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The Oklahoma City Thunder might be better than you think

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We've seen how much Oklahoma City has struggled without Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, but will they be better than ever when they return?

Can the Thunder be better than expected when Durant and Westbrook return?
Can the Thunder be better than expected when Durant and Westbrook return?
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Yesterday afternoon, Ali AlShowaikh reported that Scott Brooks had announced that both Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are progressing given their participation in non-contract drills, at Saturday's practice.

"They looked good," said Scott Brooks to Darnell Mayberry of the Oklahoman. "They've been with the group the whole time, but Saturday was the first day they've actually participated in some of the drills."

Given the state of the Thunder and the close return dates of both stars, it's a good time to look forward at what the Thunder will look like when they both return.

How Far Do They Have To Go?

Looking at where the Thunder sit now, 3-12, last in the Western Conference, 9.5 games out of first place, it's going to take a variety of circumstances to go their way for OKC to be in playoff contention. The 8-5 Sacramento Kings and Los Angeles Clippers are both currently on a pace similar to that of the seventh-seeded Memphis Grizzlies lasts season (50-32). The Thunder would have to finish at least 47-20 (a winning percentage of .701) just to match that current pace.

Over the last three seasons, the Thunder have averaged a .721 winning percentage. That's equivalent to a 59 or 60 win team. A record like that would require the Thunder to win 48 to 49 games in the same time-span. Not that big of a jump. In fact, I'm under the tree of belief that there are realistic factors that could not only make that an obtainable goal, but one that could be exceeded.

No Residual Effects from Injuries

When you talk about projections, us sports enthusiasts rarely take into account the nature of the injury suffered by said athlete and it's role in that athlete regaining his/her optimum form, when they do get back on the court.

The injuries to Durant and Westbrook are neither structural (ACL, MCL, etc.) or know to be lingering issues (hamstrings, groins, etc.). The chart below isn't a 1:1 comparison, but it can give us a sense of the impact of Westbrook's fractured hand. Looking at NewsOK's article about the list of players that have suffered similar injuries:

Player Injury Games Missed Circumstances
Danny Green"]">Danny Green Fractured 2nd metacarpal 10 games/22 days played well the rest of the season
Kawhi Leonard"]">Kawhi Leonard Fractured 4th metacarpal 14 games/35 days played well the rest of the season
Rajon Rondo"]">Rajon Rondo Fractured 5th metacarpal 16 games/34 days missed training camp, started season
Roddy Beaubois Fractured 2nd metacarpal 16 games/31 days missed rest of season (inj on Mar 17)
Anthony Davis"]">Anthony Davis Fractured 5th metacarpal 7 games/17 days played well the rest of the season
Kevin Love Fractured 3rd metacarpal 15 games/35 days re-fractured on Jan. 6, missed rest of season

In only Kevin Love's case did negative factors come in to play, and that was only due to a re-injury of the same bone. Given the case of most of said players, Westbrook should quickly be in game shape.

USA Today covered the effects of Kevin Durant's injury from a medical point of view, and unless Durant has had any hidden setbacks, he should be, as sports medicine surgeon, Nick Grosso stated, "Good as new." and that "he won’t get de-conditioned (because he’ll be able to work out)." That puts Durant in the same boat as Westbrook concerning his game shape.

The Development of Role Players

Perry Jones is listed as day-to-day after suffering a knee contusion back on November 4th, he only played in four games. Excluding that game and a clunker in his debut against Portland, Jones averaged 22.6 points, shot 52.1% from the field and 41.1% from three.

And I won't even bring him up again.

There are encouraging signs, individually, all around. Steven Adams has grabbed the starting spot, Kendrick Perkins has been a nudge more than a completely liability on both ends of the floor (check his defense on Brook Lopez early in the most recent game against the Brooklyn Nets), and Andre Roberson is developing into a future 3-D (three point shooter and perimeter defense) contributor, but much more aggressive than the past iteration that came in the form of Thabo Sefolosha.

And those aren't the best ones.

Reggie Jackson has surely pushed his free agent baseline up a few notches this season. 20.1 points, 7.5 assists, and 5.3 rebounds per game. Amazing. Even more, Jackson is only averaging 3.2 turnovers per game in 39.3 mpg. He's doing this all while standing at sixth in the NBA in AST% (percentage of teammates field goals that the player assisted), leading to AST/TO ratio that is 19th in the NBA.

That's a mouthful, but it's impressive on a team devoid of any other creators off the dribble. It also shows that he can play heavy minutes next to Westbrook, without stunting the team's offense. He still isn't much of a shooter (25.4% from three, though he shot 33% last season), but that matters less when you notice the development of Serge Ibaka and Nick Collison.

Ibaka has taken 62 threes this season, Collison (36.7% from three) has already made and attempted more threes than all of his previous seasons combined.

Serge is becoming as dynamic as another "stretch" power forward: Chris Bosh. Bosh went from taking 35 threes in 2011-12, to 74 the following season, to 218 last season. Ibaka is on a very similar 57-60-336 (projected) line by the end of this season. Here's the alarming difference, Bosh was shooting those threes at a 33% clip with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade flanking him. Serge is hitting 37.1% of his, and that's with Roberson and Jackson at his side.

Even better, Scott Brooks has Ibaka working on dribble drives to counter closeouts (the most recent Denver Nuggets game is a clear example). Those dynamics being added to Serge and Collison will do wonders for space and pace when OKC's stars return.


shot chart

OKC stands to vastly improving an offense that has been one of the worst in the NBA. The Thunder are last in scoring (89.6), second-to-last in OffRtg (98.4), and as Chris Hanneke pointed out last week, their fastbreak has been stifled. The Thunder scored 15.3 points per game on the break (7th in the league), they are last at 6.2 this season.

Scott Brooks has done a admirable job of adjusting the Thunder offense to feature at least some ball movement. Balanced scoring, easy looks, energetic play all around. It's too bad it often only lasted in the first half.

That's what happens when you don't have the firepower to close out games. The Thunder naturally should have closed out half of those 13 games. That means a record of at least 6-9.

If the ball movement continues, and the improvements of the role players are steady, you're talking about opponents no longer being able to zone in on Westbrook/Durant on a regular basis, assuming their loads and usage rates are just a few points lower than they historically have been.


On the other hand, the Thunder's defense has been solid. They have a DefRtg of 104.3 (10th in the NBA) and are fifth in points allowed per game (94.9).

Zorgon, detailed the capabilities of this athletic, puppets-on-a-string, defense. Notice how they blew up the splash brothers duo the other night.

Klay Thompson and Steph Curry in the second half: 1 of 15 from the floor, 0 of 6 from three, 4 assists, 1 turnover

There skill set is not the issue, but the focus and breakdown in strategy (which is understandable given the burden put on players that otherwise would not carry said responsibility), that happens more often than it should. Case in point, the issues with defending the pick-and-roll against Utah last week. In particular the slow feet of their big men and the errors in decision making with their guards.

Experience, skill, and energy - that will be renewed playing next to two stars carrying the heavier burdens, can solve those issues.

Yet neither of those are the most encouraging sign for the Thunder.

The Schedule

Even with that breakdown in how many games the Thunder have had control of in the second half, those are close games that should be get easier to win as the year goes on.

Up to this point, OKC has the seventh highest averaging winning percentage of opponents played in the NBA (.541). Only two teams in the west have had higher percentages. The Utah Jazz (not a playoff threat as currently constructed) and the Sacramento Kings (who have had the second highest percentage - translation: they are for real).

If you take into account the teams that are currently in the playoff race, the Los Angeles Clippers, the San Antonio Spurs, and the Kings are the only teams that have schedules that are going to get relatively easier.

I may be wrong, but that with all these factors, it's looking like there could be an easier path back to the playoffs than expected.