The Oklahoma City Thunder sit at 23-24, four games out of the eighth and final playoff spot in the brutal Western Conference. On paper, with 35 games still to go, that doesn't seem insurmountable.
That's on paper, though, and anyone that has watched the past few Thunder games -- particularly Wednesday night's disaster in New York and Saturday night's 4th-quarter no-show in Memphis -- knows that the issues surrounding this team are way deeper than a four-game deficit could illustrate.
This season felt off even before it started, with the news of Kevin Durant's injury back in October giving Thunder fans a sad dose of reality. It's not like OKC wasn't familiar with injuries already, having had their playoff hopes dashed by injuries in each of the previous two postseasons.
Eternal optimists that Thunder fans can tend to be, however, led to the line of thinking that, "At least we're getting them out of the way early this year." The injury problem got worse when Westbrook went down in the second game, and reached near comical proportions when the Thunder was down to just eight active players at one point. Still, the team showed real heart during that period, and even though the win/loss record wasn't pretty in their absence, the way the team hung in just about every game was a real sign of hope for a team that had traditionally relied so heavily on Durant and Westbrook.
That's what makes the current state of the Thunder such a shock. Durant has an injured toe now, and definitely didn't look like himself in his return against Memphis. But just having him out there should have provided some sort of spark to an increasingly-demoralized Thunder roster. That wasn't the case, though, and it's becoming harder and harder to defend the leadership of this team.
Scott Brooks has been a lightning rod for far longer than he has probably deserved. Just looking at his track record, it's hard to find any point in his tenure where the front office could have justifiably let him go. After the Finals in 2012? After losing to Memphis in 2013 without Westbrook? After last year's Game 6 overtime loss to the eventual champions? No matter how much your eyes could be telling you something didn't feel right with him in charge, the record said otherwise.
Add to that, too, the beginning of this season, when Brooks' coaching chops were never more pronounced. That Thunder roster was dreadful without Westbrook and Durant and, yet, they seemed genuinely well-coached - like a team that was fully prepared for every situation and simply didn't have the talent to execute.
Now, with Durant and Westbrook back, the team looks lost and, even worse, like all of the heart from those trying times has vanished. Beyond that, there are times when they look genuinely unhappy playing with one another. It's not just KD reprimanding Jackson for not shooting at the buzzer of the second quarter, it's not just Waiters standing in the corner with his hands up (he does that everywhere he plays), it's even down to the little sulks where a guy jacks up a stupid shot or commits a dumb foul or turnover and shoulders hang just long enough for the other team to take advantage of.
Just as the reality seems to be setting in with the fans, it's undoubtedly setting in with the Thunder players: they simply aren't good enough to win on talent alone anymore. Durant and Westbrook took the league by storm by creating a two-headed scoring monster that no one had ever seen before. They've gotten better every year and, despite the injuries this season, have proven more than capable of still reaching those heights. The difference? Every team in the league has now watched their same act for the better part of five seasons, and have become prepared for just about every trick they may have up their sleeve.
Take this possession at the end of the half against Memphis, for example.
The Thunder have a chance for the final possession of the half, and they run what they seem to run every single time in that situation. Durant gets the ball at the top of the key on a dump-off from Westbrook, and he does what he always does: try to create. In the past, it has often resulted in an easy stepback jumper, a layup, or an assist depending on how far the defenders would sag off.
In this case, the Grizzlies are well aware of Durant's tendency to hold on to that ball and they don't even show the slightest bit of interest in defending anyone else on the floor. Westbrook has a free lane to cut to the hoop, so does Ibaka, but neither take it. Meanwhile, Tony Allen - who has guarded Durant as well as anybody in the league the past five seasons - completely leaves his man and reads KD's spin move that he uses so often. Durant is overwhelmed and turns it over, and the Thunder don't even get a good look off to try and cut the halftime deficit.
This is just one cherry-picked example, of course, but it's so indicative of the problems that face the Thunder in 2015. Teams have seen that movie before. They've seen the heroic Durant stepback, they've even seen the heroic Morrow/Fisher/Sefolosha/whoever corner three before. It's a backbreaking play that has swung momentum countless times in the past. Today, teams no longer have the patience for it. They've overloaded on Durant and dared the rest of the one-dimensional Thunder players to beat them. Even Westbrook, who is as physically-gifted as anyone in the NBA, has basically decided to settle for pullup jumpers which, despite how well he shoots them, is the preferential option to a drive to the rim or a pick-and-roll with a physical big like Adams.
More succinctly, the Thunder thrived on letting Durant and Westbrook alternate ball-handling duties, and the two were such gifted playmakers, that things tended to work out for them in the end. That's not the case anymore. Defenses blitz the one with the ball, put just enough help on the other, and dare the rest of the offense to get creative enough to beat them.
And that, again, brings the arrow square back to the leadership. You can start up top with Sam Presti because the Waiters move looks more and more puzzling by the day. The only thing more puzzling than acquiring Waiters is why Brooks decides to play him so much more than Morrow, even though he doesn't do any one thing better than Morrow.
It goes beyond Waiters, too, because the Thunder lack anyone beyond Westbrook and Durant that can create much of anything on the offensive end. You could argue Reggie Jackson does, but he is incredibly inconsistent in that regard, and his defense is so problematic that he is becoming more and more expendable by the day. It's not like the team doesn't have the talent to complement Westbrook and Durant either, it's just that that talent has no real direction on how to mesh together in a cohesive unit. Morrow is the best bet as a floor spacer for Durant and Westbrook, and he plays genuinely-inspired defense to boot. Also, Adams and Ibaka have both worked with in pick-and-roll situations in wins earlier in the month.
Yet, that lineup rarely sees time together. Again, that's just one of a host of suggestions for how Brooks could improve his substitution patterns, but that, too, simplifies the larger issue at work here. The Thunder, maybe more than any team in the league beyond the Spurs, was the gold standard for offense in basketball. The Durant and Westbrook duo was as exciting as anything the league had ever seen before.
Only now, the novelty has worn off, and opponents have become more and more creative in finding ways to slow them down. Maybe it was that stretch at the beginning of the season when, despite playing with heart, the Thunder looked like a glorified D-League roster. Whatever it was, Thunder opponents have improved while the Thunder themselves have stood still.
Thunder basketball as we know it worked for five years, but it's seemingly met its match by way of creative coaches. Now, instead of being chased by the rest of the league, it is the Thunder struggling to catch up to everybody else. For Brooks and maybe the entire Thunder powerhouse as it once was known, the window for catching back up is closing quick.