,” one Western Conference scout told Sporting News. “They have players who have been in that system for years now and you can plug them in.
"The offense is simple enough. And defensively, they still have their big guys, they still have Ibaka, (Steven) Adams, Collison, (Kendrick) Perkins, those guys. It is not easy to replace the guys who are injured but they’re still ahead of a lot of other teams just because they know the playbook.”
At the moment, they are only ahead of the worst team in the NBA. For an organization with high expectations, this season is not looking bright. When Durant and Westbrook return, the Thunder will likely need to play at their highest level to avoid missing the playoffs, or getting a low seed where they could face the Spurs, Dallas Mavericks, Portland Trail Blazers, Golden State Warriors, or Los Angeles Clippers without home-court advantage. OKC has been able to win road games in the playoffs in past seasons, but the West is deep, and this squad has already been through tough times. In other words, many within the Thunder organization will be monitoring Durant and Westbrook's health in the coming weeks.
"They will be back soon and we will be whole once again," Brooks said. "I just don't know when. But when that happens, everyone will fit into their roles."