As Westbrook preened and galloped sideways to celebrate the most impressive bucket of his 38-point eruption in Oklahoma City’s season opening loss, the possibilities for the Kevin Durant-less Thunder became evident. The team could struggle, but the wrath of Westbrook ensured that it would be fiercely competitive. And, at the very least, Westbrook unleashed was going to be thoroughly entertaining.
But now that Westbrook has broken a bone in his right hand and will spend at least the next month on the sideline with Durant (broken foot), the must-see potential of the Thunder is less of a concern than its ability to remain in playoff contention in an intensely competitive Western Conference.
The Thunder had a steep enough challenge without Durant, a four-time scoring champion who earned his first most valuable player award last season after leading the team to the league’s second-best record despite missing Westbrook for 36 games. The climb now needs some miraculous assistance.
Durant and Westbrook accounted for 55 percent of the Thunder’s scoring last postseason and the attention that they attracted also created easier scoring opportunities for their teammates. And, since the franchise arrived in Oklahoma City in 2008, the Thunder had only played one game without both Durant and Westbrook – a 101-83 win over Boston on Jan. 24, when Serge Ibaka and Jeremy Lamb combined for 40 points as Durant iced a sore right shoulder and Westbrook recovered from a right knee injury.
But the Thunder will have a hard time repeating that kind of performance with the team also without Lamb (back strain), Reggie Jackson (ankle), Anthony Morrow (sprained knee), Mitch McGary (broken foot) and Grant Jerrett (ankle surgery). Unless Jackson and/or Lamb are able to return by Saturday, the Thunder will only have the NBA minimum eight players for Saturday’s home opener against Denver – and Sebastian Telfair, a former high school phenom hoping to hold on after a year in China, is the only point guard.
Jackson is expected to return soon and thrived last season in Westbrook’s absence. Oklahoma City used 6-foot-11 forward Perry Jones at backup point guard in a gutty 93-90 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers on Thursday, when its chances of pulling out a stunning win ended when Telfair called his own number, drove toward the hoop and tossed a potential game winner off the side of the backboard.
The Thunder’s roster situation is more complicated because it has 15 players under guaranteed contracts. Oklahoma City would be eligible to add a player through the NBA’s “hardship exception,” which can only happen after four players miss at least three games becomes of injury. No available free agent could make much of a difference on the win column, but the goal now is simply to survive and maintain.
Oklahoma City has a .688 winning percentage (243-110) with Durant and Westbrook in the lineup since it first became a playoff team in 2009-10. At that pace, the Thunder would win 41 games if Durant and Westbrook are able to play the final 60 games. So that means Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins, Nick Collison, Steven Adams, Andre Roberson, Lance Thomas and whatever injured players can come back in the interim will need to be close to a .500 team just to secure a playoff spot, let alone a comfortable position.
The 1995 Houston Rockets remain the lowest seed to ever win the NBA title, finishing sixth in the Western Conference before beating the teams with the league’s four best regular season records in the playoffs. So hope wasn’t completely dashed when Westbrook fought with Clippers center DeAndre Jordan and Perkins for an offensive rebound Thursday night and broke his hand. But doubt has certainly arrived in Oklahoma City.