Can the Thunder Survive Without Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant?
Thunder fans woke up this morning hoping that all of this was just a bad dream.
During last night’s game against the Los Angeles Clippers, Russell Westbrook fractured a bone in his right (shooting) hand. The injury will keep him out approximately four to six weeks, which will put him on the same time table as the reigning NBA MVP, Kevin Durant.
In our preview for the Thunder before the season, we ran projections with and without Kevin Durant and approximated his absence as being worth three games. I remarked at the time that, with the competition in the Western Conference, three games could mean the difference between having a home court advantage in the playoffs or not.
With Westbrook still in, the disaster of Durant’s injury was slightly mitigated. Westbrook is a good enough player to keep them in the playoff hunt. And when you have Durant, you can deal with playing a potential Game 7 on the road. Really, you can overcome a variety of playoff obstacles.
But with Westbrook now out, will the Thunder still even be in playoff contention when they get their two stars back?
Zach Lowe of Grantland tweeted this out today.
If OKC is 5-15 after 20 games -- and that or worse is in play -- have to go 44-18 rest of way to hit 49 wins it took for No. 8 last season.— Zach Lowe (@ZachLowe_NBA) October 31, 2014
That would be quite a feat. However, our algorithms don’t necessarily think that things will go as badly as it seems today.
What Our Numbers Say
Here’s the whole story, starting from a fully healthy Thunder squad, after Durant’s injury (by the way, "After Durant" - or AD - will be used liberally by every writer if he leaves for Washington in a couple years), and then after Westbrook’s injury.
Projected wins before Durant injury: 51-31
Projected wins after Durant injury, before season: 48.5-33.5
Projected wins after Westbrook injury: 46.5-35.5
That final number includes their 0-2 start, so our numbers say that losing Westbrook will effectively cost them one win. Interesting.
The Thunder definitely have a tall task ahead of them. They have young talent on the roster, including Perry Jones III, who had 32 points, 7 rebounds, and 3 assists against the Clippers last night. Speaking of that game, even with only eight minutes of Westbrook, the Thunder lost by just three points, 93-90.
Big man Serge Ibaka and second-year center Steven Adams will have to shoulder an even bigger load in the next month. Their best bet is to focus on their defensive game and be the Chicago Bulls last year after Derrick Rose went down again – horrible offensively, but still respectable enough on defense with their frontcourt to win games ugly and stay in playoff contention.
Head coach Scott Brooks has already been on the hot seat (at least by the media) throughout his coaching career. If this squad indeed goes 5-15 over the next six weeks, or worse, it will be interesting to see if the Thunder front office makes his seat hotter or give him a pass. Or, if the Thunder exceed expectations, like our algorithms predict, Brooks could be in for Coach of the Year praise.
As you can see, there are a wide variety of potential outcomes with this Thunder team. We don’t have any exact dates on Westbrook and Durant’s injuries, and they could come back sooner or later than is predicted. Things could be bad enough where the Thunder can’t overcome the playoff deficit. What is certain is that the Thunder have the most interesting story line over the next couple of months, as we all wait to see how this squad will perform and how their organization handles this adversity.