Is Oklahoma City Already an Underdog to Make the Playoffs?

Posted: 11/01/2014 by levcohen in Basketball

In just a few of weeks, disaster has struck the Oklahoma City Thunder. Once the favorite to come out of the West, the Thunder are 0-2… but that’s the least of their issues. The bigger issue, of course, is that they’ve lost BOTH of their superstars in the last three weeks. First, Kevin Durant fractured his foot, and is likely to be out at least another month. Then, on Thursday night Russell Westbrook broke his hand, and he will also be out at least a month. The Thunder have now lost their two best players, and it’s hard for any team to rebound for that, let alone one lacking much depth and already nursing injuries to key role players Reggie Jackson, Jeremy Lamb, and Anthony Morrow. The question now is: can the Thunder hold it together for long enough to remain in the playoff hunt when their stars return?

Let’s assume that the best-case scenario in terms of return time for the stars is at the start of December. In this best-case scenario, the two will miss 15 more games including tonight. Let’s also assume neither has any rust and can return immediately to playing like the superstars they are. What record would the Thunder need to have on December 1st to be in the realistic mix for a playoff spot? Given the tough nature of the Western conference, it’ll probably take around 48 wins to make the playoffs. The Thunder, when healthy, can play around .700 basketball (last year they were at .720). That means they’d probably win about 45 of the 65 games after their two stars return, which in turn means they’d only have to be 3-15 to remain on track to make the playoffs. And their schedule isn’t that difficult over the next month. They play seven games against Eastern conference opponents, none of which are against Cleveland or Chicago. They play nine of their next 15 at home, and the only in-conference road games they have are in Utah and Denver. Sprinkle in home games against the Nuggets, Kings, Jazz, Grizzlies, Rockets, and Warriors, and the schedule looks pretty easy. It’s easy to envision them going into December with a record of 8-9 or 7-10 even considering that they lost their first two games. And if they’re 8-9 when their stars return, they should be on track to win at least 50 games. So in this scenario the playoffs are still almost a given for this team, even if they’re more likely to end with a four or five seed.

Of course, it isn’t this simple. I just laid out the best-case scenario. It’s not unrealistic, but it’s also not extraordinarily likely. More likely? Instead of healing and returning extremely quickly as expected, one of the stars takes a little longer to fully heal and regain his confidence. Say it takes until the new year for Durant or Westbrook to return. That’s another 16 games, and they’ll be tumultuous games, both on the court and off it. December is a tougher month for OKC, with just a quarter of their games coming against the East and games in New Orleans, San Francisco, San Antonio, and Dallas. If Durant’s the one still rehabbing, which is more likely because a broken foot is harder to return from than a broken hand, there are sure to be whispers about whether he’s really trying to get back and whether he’s already dreaming of returning home to play for the Wizards. With either Westbrook or Durant (and not both), the Thunder probably wouldn’t be better than .500 in the month of December (worse with only Westbrook). A reasonable projection would be the Thunder at 14-19 heading into 2015. And what if Durant, Westbrook, or both are rusty upon return? What if they don’t play as well as they did before the injury or just need more rest? Let’s bump down their projection with both healthy to about a .650 win percentage. With 14 wins and just 49 games remaining, they’d likely fall just short of the 48 wins it would likely take to make the playoffs (I’d have them at 46 wins).

Those are just two possible scenarios for Oklahoma City, and you can see how different the results are. An optimistic prediction would peg the Thunder for 53 wins and slot them in around fourth or fifth in the West. A more pessimistic prediction would have them winning just 46 and missing the playoffs. Of course, these aren’t close to the most extreme examples of how the Thunder’s season might turn out. If the mix of role players can somehow get to the return of their stars at 10-7, the Thunder could still win the West. If one or both stars has a huge setback, they could end below .500. The bottom line is that it’s probably still more likely than not that the Thunder make the playoffs… if only just. One thing’s for sure: they’ll make for a very intriguing seven or eight seed and a very scary matchup for the Clippers or Spurs.

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