With Christmas Eve and Christmas morning coming for the Oklahoma City Thunder both early and separated by 96 hours this year – getting Russell Westbrook back last Friday vs. New York and Kevin Durant in time to play at New Orleans Tuesday night – the best way to assess the Thunder’s situation is:
A) No worries.
B) In the nick of time.
C) Too late to matter.
The same set of answers can apply to two questions spinning off the Thunder stars’ comebacks: Is 65 games enough time for the OKC to position itself as a championship contender in the rugged Western Conference? And does Durant have a legitimate chance to repeat as the NBA’s Most Valuable Player?
Here at Hang Time HQ, the first question seems easier to answer than the first. The 5-12 Thunder woke up Tuesday in 12th place in the West standings. They were 4.5 games behind No. 8 Phoenix (10-8). For a team as playoff-savvy as Oklahoma City, just qualifying for the postseason would put them in position to push toward The Finals – they’d just have to do it without either homecourt advantage or a relatively easy first-round matchup (since this is the West, we stress relatively).
OKC also was eight games out of a Top 4 berth, where it would enjoy home court for at least one round. Realistic to think the Thunder could climb over that many rivals? Durant, Westbrook, coach Scott Brooks and the rest have won 72.1 percent of their games the past three seasons. If they were to win at that clip over their final 65 this season, they’d finish about 52-30.
Only once in the last eight years would that record be good enough to finish fourth or higher. And that worked out for Utah in 2006-07 because its 51-31 finish was good enough to win the Northwest Division, earning it a Top 4 berth even though No. 5 Houston went 52-30. The same sort of thing occurred in 2005-06 (Denver’s 44-38 earned homecourt over Memphis’ 49-33).
Also, the Lakers and the Grizzlies secured the Nos. 3 and 4 slots in the post-lockout 2011-12 season by finishing 41-25 (.621), the equivalent of 51-31 in an 82-game season.
So it’s not too late for the Thunder. How ’bout Durant?
If OKC does push toward a playoff spot or a top seed, odds are good that the NBA’s 2014 MVP will have something significant to do with it. He’ll already have on his side the unofficial criterion of how his team did/does without him: the Thunder are a 5-12 team in his absence. If they were to turn that around and go 45-20 or 47-18 with Durant after his return from foot surgery, that would be compelling apart from his individual stats.
The MVP field has no early runaway favorite: Marc Gasol has gotten attention for Memphis’ start, Stephen Curry is a possibility from Golden State and LeBron James always is a factor. Durant would face a particular hurdle in an injury-shortened season: Would MVP voters consider a player who missed so many games?
Only three previous Most Valuable Players, out of 59 in NBA history, appeared in fewer than 70 games in a full season. Boston’s Bob Cousy played 64 of a possible 72 in 1956-57, his teammate Bill Russell played 69 of 72 the next year and Portland’s Bill Walton played in just 58 of 82 in 1977-78 – with most of his absences coming at the end, missing the Blazers’ final 22 games. Portland went 48-10 with Walton, 10-14 without him.
As for other individual stats, Durant shouldn’t have much trouble grabbing voters’ attention. Since his rookie season, he has averaged 28.6 points, 7.4 rebounds and 38.9 minutes, while shooting 48.7 percent from the field and 38.5 percent on 3-pointers.
And actually, if someone were to begrudge Durant his raw numbers, consider this: A scoring average of 28.6 played out over 65 games would get him to 1,859 points – the equivalent of a 22.6 average over 82 games. Fourteen NBA MVPs averaged less than 22.6 in their hardware-winning seasons.
None of this, of course, addresses the likelihood of Westbrook splitting votes with his freshly healed Thunder teammate. Fresh off his hand surgery, Westbrook grabbed a 1-0 lead in OKC impact by scoring 32 points and sparking the Thunder past the Knicks last weekend.