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Can The Oklahoma City Thunder Turn The Corner?

The Oklahoma City Thunder’s record of 25-25 means they have a lot of catching up to do. With 32 games left, can they right this ship?

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The Oklahoma City Thunder may not make the playoffs for the first time since the team’s inaugural season in 2008-09. That’s a near-unbelievable statement given the Thunder’s roster contains two of the league’s elite players in Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, the latter being the reigning Most Valuable Player. Yet the reality of the situation can’t be ignored. Yes, it’s a bitter pill to swallow for those who support them. Welcome, Oklahoma City, to the heartache of having your own professional basketball team. Though always the ultimate goal of all NBA teams, it’s extremely difficult to land in title contention every season.

It’s not all doom and gloom; the Thunder may go on a run like they’ve not done in a long while and climb up in the rankings. It’s possible. If Westbrook and Durant can carry this team – as they’ve done in the past – and if no other injuries to key players occur, they have time to rack up enough wins to qualify for the postseason. It’s not going to come easy, especially in this highly-competitive Western Conference.

Right now, the Thunder is 50 games into the season with a record of 25-25 or .500, and they are perched in tenth place of the Western Conference. To claim a playoff spot, they need to jump over the New Orleans Pelicans (27-23, ninth place) and overtake the Phoenix Suns (29-23, eighth place). With 32 games remaining in the regular season, can Oklahoma City finally come together as a team and turn this season around? One thing is for sure, they are not accustomed to facing this sort of challenge.

A review of the Thunder’s previous years’ records at this exact point in the season (50 games played) yields some daunting results when analyzing what they must do to reach the playoffs:

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The above chart reveals the Thunder won 64.4 percent of remaining games at the 50-game mark over the past five years. Based on this trend, the Thunder would be poised to win 21 more games by the end of the year, which would put them at a record of 46-36.

Last season, the Dallas Mavericks ended up in eighth place with a record of 49-33, and the ninth-ranked Phoenix Suns missed the playoffs at 48-34. In 2012-13, the Houston Rockets were eighth at 45-37 and the ninth-ranked Utah Jazz missed the playoffs at 43-39.

There were multiple reasons to think the Thunder were again set for a successful run this season. Durant decided to withdraw from Team USA and its FIBA World Cup bid to rest up, both mentally and physically, for the upcoming NBA season. Shooting guard Anthony Morrow was signed in the offseason, giving the Thunder a much-needed sharpshooter. Power forward Mitch McGary, a potential Nick Collison-like player, was drafted with the Thunder’s 21st pick. By the time training camp started, everyone was focused and healthy.

Then, the unthinkable happened. During training camp, Durant was ruled out for the first 6-8 weeks of the season due to a Jones fracture in his foot and related surgery. To date, he has missed a total of 27 games of the first 50 played. Durant was sidelined 17 straight games because of the foot injury and as the season progressed, he missed ten games – including four of the past six – due to unrelated toe issues.

Incredibly, Westbrook suffered a broken hand in the second game of the season and was sidelined for 14 straight games. Overall, the Thunder went 11-16 without Durant and 4-10 when Westbrook was out.

Order was supposed to be restored when both stars returned. The consensus thought was that it wouldn’t take too long to catch up to the other West teams. Only it hasn’t exactly worked out that way. While other teams were racking up wins, the Thunder continued to struggle, going a total of 20-13 after Durant first returned in early December.

Suddenly, speculative talk made a sharp turn from wondering if they would be able to capture home court advantage in the playoffs to wondering if they would even make the playoffs this year.

In a surprise move – either designed to give the team a much-needed spark or in preparation of replacing sixth man Reggie Jackson or both – OKC acquired two-way shooting guard Dion Waiters one month ago. Waiters has neither helped in a significant way nor been a detriment to the team; the result so far is rotational confusion. The position is stacked with Andre Roberson, Jeremy Lamb, Reggie Jackson and Waiters all vying for minutes.

Clearly, it’s difficult to overcome major injuries to a team’s top players so early in the season. But even as the two returned, other issues were apparent.

Jackson, who performed so well in Westbrook’s absence, has rendered himself a mere capable player off the bench. As the starting point guard in 13 games, he averaged 20.2 points, 5.2 rebounds and 7.8 assists in 38.9 minutes; as a reserve, he’s averaging 10.3 points, 3.6 rebounds and 2.9 assists in 24.5 minutes. Waiters supplanted Jackson as the first player off the bench. Amid talk of discord between Jackson and his teammates and Jackson’s apparent unhappiness with his role, he may be traded by the deadline on February 19. The whole Jackson Situation hangs over the team like an invisible cloak of uncomfortableness. Contrast that with Kendrick Perkins, who has handled his move to the bench in favor of Steven Adams like a professional.

Other unexpected problems included: 1) Rookie McGary’s list of injuries which has limited him to appearing in just two games for a total of eight minutes, 2) The endless chatter and distraction of head coach Scott Brooks being on the proverbial hot seat, and 3) The decision to keep third backup point guard Ish Smith over Sebastian Telfair when Westbrook returned, a move that baffled many.

The number-three member of the Thunder’s Big Three, Serge Ibaka, was expected to put the team on his back, elevate his game and simply shine while Durant and Westbrook were sidelined. That didn’t happen. He played well (16.1 points, 7.7 rebounds and 1.9 blocks in November), but it wasn’t much of an improvement over last year’s averages of 15.1 points, 8.8 rebounds and 2.7 blocks. However, what continues to puzzle is the heavy display of Ibaka’s three-point shooting. He’s long been known for his impressive pick-and-pop mid-range jumper, and now he’s averaging 1.4 threes per game. Overall this season, he’s averaging 14.0 points, 7.5 rebounds and 2.3 blocks. His field goal shooting has decreased to a career-low 46.3 percent from 53.6 percent last year. His Player Efficiency Rating (PER) has dropped from 19.6 last year to a current 15.9, and his Defensive Win Shares (2.9) are at the lowest since his rookie year. Look how his shooting arsenal has changed:

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It’s nice that Ibaka can shoot the long-distance bomb, but OKC now gives up so much at the basket from the physical 6’10 beast in addition to that automatic jumpshot.

While we’re looking at statistics, there are notable differences in league-ranked numbers of the team this season compared to last year:

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Some of these decreased numbers are confounding, but keep in mind the whole season – without its superstars – is considered.

While Westbrook has been thriving – and that’s putting it mildly – after his injury-plagued season last year, Durant hasn’t hit his stride yet. Compare their stats:

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Last week after the Thunder beat the Orlando Magic, Kendrick Perkins was candid in his post-game interview in explaining how this season is unlike any other Thunder season.

“We’ve never dealt with injuries this early,” Perkins said. “Right now, every game is important. (We’re) going out there fighting for our lives right now.”

Perkins said he believed the Thunder is set to make a run to enter the playoffs, and offered an explanation as to what’s holding them back.

“We’ve got every piece we need,” Perkins said. “I think it’s about being mentally strong. I think it’s our mentality more than anything. I think starting from myself to Russ to KD, we’ve got come out every night and give one hundred percent on the defensive end, and make sure we just keep doing the right things on offense. We’ve got to keep holding ourselves accountable. Scotty can’t do it all the time. We’ve got to do it as a team.

“Our window’s closing. We’ve got to keep building good habits on both ends. We’ve got just keep building and building, and the good thing is we’ve got room. We’re just three games back.”

As Perkins said, there is time. Over the next 32 games, the Thunder can turn things around. It’s not an unsurmountable feat, so long as critical facets come together. It will take a concerted effort of a cohesive group. Most importantly, the health gods must smile upon them. Once the trade deadline passes, and everyone knows for certain which players are staying through the season, increased trust and stronger chemistry can develop. It can be argued that Durant and Westbrook will be playing with fresher legs than their opponents down the stretch, especially in light of Brooks limiting their playing time this year. Another thing working in their favor is the fact that 19 of the Thunder’s remaining 32 games will be played on their home court.

With reports of Oklahoma City having serious interest in such players as Brook Lopez and Wilson Chandler (plus Pau Gasol last summer), it suggests the front office is unafraid to pull off a big move. Thunder General Manager and Executive Vice President Sam Presti may be working on something this very moment.

Susan Bible covers the Oklahoma City Thunder for Basketball Insiders and writes about all NBA teams. She is a Senior Newslines Editor and contributes to fantasy basketball coverage.

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