How Will Kevin Durant's Return Affect the Western Conference Playoff Picture?

With news that Kevin Durant will be back in OKC's starting lineup, the Thunder begin their push back towards the NBA elite.

The entire NBA community perked up this morning with news that MVP Kevin Durant will be returning to action tonight against the New Orleans Pelicans. Durant broke his foot in mid-October and was given a 6-8 week recovery timetable for his injury. Throughout these two months, the Oklahoma City Thunder have been adamantly stating that they would not try to rush their superstar back on the court until both parties felt completely comfortable with his progress. Apparently the team has seen all they’ve needed to see and will give Durant the green light just over six weeks since surgery. For Oklahoma City, number 35 back on the court will be a sight for sore eyes.

The first several weeks of the season have not been kind to the Thunder. With Durant already unavailable to start the season, it took only one regular season game before their other superstar, Russell Westbrook, went down with a fractured hand. This left a thoroughly depleted Thunder squad to face off against a gauntlet of Western Conference foes by relying on the scoring of reserve guard Reggie Jackson and Serge Ibaka. After going only 3-12 until Westbrook’s return Wednesday, many were already questioning their playoff chances, even if Durant were to come back 100% healthy.

Yet with the now-certain knowledge of Durant’s return, these doomsday predictions of a lottery-bound Thunder squad seem all the more outrageous.

To start, let's take a look at just how important Kevin Durant is to his Oklahoma City Thunder team. Last season, Even with a healthy Westbrook, Durant led the league in usage percentage at 33 and in win shares with 21. His on-court production was good enough to earn him league MVP over Superhuman Basketball Monster Lebron James, and to carry an imperfect Thunder squad all the way to the Western Conference finals.

Obviously, much of that playoff success should also be attributed to co-star Russell Westbrook, who averaged a near triple-double throughout the entire postseason with 27 points, 7 boards and 8 assists. Westbrook, who has looked sharp in his two games back, will certainly be required to play at an All-Star level alongside Durant if the Thunder want to make a legitimate push back into playoffs.

But just how likely is that? Before the season began, most projections and preseason rankings had the Thunder among the top three in a stacked Western Conference. As it stands right now, the Thunder are 5-12, putting them 4.5 games behind the eighth-place Phoenix Suns, and 10 games behind the conference-leading Memphis Grizzlies.

Until the announcement of Durant's return this morning, there was a legitimate concern that the Thunder had dug themselves too big of a whole and wouldn’t be able to crack the eighth seed in the hyper-competitive Western conference. But Durant is back, is the reigning MVP, and probably is the most effortless scorer in the game. His impact will be felt quickly and forcefully around the league, assuming he can readjust at a reasonable speed.

And luckily for Durant and the Thunder, their schedule over the next couple weeks (with the massive exceptions of Anthony Davis tonight and the Cavaliers next Thursday) will feature below-average league talent and an ample opportunity for Durant to ease back into MVP form. Over the next 10 days, the Thunder will have a number of easy matchups against Philadelphia, Detroit, Milwaukee and Minnesota, whose combined records are an atrocious 17-51. This provides a favorable climate in which to gradually reinsert Durant.

Last season, the Dallas Mavericks grabbed the eighth and final seed in Western Conference with a 49-33 record. The Thunder finished second overall in the West, ending with a dominant 59-23 record. Assuming that the West this year will stay equally competitive, the Thunder will need to go 44-21 the rest of the season to match the Mavs’ win-loss total last year. In order to finish on pace with their output from a season ago, Durant and company would need to win 54 of their remaining 65 regular season games.

If Durant and Westbrook can return to 2013-14 form, the aforementioned 44-21 seems like an attainable goal. It's been six months since we last watched Durant rain jumpers over the entire NBA, and maybe we’ve forgotten how good he is. Last season, Durant had the highest PER at 29.8, all while leading the league in scoring on 50% shooting. According to our nERD metric, Durant finished last season with the highest rating in the league (27), besting the next highest, LeBron James, by a solid 7 points.

As we saw last year, Durant can single-handedly win games that would otherwise be out of hand. He went through stretches last season with determined scoring barrages that no team could defend. Throw in the most athletic and dynamic point guard in the game (sorry, Derrick Rose), and this Thunder team could be right in the thick of things come the new year.

Still, questions remain surrounding Durant and Westbrook. Outside of Serge Ibaka and Reggie Jackson (the only two sources of offense in the their absence), the Thunder lack skilled position players to compete against top-ranked Western Conference opponents, especially in a seven-game series. Jeremy Lamb and Anthony Morrow are both struggling to fill the role that a once-competent Thabo Sefolosha occupied a few seasons ago and bench productivity has remained a prominent concern.

Nonetheless, the on-court prowess of Durant and Westbrook means that a playoff berth is certainly in the cards. In fact, if the Thunder revert to form and gather a seventh or eighth seed comfortably - our numbers currently give the team a 28.5% chance of making the playoffs now that Durant is back - it will be interesting to see if top-tier coaches like Gregg Popovich will rest their starters with more than just playoff health in mind. If a matchup with the Oklahoma City Thunder and the reigning MVP in the first round is looming, first place in the Western Conference may not be as coveted a position as usual. This is certainly a lot of speculation only 20 games into the season, but the impact of Durant cannot be overstated.

All eyes will on KD in New Orleans tonight.