Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook could return to the Oklahoma City Thunder lineup as early as Friday, but the perennial title contenders might have fallen too far to turn their season around. The Thunder have dropped six straight and now own the worst record in the Western Conference at 3-12, and even with their two superstars, a plethora of factors could contribute to their first losing season in five years.
Thunder head coach Scott Brooks said his two All-Stars participated in the majority of Monday’s practice and wouldn’t explicitly rule out Westbrook possibly making his return against the visiting New York Knicks on Friday. “This week -- I don’t know what day -- they’ll get evaluated, and we’ll go from there,” Brooks said to The Oklahoman. “They’ll continue to go through this process and when they’re ready, 100 percent ready, they’ll play.”
The Thunder can take solace in the fact that both their superstars are healing right on schedule. Westbrook’s prognosis called for him to miss four to six weeks after he suffered a small fracture in his right hand during a 93-90 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers on Oct. 30. Often referred to as a “Jones fracture,” Durant broke a bone near the small toe of his right foot during training on Oct. 11 and was expected to sit out six to eight weeks.
The Thunder will likely take more precautions with Durant given how the injury can affect his ability simply to run up and down the court. Westbrook, with career averages of 6.9 assists and 1.6 steals per game, can still find ways to be effective other than scoring, whereas Durant’s specialty is punishing opposing defenses as one of the best scorers in the league.
Brooks will likely work both players back slowly so as to avoid reaggravating the injuries, but in the highly competitive Western Conference and with a thin bench, the Thunder can ill afford for either player to miss much more time. In a home loss to the Golden State Warriors on Sunday, Brooks started Serge Ibaka along with Lance Thomas, Steven Adams, Reggie Jackson, and Andre Roberson. Thomas, Adams, Jackson and Roberson have combined to start 135 games over their careers, and the quartet scored a total of 46 points against the Warriors. In comparison, Durant and Westbrook averaged 32 and 21.8 points per game, respectively, in the 2013-2014 season.
The road to playoff berth could be a painstaking one for Oklahoma City. Last season, the West required 49 wins for the No. 8 seed, and if this season plays out the same way, the Thunder will need to win 46 of their last 67 games (a 68 percent win rate) just to reach last year’s minimum.
Assuming Durant and Westbrook are both back by the start of December, the Thunder’s comeback begins with a very difficult slate. Nine of their 16 games will be on the road next month, and they have two sets of back-to-backs starting with Dec. 11’s visit from LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers followed by a trip to Minnesota. Then they have a Christmas Day date with defending champions San Antonio on the road, followed by a trip back home to host a pesky Charlotte Hornets squad.
Currently six games back of the final playoff spot in the West, the Thunder must also fight off a number of rising teams in the conference. The Sacramento Kings currently own the No. 7 spot, with the Los Angeles Clippers right behind them. The Phoenix Suns, New Orleans Pelicans and Denver Nuggets are all lurking with .500 or better records. Oklahoma City will also play those teams a combined 15 times before the season ends.